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A Parting of Ways: How I Left Jeet Kun Do to Practice Jeet Kun Do

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


I have taken martial arts for over 25 years and one of the styles that I have studied was jeet kune do. Because of the lack of schools that taught it, I had to try and teach myself at first through books and later on, videos that I could find. As I read up more on jeet kune do's philosophy, as well as studying other styles, I began to see that there was more to it than just knowing the move set and fighting. During that time, I saw Bruce Lee as a god. His word was law and anything he did, be it in movies or what he said, outweighed everything else.

Yet as the years went on and I studied more and I practiced more, I found that there was more to it than just the fighting. More to martial arts overall than just fighting. What mattered more than the fighting, important as it was, was the soul and substance that was flowing through it and being communicated by it through my body and intentions. Efficiency was important, but now no longer as important as the ability to express who I was as a person and martial artist. Techniques alone now made the martial art feel empty.

I stopped caring about wanting to learn techniques for the sake of how good or not so good it was. It was when I began to branch out, express myself, and test ideas against opponents who were going to fight me that I found where myself was. Where my technique and style was that felt most comfortable to me with where I was at and what I wanted to accomplish, while at the same time being capable of violence.

"If people say Jeet Kune Do is different from this or from that, then let the name of Jeet Kune Do be wiped out, for that is what it is, just a name. Please don't fuss over it."

— - Bruce Lee

The Affairs of the House

That all being said, I recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona and began to study jeet kune do under someone who I met at one of my swords classes. He is a good teacher and a good man, so this is not a criticism or judgment of him or his character. What it is though is a story and example of what happens to me when martial arts become not what I just described above.

My teacher reminded me very much of myself when I started with jeet kune do. A total devotion to what Bruce Lee said, wrote and practiced. And to be sure, he was more dedicated to it than I ever was. He put in the hours of conditioning and sought out teachers who at least claim to have studied, or known someone to have studied with Bruce Lee.

Yet despite all that, he was fundamentally devoted to the lineage and tradition of jeet kune do. So much so that the politics within that community very much permeated the substance and spirit of what he was teaching. Apparently within the style, there are more or less two separate schools of thought.

The first school believes that everything that true jeet kune do is what Bruce Lee wrote down. Straight lead kicks, the foot movement, footwork, and all of that are what made JKD what it is. Anything less than that is not true JKD. This school is often referred to as hardcore JKD.

However, there's another school of thought that believes or focuses on the philosophical aspects of JKD. It emphasizes Bruce Lee's teachings of adaptability and not having structure, rather than a strict adherence to structure: even ones he wrote. That as Bruce Lee matured in his fighting, he became less devoted to a certain style or tradition and was more concerned with expressing himself. And though that expression was for him the efficiency of the movement, it was still himself.

He was no longer trying to copy someone else and according to some interpretations of his writings that I've read and people from that school of thought, Lee didn't want other people to mimic him either. To this end, the way this school practices their fighting style is usually bringing in other styles that are either related to it somehow through Lee's students, or an assumption that if you just throw a bunch of stuff together and make it your own, you have to JKD. It is for the latter reason that many people assume that MMA and JKD are the same.

For me as a person, I am much more of a philosopher. Though I do fight and to a degree I like fighting, I also appreciate the substance of it more. I stopped cheering about lineage and what so-and-so said or did. I would still listen and would still apply what I could from that if it was applicable. But it was not gospel.

It was not something that I fundamentally must do. Because I am not that person. I am not the people who wrote those articles or practiced their way or had their experiences. Anything more or less than that felt like a betrayal of who I was in that I was becoming a robot and a clone of what someone else thought I should be.

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Courtesy of Dan Inosanto (L) is one of the students that Bruce taught. He went on to teach, and what some a divergent, of JKD.

Courtesy of Dan Inosanto (L) is one of the students that Bruce taught. He went on to teach, and what some a divergent, of JKD.


For this reason, I stopped going to the lessons. The final push was when I asked him about some videos he recommended I watch from Youtube on the straight lead and me telling him that they all did it differently. He very intensely rebuked me, misunderstanding that I was trying to do what he said and that his way was the only way because of his lineage.

I respectfully told the teacher that I was going to leave and wished them and the other students who I was also very friendly with the best of luck in their journeys. I didn't go into reasons why I left because to me, the argument felt too much like the religious debates I used to get into. Something martial arts is usually guilty of, encouraging a fanatic loyalty to a certain set of styles or techniques or mindsets.

It in effect becomes quasi religious in that anything outside of that interpretation is heretical or is to not be even considered and is inferior to their own style that they teach.

My other reason for not going in depth was that at the time, it felt like it would provoke hostile feelings. I don’t mind having talks to work shit out. But not when the person is that dead set on their views. I find such ideas and mindsets limiting, and even as who I am now, it’s very frustrating. I feel constrained and locked in without the ability to truly express myself or ideas or experiences that I've had.

Moreover, I do not like a condescending attitude towards other people's experiences and styles if they conflict with what the other people say is how things should be. I don't like that because I do something a different way or even if it doesn't look as crisp or as clean, that it therefore makes what I do inferior to their own.

Off the Beaten Path

What I learned from this experience was an awareness of where I am now as a person and as a martial artist. I am not and will never say that I have become the superior being or warrior or fighter or any other bullshit like that. I do not believe in such things. However, I do feel that I have moved beyond the point of just structure and technique and lineage and schools. Such things at least in terms of understanding fundamentals are important, and should not necessarily be ignored. It is more important though to find one's soul and heart in the style: what they want to achieve in learning that martial art.

If one's goal is to be in fit shape for style, then they should focus on that. If one's goal is to learn how to street fight, then one should learn the techniques needed, along with the mindset required to endure and foresee such alterations. If one's mindset it's to do combat sports like boxing or MMA for example, then they should train heavily in the conditioning and the money and hours needed to build up their bodies to participate in such a career. Yet none of these things are the same and nor should they be the same.

Are there crossovers? Yes. But they also diverge at many different points, depending on the person and with what the person wants. A lot of jeet kune do people like to focus on conditioning and there is a place for that. One of the things that I did agree with my teacher on is that a lot of martial arts stopped focusing on conditioning the body to execute the technique.

However, I have seen overweight men knock out twenty- something year old's with a single punch, without having any structure or any type of training. Of course, the other side applies as well. All that to say that it is all dependent on the moment and the mindsets of the people involved. It is not a set rule that happens every single time, in every single event. For me martial arts is one of the few ways where I feel myself developing, growing and moving forward as a person.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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