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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

By Berniegourley @berniegourley

Tao of Jeet Kune DoTao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jeet Kune Dō (henceforth, JKD) is Bruce Lee’s “styleless style” of martial arts. Its literal meaning is “the way of the intercepting fist.” However, Lee cautions one against attaching too much significance to that name (or any name) in the book’s final chapter. Long before “Mixed Martial Arts” became a household word, Lee was constructing this fighting system that borrowed heavily from the Western traditions of boxing, fencing (conceptually speaking), and wrestling as well as from Kung-fu, Savate, and Judō/Jujutsu. While JKD employs techniques and concepts from these systems, Lee remained adamant that no good came of organized styles built on fixed forms. In fact, that might be said to be the central theme of the book. That is, each fighter should begin with sound fundamentals and build an approach that is ultimately his or her own.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is an outline of the martial art. In many ways, it looks like and reads like Lee’s personal notebook. It’s illustrated with crude (but effective) hand drawings of the type one would see in a personal journal, and they are annotated with hand-written notes. (My biggest criticism is that on the Kindle version the graphics are largely unreadable. I’d recommend you get the print edition if you can, which is large-format paperback as I recall.) The book combines a philosophy of martial arts with nitty-gritty discussion of the technical aspects of combat. The philosophical chapters bookend the technical ones.

As others have pointed out, there’s not much that is new in either the philosophical discussions or the technical ones. Lee’s value-added is in how he states these concepts, how he selects the concepts of value (informed largely by a love of simplicity and a hatred of dogma), and the weight lent to the lessons by Lee’s great success story—albeit in a life far too short. Lee was a man of charisma, and one who approached endeavors with gravitas.

Now, I can imagine some readers saying, “Why are you recommending a book on real fighting by a movie martial artist? Would you recommend a book on how to conduct gall bladder surgery from someone because they were on the first two seasons of ER? Would you take martial arts lessons from Keanu Reeves because his moves looked pretty nifty in The Matrix?”

I’ll admit that there is nothing about making kung-fu movies that makes one particularly competent to give advice on close-quarters combat. However, as I said, Lee seemed to devote himself entirely to everything he did. Consider the Bruce Lee physique, which seems so common place among actors today (no doubt in part chemical and in part owing to live-in Pilates coaches) was virtually unseen in the 70’s. Yeah, he probably had good genes, but he must have trained like a maniac as well. Lee’s constant mantra of “simplicity” lends him a great deal of credibility. (It should be noted that pragmatism is not a virtue in the movie-making industry.) Lee demonstrates that he’s given a lot of thought to the subject and done the training when he discusses technical concepts. For example, while he gives high praise to Western boxing and emulates boxing moves in some regards, he also notes that boxers are insufficiently cautious owing to the rules/equipment of their sport (a comment—it should be noted–that can be leveled against any sport martial art.)

The technical material is organized in four chapters. The chapter on “tools” deals with the techniques of striking, kicking, and grappling. A chapter on preparations explains Lee’s thoughts on faints, parries and manipulations. There is a chapter on mobility that discusses footwork and various types of evasions. The last technical chapter discusses the approaches to attack, focusing heavily on JKD’s five types of attack.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is undeniably repetitive, but that repetition has value in hammering home key concepts. It’s also consistent with the JKD philosophy of not getting into a great deal of complexity, but rather drilling home the basics. There’s an old martial arts adage that says, “One should not fear the man who knows 10,000 techniques as much as the one that has done one technique 10,000 times.” This seems apropos here. Besides, the concepts that are repeated are often worth memorizing. e.g. Simplify. Eliminate ego. Avoid fixed forms. Be natural. Don’t think about building up as much paring away.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists of any style. Non-martial artists may find the philosophical chapters interesting, but may not get much out of the list-intensive technical chapters.

View all my reviews

By in Book Reviews, Books, martial arts, Movement, Review, Reviews, Taoism, wisdom on February 28, 2014.

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