The art made famous by the late, great Sijo (system founder) Bruce Lee – Jeet Kune Do, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood martial arts concepts in the world. Millions of fans still idolize Bruce Lee. He was a prolific, forward-thinking martial artist, performer and philosopher who forever changed the face of popular entertainment and initiated a systemic reboot of the martial arts world that would reverberate deeply through the landscape of modern culture.
I began my study of Sijo Bruce Lee’s art in 1986 at the famed Inosanto Academy in Los Angeles. My combat instructor at UCLA, Anthony Delongis, recommended that I begin training with one of Guru Dan’s instructors, Francis Echinard. Francis had (and still has) a penchant for fighting and going hard. One of the first professors of Boxe Francaise Savate in the US, Francis trained me 3x per week in Venice and recommended that I go to the Academy.
I trained with fantastic teachers like Guru Dan Inosanto, Chris Kent, Salem Assili, Chad Stahelski, Nicolas Saignac, Ajarn Chai Sirisute and many others. In 1998 I met one of the other original students of Bruce Lee, Sifu Jerry Poteet.
Sifu Jerry was known as the “keeper of the flame”. He dedicated his life to preserving what Bruce Lee taught him with no additions or changes. He wanted students to receive everything the same way it was handed down to him. Sifu Jerry was part of an elite group who were chosen to join Bruce Lee at his house 2x per week in addition to the 2x per week classes at the Chinatown school in LA. The 5 students who came to Bruce Lee’s house were Bob Bremmer, Pete Jacobs, Dan Lee, Steve Golden and Jerry Poteet. I trained privately with Sifu Jerry until his death in 2012 and continue training with his wife Sifu Fran Joseph today. In fact I was with Sifu Fran and Eric Carr in the hospital when Jerry passed. I am ranked as a senior instructor in SIfu Jerry’s lineage of Jeet Kune Do.
I’ve also had the good fortune to train with all of Bruce Lee’s original students at least once or twice in seminars before they passed. Now, there are only two surviving members – Guru Dan and Sifu Taky Kimura.
The reason I’m going into this detail is to somewhat qualify myself for what I’m about to describe – what is Jeet Kune Do? The information I’m going to convey is partially a summary of what I’ve learned from the original students of Bruce Lee – and as one would expect, my own subjective opinion.
You can search youtube and find plenty of interviews with these original students. There is also a wonderful book by one of Guru Dan’s students, Jose M. Fraguas called Jeet Kune Do Conversations. I suspect it’s out of print now, but it’s a wonderful series of interviews with all of Sijo Lee’s original students who share their experience training with Sijo Lee. You’ll see me in a few of the pictures with Sifu Jerry beating me up.
So now on to the topic – what is Jeet Kune Do?
First, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between what Bruce Lee was teaching his students and what you may see in his films. I’ve been a professor at UCLA for 25 years. One of my duties is teaching combat for stage and film in the department of theater, film and television. There is a major difference in telling the story of a fight and teaching practical methods of self-defense. First, the story of a fight is just that – a story. You are purposefully showing the audience your intention and movement so the movements can be tracked with the eyes.
When Bruce Lee was first filming the directors had to tell him to slow down! He was so fast that the frame rates of that time period would not actually pick up his movements. You would see a blur – the beginning of a movement and the end of a movement and nothing in between. In a visual medium this is clearly a problem. The preparation for the movements, the freezes after the movements, the heightened vocal and physical expression are all there to augment the viewers experience.
As an anecdotal sidebar, I’d like to mention just how much Bruce Lee changed the world of popular entertainment starting with “Enter the Dragon”. This was the first major project in the genre where a major Hollywood studio – Warner Brothers, partnered with a Chinese production company – Golden Harvest. While the movements and acting seem somewhat stilted by today’s standards, this began an evolution in the action world that created much of what we see today.
