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Bruce Lee's Philosophy of Martial Arts Skill Development & How It Informs Our Phase Method

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Bruce Lee's philosophy on learning is rather profound and revolutionary. It so powerful that leaders in movies, business, music's, arts and other industries all attest that the concepts and teachings of Bruce Lee have impacted and motivated them beyond the pale of martial arts. The ideas of liberation from dogmas, formulas and stigmas, of expressing oneself honestly and scientifically researching one's experience with a solid philosophical underpinning is attractive to people the world over.

Let's take a look at Bruce Lee's philosophy behind the stages of cultivating martial art students. For me personally Bruce Lee's philosophy is best coupled with a developmental teaching style. There are however different teaching styles and different learning styles and finding which best suites you will help your growth immensely.

"Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick is just like a kick... After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick is no longer a kick... Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick is just like a kick." - Bruce Lee

A plaque of these images in this post hung in Bruce Lee's Los Angeles Chinatown School. I made a poster of these for my wall. Which got me thinking about what they mean. The Bruce Lee Foundation calls these the three "Stages of Cultivation." The three Stages of Cultivation was a common theme of Bruce Lee's method of developing students. A discussion of the Three Stages of Cultivation can be found on page 25 in "The Tao of Gung Fu." The three stages are the "primitive stage," the "stage of art" and the "stage of artlessness." I would associate these stages in order with the posters in the same order since I process information in a linear fashion primitive = partiality, art = fluidity and artlessness = emptiness. Off hand they seem to follow the same logic. Taking similar themes from research your own experience and starting from the nucleus let's see where this take us.

1. Partiality: The Running To Extreme! "Partiality" and "Running To Extreme" seem like they could be Yin and Yang concepts. Partiality is defined as unfair bias towards one thing according to the dictionary. My impression is that Bruce Lee may was looking for extreme dedication and commitment because research your own experience and scientific open minded exploration do not fit with the negative connotation of bias, prejudice or partisanship that partiality can imply. Certainly he meant it more in the sense of passion, predilection or fondness for the journey of self exploration. He was looking for people who were passionate.

"Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick."

This is what Bruce Lee called the "Primitive Stage." A punch is a punch, whether you have experience or none. Whether your a street fighter or have some natural fighting abilities or no holds barred (vale tudo) style fight understanding of combat ranges and weapons of the body. This is just natural tools you haven't trained them, there is no build up of muscle memory. You haven't started the scientific studies of researching your own experience. This is where you begin by learning and sticking to the "Nucleus." When you come in your raw and primitive, you have primal instincts, free without limitation. This is the best place to start from. Come as an empty cup seeking to be filled up. Don't worry through training we will change this. We will begin to develop reflexes and muscle memory. 

2. Fluidity: The Two Halves Of One Whole!

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend." - Bruce Lee

The next stage is the "Stage of Art" where our techniques begin to take form but at the same time, the simple primitive way you used to punch has become strange and your body seems awkward and gangly as your learning new mechanics. This is where you begin to get into the meat of the systems material. Unclutter the incoherent mess and make sure your moving toward fluidity, "be like water."

"After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick is no longer a kick."

This is the state where your technique begins to take shape becoming smooth and taking an artful form. This is where you muscles and brain start to absorb what is useful. You will begin to experience bodily and mental changes as you develop sensitivity and move towards liberation from the nucleus.

"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." - Bruce Lee

Work the techniques til they become muscle memory. It takes 1,000 repetitions to get it into your central nervous system. In Pekiti Tirsia Kali we like to say we need to get in 10,000 repetitions to master a technique.

You may struggle as you body changes but focus on becoming fluid balance between the Nucleus you learned in the Partiality stage and the liberation you starting to experience as you know focus on flow and sensitivity.

3. Emptiness: The Formless Form! Returning to a sense of formlessness being empty of pre-planned intention, being able to react in the moment with the necessary natural response, that is fluid and adaptable.

"Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick."

Bruce Lee referred to this as the stage of Artlessness this a stage where your body has moved through sensitivity and feeling into being and doing. The less mental resistance you have the better this is the phase where you begin a process of daily decrease, to hack away the unessential, to reject what is useless.

Sifu Tim Tackett shared a story with us in his garage while teaching at the Instructor Development Weekend about a story Bruce Lee had told. Apparently there is a process in movies in film editing where they remove excess frames to clean up a film and Bruce Lee was applying it to trapping hands instead of doing five moves simplify it to three moves, etcetera... Remove the excess frames. Daily decrease. Simplify. Click the video to play.

In Aikido, when I learned it in the early nineties we would learn the long version all moves in a set of four moves, in the shape of a box, at the beginning level. Then at the intermediate level, it would be simplified to a triangle, a single move would be removed to simplify it. And finally at the advanced level, two more moves would be removed, to simplify it into a circular more direct singular motion.

This level is the one where you return to the original freedom you had when a kick was just a kick. When your foundation has been built, your sensitivity is honed, and your potential had been unleashed. This is the level where you response is natural.

Sifu Francis Fong at a seminar at the Inosanto Academy said Bruce Lee's for was the best at forms, that he has practiced and perfected and that's why he told people to not worried about it. One he said because Bruce Lee trained meticulously outside the class and he expected them to do likewise. But also you have to strive to get to the place that your past think about looking good and you to the place your doing what you need to survive. The art of combat is actually more simple than some want to make it. This is one thing Bruce Lee sought to demystify.

"There is only one type of body, two arms, two legs, etcetera that make up the human body. Therefore, there can only be one style of fighting. If the other guy had four arms and two legs, there might have to be a different one. Forget the belief that one style is better than the other, the point of someone that does not just believe in tradition, but actually wants to know how to fight is to take what you need from every martial art and incorporate it into your own. Make it effective and very powerful, but don't worry if you are taking moves from many different arts, that is a good thing." - Bruce Lee

We shouldn't have wasted motions. We should not collect techniques, to collect techniques. To full express oneself techniques need to be simple, direct and non-telegraphic "using no way as way" and "having no limitation as limitation" while maintaining economy of motion through efficient, direct and simple movements. 4. Jeet Kune Do Status: The Ultimate Goal of Martial Arts is Self Expression! We have completed the three Stages of Cultivation which leads to what comes next. Learning to express oneself honestly, positively using the martial arts is the ultimate end, and adding something specifically your own. Put all of yourself into what you do.

"To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself." - Bruce Lee

This is the ultimate goal of Jeet Kune Do. This is where "using no way as way" and "having no limitation as limitation" become a reality.

"Now, it is very difficult to do... But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that is very hard to do."

To empty ones cup and respond. To be in the moment. As we say in mindfulness practice "present moment attention without judgment." Being present, self aware, conscious but capable of responding in a state of emotional contentment with skills and a game plan that has been developed over years of training. Being in the moment and discerning without prejudice is something we all find hard to do and some people find unbelievable that others can do because of their own preconceived notions. Being able to honestly express ourselves without the conflict of confirmation bias and simply let your body respond with naturally honed reflexes is our chief aim and ultimate goal. Honesty is one of the hardest of character traits for humans to develop. True open honesty is something we all struggle with. The intimate knowledge of one's self, present in the moment free from bias and dogmas, ready for whatever comes to respond naturally. This is the highest of achievements in Jeet Kune Do. May we find the humility and transparency to truly and honestly express ourselves. 

The cultivation of ourselves is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation. Jeet Kune-Do is basically a sophisticated fighting style stripped to its essentials.

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