Bruce Lee and training formlessness

The late famous master Bruce Lee demonstrating his equally famous kick. Image taken from

The famous master Bruce Lee demonstrating his equally famous kick. Image taken from

This just wouldn’t be a martial arts blog without at least one post about Bruce Lee.

Back in 2013 May, one of my pals asked me the following: “Bruce Lee advised to do free-form. how did he practice without any form?”

Here’s what I replied with:

Just going to make a few brief notes. Bruce Lee began (but never completed) Wing Chun training. The traditional way of kung fu training took too long (for his patience) to achieve combat efficiency (he was too impatient, despite having one of the best masters in the world at that time). He tried to “reinvent the wheel,” basically, trying to “see what worked” in his sparring and fighting.

I do not know what his method of power generation was, but I’d imagine it was similar to boxing, karate, and tae kwon do (emphasis on physical mass and speed as opposed to internal force; I am almost certain that Bruce Lee had no internal force, given what I know about his training methods).

Bruce Lee’s practicing ‘without any form’ was a misnomer. There is a famous kung fu and Buddhist saying, “From formlessness to form, from form to formlessness.” The student at first knows nothing (formlessness). The student then trains the orthodox way of doing things (form). The student, upon becoming a master, then learns the nuances of his form and when to modify or discard it for an advantage, and because of his amazing force and skills, does not suffer for not adhering to the form one hundred percent (formlessness).

The formlessness of the student and the formlessness of the master are two very different things. The first comes from literally knowing nothing at all. The latter comes from having crystallized the lessons of experience, his teachers, and his study of martial arts philosophy into a form of effortless mastery.

Bruce Lee was one of those people who achieved that third level of master level formlessness. He began with nothing, trained many different arts, and then attempted to directly train and distill what he thought was the “essence” of fighting. He had the wisdom to see that the form was not the end goal; the goal was to acquire the *skills* to back up those forms (speed, power, accuracy, etc.) to make himself a better fighter. I do not agree with his specific methods (which in fact led to his early death; he was very fit, but he was also very unhealthy), but he did walk the path of a master.

As an interesting aside, I tracked down Bruce Lee’s first martial arts publication, his 1963 work Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense at a local library. Quite unlike Bruce Lee’s later philosophy, this book was very adamant about training the fundamental kung fu stances. It’s an interesting bit of history and is actually a quite good introduction to kung fu practice on its own and far better than many kung fu books I’ve run across today!


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