Just look at the pedigree and lineage! Starting with Guru Dan Inosanto, his students shaped the face of modern action based entertainment. Jeff Imada was still at the academy when I came in the mid 80’s. Just look at his IMDB – The Book of Eli, The Borne series – the list goes on for days. Then Chad Stahelski, Damon Caro and David Leitch. All students at the Inosanto Academy – Chad doubled Keanu Reeves on all the Matrix films and directs the John Wick series not to mention that he and David run 87eleven – the most successful action production company in the world. Try Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Fast and the Furious. For Damon, take a look at Wonder Woman, Dawn of Justice, Superman. These are direct descendants of the Bruce Lee lineage. Think about how what Bruce Lee started now is seen on every movie screen and television in the world. Yes, a little influence.
But when it comes to films, this is the antithesis of what is taught in self-defense – and particularly Jeet Kune Do, where non-telegraphic movement, interception and surprise are all primary tactics. It’s better if the opponent doesn’t see it coming – or anyone else for that matter.
So what is Jeet Kune Do? When Bruce Lee began teaching martial arts in the US, it began in Seattle at the University of Washington. At that time, his primary influence and course of study was Wing Chun under Yip Man. This is going to be a very fast summary, otherwise I’ll end up writing a book for this blog. At that time, Jeet Kune Do had not come to light. Bruce Lee was constantly evolving and experimenting. Sijo moved to Oakland and this is where the real changes began to happen. James Lee (not related) was his primary student and lead instructor in Oakland. This is where the fabled Wong Jack Man fight took place. Linda Lee Cadwell recounted the story to me directly. She said that Bruce was completely disappointed in his own performance. It took him roughly 3 minutes to best the Shaolin practitioner and he was exhausted afterward. This is when he began to investigate boxing and other principles that could be used. He later recounted “if I only had a hook” in reference to the idea of using circular lines because it was expected he was going to rush forward with a straight blast.
As he moved to Los Angeles, everything changed. He researched combat relentlessly. He had bookcases filled with books on every imaginable combat sport, philosophy, art. Sifu Jerry said he would go into a bookstore and just buy the whole martial arts section so he could take books home and go through them in detail. He was endlessly researching and learning from other martial artists. He was a huge fan of Cassius Clay who later became Muhammed Ali.
The Jeet Kune do taught at Bruce Lee’s Chinatown school in Los Angeles had evolved. The physical curriculum itself was sometimes referred to as Jun Fan Gung Fu – later to be known as Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do. These were a series of progressive training methodologies designed to teach real fighting skills. Sijo Lee analyzed movement. He refined movement. His objective was to create an approach that was completely free, that allowed each individual to search for their own truth in combat.
In this regard his philosophical influences were ever-present. Jiddu Krisnamurti, Sun-Tzu, Takuan Soho all influenced his approach to life and to combat.
In the physical world, there are four primary principles at play in Jeet Kune Do:
- Economy of motion
- Longest weapon to the closest target
- Always think of hitting
But Jeet Kune Do is more than a series of physical techniques. If you read Bruce Lee’s writings, you see that for him, martial arts was a path of liberation. It was a search for the truth and self-cultivation. Jeet Kune Do is a search to uncover the source of our own ignorance. It is a quest to find the truest form of self-expression and a unification of mind, body and spirit.
If we look to JKD’s historical roots deep within the Shaolin Temple, the ancient warrior monks balanced external physical exertion with internal cultivation to attain oneness. This is why our center is called “Ekata”. Ekata is the Sanskrit term for “Oneness”.
On a very pragmatic level, Jeet Kune Do uses any means to achieve it’s end. It is about physical survival during a violent encounter. That means, simple, real, practical. It isn’t about impressing anyone and looking cool. It’s about going home to your family. If that means if you can run a 40 yard dash faster than the attacker to escape – then that’s JKD. If it means if you shoot as the guy who is breaking in your door and fill him full of holes – then that’s JKD. It means if you de-escalate a potential confrontation by showing empathy and compassion to a fellow human being in pain – then that’s JKD.
As I said when we started this blog, there is a lot of confusion about what is and what is not JKD. Hopefully this short description provided some clarity. I look forward to sharing more in the future.