While there is no evidence suggesting that Lee Sijo ever had formal Zen training, its influence is easily seen in his writings and statements on the development of Jeet Kune Do, in the famous “Be Like Water” interview, and the opening scenes of “Enter the Dragon”. Many of the scenes in “Circle of Iron”, a movie based on a script Lee-sijo wrote before his death are allegories or parables based on Zen stories and teachings. In his listing of techniques he was developing, included in the “Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, he lists the philosophical influence of “Tao, Zen, and Krishnamurti”. More than this, the introspective process Lee-sijo went through in his development of Jeet Kune Do is very reminiscent of Zen practice itself, particular Examined Word Instrospection, known as koan practice in the West, a constant introspection and re-examination of the subject of thought.
Much of Lee’s writings on Zen are merely quotes cribbed from Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and many of the other published works of Bruce Lee were published posthumously and consist of his personal notes, not public writings. Lee-sijo had been a Philosophy major at University of Washington after immigrating to Seattle. Like any good Philosophy major, Lee-sijo took copious notes on the works of philosophers who influenced him. Many of these quotes can be found in Shunryu Suzuki’s seminal work, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, published in 1970. Suzuki’s book itself is a series of transcripts of his talks, and is lauded as one of the most influential works spreading Zen concepts to the American public. During the period in which Lee-sijo was going through his introspective process in developing Jeet Kune Do, Shunryu Suzuki was becoming one of America’s most renowned Zen teachers, and founded the first Zen monastery in the United States.
Much study can be made of these various quotes and notes on Zen teaching that Sijo Lee has left for us, but it could also miss the point. This is certainly a valid approach, but one should be careful to avoid superficiality, to attach to the fingers pointing to the moon. The process of introspection must be an essential part of any Jeet Kune Do practitioner from the outset, and this must not be relegated to mere navel-gazing seated meditation. The question must constantly be raised during practice...
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