Bruce Lee and Taosim

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In today’s message, we discuss one of Bruce Lee’s primary philosophical influences – The Tao.  If you look at Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” – a series of teachings from Bruce Lee posthumously collected and assembled from his notes – you will see on the first page an illustration depicting a Taoist Priest.  And beside the Priest, a poem – attributed to a Taoist Priest. 

Into a soul absolutely free

From thoughts and emotion,

Even the tiger finds no room

To insert its fierce claws.

One and the same breeze passes

Over the pines on the mountain

And the oak trees in the valley;

And why do they give different notes?

No thinking, no reflecting,

Perfect emptiness;

Yet therein something moves,

Following its own course.

The eye sees it,

But no hands can take hold of it –

The moon in the stream.

Clouds and mists,

They are midair transformations;

Above them eternally shine the sun and the moon.

Victory is the one,

Even before the combat,

Who has no thought of himself,

Abiding in the no-mind-ness of Great Origin

Bruce Lee was a student of philosophy.  Part of his mission was to expose the west to the teachings of the east.  In this poem and illustration, we are introduced the principle of “The Tao”.  This is a relatively foreign concept to most of us in the west.

Taoism (pronounced Daoism) is an indigenous philosophical and religious practice that formed in ancient China.  Scholars estimate the evolution of this worldview took place over 5000 years ago.  The root text of Taoist philosophy is considered the “Tao Te Ching” which translates as “The Way or Path of Change”.   This text is attributed to the ancient philosopher and teacher Lao Tzu.  Scholars believe this series of teachings to be an anthology of sorts.  It is a compiled work that may have been assembled by more than one author.  And the teachings themselves most certainly reach further back into antiquity than Lao Tzu who lived roughly 2500 years ago.

On a literal level, “Tao” means “Path or Way”.  The capitalization is due to the spiritual context.  It refers to each individual’s path of spiritual and material evolution.  But it has a dual meaning.  Tao also refers to that oneness from which everything and everyone was born.  It is the great void from which the universe was birthed.  It is “The One” that gives rise to all dualistic concepts – to the material, to the spiritual – yin and yang.

Today we discuss the first four lines in the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching”.  The translation I am working from was written by Taoist teacher and scholar Derek Lin.  Derek is a close friend and as a native Chinese and English speaker holds command over both languages seldom seen in the west.  He has written a series of books that share the teachings of the Tao with western audiences and I highly recommend his work to anyone who wants to learn the original philosophy of the Tao.

Let’s look at the first four lines:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named is not the eternal name

In the first line “speaking” of the Tao naturally infers that we are aware of the concept of Tao.  Being aware of concept infers an intellectual understanding of the term.  In this line, Lao Tzu is saying intellectual understanding of the Tao will not suffice.  It must be experienced.  As Bruce Lee states in Enter the Dragon, “Don’t think, feel!”

The following is an excerpt from Mr. Lin’s annotation about the second line:

Not only is the Tao beyond the power of spoken words to describe, but it is also beyond the power of written words to define.  That which can be defined is limited by the definition, and the Tao transcends all definitions.

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The named is the mother of myriad things

Before the universe came into being “concepts” and “material essence” did not exist.  Thus the Tao existed despite the existence of no means by which to define it.  To quote Mr. Lin, “Therefore the Tao that initiated Creation was the ultimate nameless enigma”. 

If we look back to the Taoist poem in the Jeet Kune Do, we can see the obvious relationship.  Two stanzas of the poem clearly reflect these principles:

Into a soul absolutely free

From thoughts and emotion,

Even the tiger finds no room

To insert its fierce claws.

Victory is the one,

Even before the combat,

Who has no thought of himself,

Abiding in the no-mind-ness of Great Origin

Both stanzas refer to “no thought” and finally a reference to abiding in the “no-mind-ness” of Great Origin.  This is an artistic expression of the “oneness” experienced in deep meditation when the boundary between what we consider the bodily “I” and “It” dissolves.  This is the state of spontaneous arising or “Wu Wei” so frequently referred to in ancient Chinese philosophy. 

Bruce Lee believed the practice of martial arts to be a form of expression by which one could attain this unique state of being – oneness with the Tao. 

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