Saturday, November 27, 2010

Happy 70th Birthday

I once saw Mr. Parker quoted saying, “If you show the kid something, the first time he tries it, he's almost as good as you. The second time he tries it, he might be as good as you. And the third time, unless you're really good, he'll be better than you."

The man he was referring to would go on to become one of the most well recognized martial arts icons of the twentieth century. Although his life would be short, the legacy he left behind in his films, books, philosophy, and martial arts teachings would reach farther than perhaps even he could have imagined. Born Lee Jun-fan, the world would come to know him as Bruce Lee.

Born in California in 1940, he would spend most of his childhood being raised in Hong Kong. As a young man, Lee was involved in a number of street fights which escalated to the point that the police became involved. In an effort to turn their son's life around, his parents sent him back to America in the late 1950's to live with family friends. Lee continued his education, studying drama and philosophy in college, and began teaching his own approach to the Wing Chun Gung Fu he'd learned during three years studying under Master Yip Man before leaving Hong Kong.

Lee's life from there has become a well worn mythology. There are historical incidents like his appearance, at Mr. Parker's invitation, at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships where he would famously demonstrate his one inch punch technique. Or his now fabled fight with rival Wing Chun instructor Wong Jack Man, ostensibly for the right to teach Gung Fu to Americans. His short movie career included the famous “Enter the Dragon,” as well as the infamous “Game of Death,” finished posthumously with body doubles and voice overs.

And of course, there was his untimely end. Lee died in his sleep from an adverse reaction to an over the counter pain medication he took to treat a headache. The medical explanation for his death was a cerebral edema. The forensic coroner who performed his autopsy labeled it “death by misadventure.”

Lee left a great legacy of film work, philosophy, and martial arts instruction. He taught three distinct styles of martial arts in his lifetime. The first was Jun Fan Gung Fu, his interpretation of the Wing Chun taught to him in Hong Kong. The second was Jeet Kune Do as a series of drills and techniques incorporating Wing Chun and elements of western boxing, fencing, jujitsu, and a variety of other techniques. Later, Jeet Kune Do would continue to evolve in a more philosophical direction to become his “style of no style,” a principle based, inclusive form of fighting which emphasized freedom and spontaneity in the practitioner.

His teachings continue through Dan Inosanto; the only one of three instructors ever certified by Lee while still alive and actively teaching today, and himself a black belt under Mr. Parker before joining Lee's school. Martial artists around the world, in many different styles and systems, familiarize themselves with his teachings in order to inform their own approach to training and combat.

Lee was a phenomenally gifted natural athlete who challenged the social conventions of his time, in every part of his life. He refused to accept the limitations others tried to place on him because of his race, or his age, or his chosen profession. I have heard him described as brilliant, cocky, humble, hungry, a visionary, disrespectful, loving, and generous. In his day, he was controversial and disruptive, always pushing those around him further than they thought they were ready to go, and often dragging them along by virtue of his indisputable charisma and will. He was a brightly burning flame, a man of many gifts who didn't live nearly long enough to fulfill his own potential; and yet somehow left an indelible mark on the world none the less. The Masters of his era called him a natural. They invited him into their homes and their schools, and he became their student and their friend.

Bruce Lee benefited from exposure to many great martial artists, including Yip Man, Ed Parker, Gene Lebell, Wally Jay, Bob Wall, Chuck Norris, and Joe Lewis. He was also deeply dedicated to physical conditioning and nutrition. His wife frequently remembers him as a man who spent much of his time exercising both his body and his mind. The combination of his exposure to true Masters, his philosophical approach, and his natural athleticism and dilligent physical training made him an accomplished and impressive practitioner.

I have heard that Mr. Parker and Bruce would discuss their respective philosophies on martial arts until late into the night, and when you read their writings the evidence is unmistakeable. Many of the concepts taught by both these men are similar; both because they shared their knowledge, and because they both took a rational, unbiased approach to understanding combat. This was perhaps the greatest martial legacy of Bruce Lee's too short life.

He taught his students to be formless and unbiased, not to be rigidly bound by their techniques, but to be free and do what was necessary to win. He taught his students to have an open mind. He pushed boundaries and challenged social norms. He changed the face of film making, martial arts, and race relations. And he challenged everyone around him, everyone who heard of him, to push themselves as well.

Bruce Lee died too young. We'll never know what kind of Master he could have become. Or what kind of film maker. But we know that in his short time he changed the world, and he loved and was loved. His name will never be forgotten. Not by his students. Not by his family. Not by his friends.

That is a legacy we can each only hope to equal.

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