Diminishing Returns

“JKD is only a license to teach without structure – formless. Wing Chun, when well learned, is a license to be formless.”

‘Them thar are fightin’ words, Buddy’. Yes. I know, but I am not looking for a fight. Let me state clearly, I have a healthy regard for Bruce Lee – his skills and abilities. This is not about him, nor about the JKD concept itself. This is about the teaching of Jeet Kune Do. I taught it for many years. I have studied and taught Wing Chun for many years. While JKD is an offshoot of Wing Chun, there are some striking differences, though again, this is not about that. This is about the industry that has grown out of it.

Bruce Lee studied Wing Chun, but not all of it. Grandmaster William Cheung, his primary instructor under Ip Man, openly states this in a 1992 interview. Ip Man placed restrictions on what Bruce Lee could be taught. As such, Grandmaster Cheung posed questions to Sijo Lee – a way of guiding Sijo without actually teaching him. This caused Sijo Lee to look to other arts for answers he thought did not exist in Wing Chun. It is easy to see how his overall philosophy of JKD would grow out of this condition.

Once you have a solid base in a system, but then become invested in the idea that no particular system is the way, how do you teach that to someone else? Can the new student really pick up in the middle, studying diversity for diversity’s sake, while never actually acquiring the base structure the teacher has?

I have studied and trained for decades, and I am still learning in a single system. My base structure may be okay, but there are many people with far superior structures, knowledge, and depth. If the magic eludes me and I abandon the current path and march off in another direction, how would I obtain the finely tuned base structure of either system? It takes decades to learn the magic.

For some students, a structure already exists. The patchwork approach is laid on a deeply understood structure or system. This is why I credit Guro Dan Inosanto as a far superior martial artist to Bruce Lee. He had decades of Kali structure before Sijo Lee, and has continued to hone and refine it, working JKD into Kali rather than abandoning Kali for JKD. Kali is Guro’s primary playground. He has benefited from Sijo’s notoriety and kept it alive as well as Jeet Kune Do itself, but JKD seems to be a smaller part of him and his world. A lot of Kali has been mixed into JKD.

More to the point how does the person who had shaky structure and jumps to a hodge-podge system to fix his or her shortcomings, teach the mash-up to someone new with even less initial structure, or no initial foundation at all? The real magic that makes any given art work becomes diluted, then untouched, and finally fades altogether. It is the law of diminishing returns.

The industry thins the initial foundation down to nothingness. The idea of being formless with weak structure leads to no structure at all. The result becomes purely surface, which may be fine for those with natural abilities, but just sloppy for everyone else.

It is fine to look to other systems. Cross Training is not new. It works best when a primary system remains the focus, layering the alternate approaches on the primary structure while constantly revisiting and growing that structure. Like Guro Inasonto, always working Kali, never abandoning it as he weaves new approaches into it and finds where his primary system works in other systems.

Often we say, ‘it is all the same’. In the deep foundation, it is, but that is hard to see through the myriad of techniques on the surface. It gets even more difficult to see when the surface techniques are a manic mosaic of disjointed systems. Can the core structure of any system be taught in that manner? I have come to think it is more likely overlooked or altogether forgotten.

Let the ranting now begin.


About Sifu

I teach Wing Chun, both traditional and practical, at KDA Karate Academy. I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager. In addition to being a Martial Arts Instructor, I am an author. My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge".

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