Few would think that there were any philosophical underpinnings to martial arts. It’s just people fighting, right?! Indeed, I doubt that, for example, Kickboxing lies on any grand metaphysical foundations. I can’t imagine Jean-Claude Van Damme was channeling Arthur Schopenhauer or Immanuel Kant when he was running riot in Universal Soldier.
However, things are different when it comes to Kung Fu. The ancient Chinese martial art is based on, and inspired by, the country’s grand philosophical traditions. it’s most famous proponent, Bruce Lee, was influenced by Taoist philosophy, which instructs its followers to live in harmony with the ways of nature.
Back in 1961, he wrote:
“After four years of hard training in the art of gung fu (kung fu), I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness — the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing expenditure of one’s energy. All this must be done in calmness and without striving. It sounded simple, but in actual application it was difficult. The moment I engaged in combat with an opponent, my mind was completely perturbed and unstable. Especially after a series of exchanging blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only thought left was somehow or another I must beat him and win.
My instructor, Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school, would come up to me and say: ‘Relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow your opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the countermovement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.
That was it! I must relax. However, right here I had already done something contradictory, against my will. When I said I must relax, the demand for effort in ‘must’ was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in ‘relax.’ When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists call the ‘double-blind’ type, my instructor would again approach me and say: ‘Preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.
The following week I stayed home. After spending many hours in meditation and practice, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched at the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me: Wasn’t this water, the very basic stuff, the essence of gung fu? Didn’t the common water illustrate to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it just now, but it did not suffer hurt. Again I stabbed it with all my might, yet it was not wounded. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, could fit itself into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”
This was Lee’s philosophy; be like the water. Adapt yourself to whatever environment you find yourself.
I think this is something we can all live by!