Bruce Lee was a master of kung fu (or gung fu). I just finished reading a collection of his writings that were edited into a book, “The Tao of Gung Fu.”
I’ve studied martial arts for thirteen years and meditation for thirty-six years. More and more I’m coming to glimpse Lee’s basic point: they aren’t two things; there’s just one thing. He says:
Gung fu is more than just an excellent physical exercise or a highly scientific method of self-defense. To the Chinese, gung fu is a Way of training the mind as well as a Way of life. The spiritual side of gung fu cannot be learned by fact-finding or instruction in facts. It has to grow spontaneously, like a flower, in a mind free from desires and emotions. The core of this principle of gung fu is Tao—the spontaneity of the universe.
Spontaneity. That’s what it’s all about. Without spontaneity everything—the martial arts, meditation, life itself—is just a mechanical caricature of the vital living, breathing cosmos.
I can’t improve upon Bruce Lee’s words, which can be contemplated here. So I’ll simply try to say what they mean to me. That’s the spirit Lee wanted us to take his teachings: adapting them to our own unique personality and essential nature.
He says there are three stages in the cultivation of gung fu: (1) Primitive Stage, (2) the Stage of Art, and (3) the Stage of Artlessness. Again, he’s not just talking about martial arts here. He’s speaking about the whole of life.
Learning starts with ignorance. You don’t have the faintest idea what you’re supposed to do. Then, you learn some technique. You begin to think, “Hey, I’ve got this down.” But you really haven’t. The techniques aren’t genuinely part of you; they have to be consciously controlled.
So the goal is to move from art to artlessness. This, Lee says, “is the stage of cultivated ignorance.” This is different from the uncultivated ignorance with which you began. Back then, you didn’t know anything. Now you do.
However, on the mental level you’ve forgotten what you know. This allows you to act spontaneously, intuitively, harmoniously, fluidly, not needing to stop and ponder what technique needs to be used in a given situation.
I used to love Jim Carrey’s karate instructor routine on the TV show “In Living Color” (this was before he became hugely famous). “I’ll show you how to defend against a knife attack,” he’d say to the audience. Then he’d turn to his training partner, who was standing a few feet away with a rubber knife in his hand: “OK, go ahead.”
The guy would lunge forward and you’d hear an “Aaaaaarrrgh!” from Carrey as he clutched his stomach. “No!” he’d yell. “Don’t attack with your left hand, use your right! And don’t lunge. Step with your rear leg. Now, let’s try it again.”
And so it would go, his training partner never quite doing just what Carrey wanted as he tried to demonstrate how to defend against a knife attack that, on the street, would come unexpectedly out of anywhere.
This is the pitfall of relying on the mechanical practice of techniques, whether they be martial arts moves or meditation practices. The proof of the pudding isn’t in the practice; it’s in the real world application.
If your spirituality isn’t making you a better person, what good is it? Not a better person in your place of worship or meditation chamber—that’s an artificial controlled environment.
You need to be a better person in the everyday activities of life, because life isn’t divisible. Our “worldly” life isn’t something separate from our “spiritual” life. There’s just one life.
Some people have left comments on my posts saying that my criticisms of the spiritual organization that I belong to, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) aren’t justified because this group’s teachings have to be separated from how well members of RSSB apply those teachings. I don’t understand this way of thinking.
If you spent time observing a gung fu school where no student was able to defend himself, would you be justified in concluding, “This school has a good approach; it’s just that nobody can apply the techniques”? A school where learning isn’t happening isn’t a good school.
Again, the proof lies in reality, not words. Bruce Lee’s wisdom is as applicable to spiritual practice as to martial arts practice:
To me, styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are actually in bondage. You see, a choice method, however exacting, fixes its practitioners in an enclosed pattern…In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find that his choice routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat.
All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot. On other words, once conditioned in a partialized style, its practitioner faces his opponent through a screen of resistance. In reality, he is merely performing his stylized blocks and listening to his own screams.
In the course of interacting with high-ranking people in the RSSB organization during the writing of my book, “Return to the One,” I observed that they were just as prone to human frailties such as egotism, rigidity, and a desire to dominate as I was. We were all in the same boat, even though I had thought that, because of the positions they held, they were closer to the Spiritual Shore than I was.
This made me think. It’s as if I was observing a karate school where the people wearing black belts had pretty much the same skills as the white belts. Shouldn’t more learning be going on among the long-time students?
I thought some more. I was one of those long-time students. What had I learned? Was it just technique? Could I really apply my lessons in the real world? Had I become a slave of methods that weren’t applicable in everyday life? In short, was I the spiritual equivalent of a Jim Carrey/Fire Marshall Bill martial arts poseur?
I’m no Bruce Lee, nowhere close. But I resonate with his advice about how to be a “gung fu man.”
So in order to realize his true self, a gung fu man lives without being dependent upon the opinion of others…As months and years go by, as his training acquires fuller maturity, his bodily attitude and his way of managing the technique move toward no-mindedness which resembles the state of mind he had at the very beginning of training when he knew nothing, when he was altogether ignorant of the art.
…When the highest stage is reached in the study of Taoist teaching, a gung fu man turns into a kind of simpleton who knows nothing of Tao, nothing of its teachings, and is devoid of all learning…One should be in harmony with, not rebellion against, the fundamental laws of the universe. This means that we should do nothing that is not natural or spontaneous. The important thing is not to strain in any way.
Kung fu fighting. Kung fu meditating. All the same. Like the song says…
Keep on....keep on....keep on