It has been 40 years to the day since Enter the Dragon was released and it is still gathering fans for its Zen approach to martial arts
The year 1973 was your average year... the Vietnam War ended; a Watergate scandal here, a record- breaking Led Zeppelin concert there; the usual humdrum stuff, until out of nowhere, like a non-telegraphed punch, entered the dragon and kicked open our consciousness forever. Enter the Dragon, a cult classic and Bruce Lee’s last film, was released on July 26, 1973, six days after the legendary martial artiste’s mysterious death. It coloured our existence like no other event that year. Forty years later we are still learning from it “the art of fighting without fighting”.
Bruce Lee’s intensity, his poker face, the cool Americans (Jimmy Kelly, who played Williams in the film, died on June 30 this year), the 70’s music, all contributed to the enduring appeal of the film. The philosophy packs an unstoppable, unforgettable punch.
Lines such as: “The highest technique is to have no technique; my technique is the result of your technique”; “Don’t think, feel”; “A good martial artiste does not become tense, but ready..., When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself”; have been guiding seekers, fighters, and the timid alike.
Enter the Dragon was not the only Lee film replete with Zen wisdom. Most of his films were an embodiment of Chinese philosophy. The characters he played were mostly upstanding, and astute men.
Lee majored in philosophy from the University of Washington but his love affair with the subject began when he was young. “My majoring in philosophy was closely related to the pugnacity of my childhood. I often asked myself these questions: What comes after victory? Why do people value victory so much? What is ‘glory’? What kind of ‘victory’ is ‘glorious’?”
Lee was greatly influenced by Taoism, Aristotle, and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Inevitably, the student became the teacher and theorized his own ideology on fighting and life namely ‘Jeet Kune Do’ (the way of the intercepting fist). Some JKD doctrines are…
According to many, Bruce had the perfect body; he had little fat and fast reflexes, was accurate, driven, and disciplined. His superhuman skills (he never lost a fight, his one-inch punch is the stuff of legends) came from years of practice. He trained all day, everyday, and moulded himself into the man he was.
He had the same dream for his students. All his theories revolved around physical and spiritual “expansion and growth” of an individual; he believed, “the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one's potential”. And so he pushed himself and his students to go beyond all frontiers and be the people they were intended to be.
Unmindfully following set patterns and systems did not appeal to Lee. He was all for forgetting past learning, and making your own rules. Lee felt using your uncluttered mind, not marred by distracting untruths, was the greatest weapon.
The famous water metaphor exemplifies this point. “Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend. Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”
Lee here means that a stable mind in its pristine form would know instinctively how to react in any situation; devoid of emotions it will follow the natural scheme of things. It will be perfectly fluid and flexible like the softest substance, unshackled and free to flow.
And most importantly, the mind will be in the frontal opposition to a conflict (crashing) only when outward circumstances demand. That’s the crux of martial arts ideology: attack only to defend.
Lee once said: “You just wait. I'm going to be the biggest Chinese star in the world”. He became one. And here hasn’t been another one like him. It’s been 40 years since the Dragon roared for the last time. But some things transcend space and time. Like the dragon’s roar. We still hear it, when we are overpowered in shady lanes or noisy classrooms or professional offices - that’s when it inspires us to “fight, without fighting”.