Thursday, March 14, 2024

Bruce Lee and the Tao of Ásatrú

Bruce Lee was the first Asian actor to achieve star billing in a Hollywood movie since the silent film era, and he was the first Chinese-American man ever to do so. His performance in Enter the Dragon (1973) made him a worldwide superstar, even though it was released a month after his premature death at age 32. The spirit of his on-screen performances continues to be a felt presence in motion pictures, television shows, video games, and comic books.

From teaching kung fu (which he usually spelled gung fu) in Seattle as a college student to developing the new martial art he called jeet kune do (“way of the intercepting fist”), Lee fundamentally changed and drove the development of martial arts in the United States. Acknowledging his iconoclastic and pioneering approach to training and fighting, Dana White of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has called Lee “the father of mixed martial arts.”

There’s another aspect of Lee that doesn’t get as much attention: his written work as a philosopher.

Bruce Lee stamps issued in Hong Kong (2020)

Like J.R.R. Tolkien with his Silmarillion, Lee was a prolific writer who filled box after box with drafts for the projects closest to his heart but couldn’t quite bring himself to close them off for publication. Tolkien died the same year as Lee, and his major mythological work was assembled from his notes and published in book form four years after his death. Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do was a similar posthumous assemblage, as was the series of books titled Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method. Tuttle Publishing continues to print a series of standalone books compiled from Lee’s notes, letters, and interviews.

The various books credited to Lee aren’t simple “stand like this, kick like this” martial arts manuals. Yes, they have photos, diagrams, and detailed instructions for hand-to-hand combat, but they are also permeated with Lee’s wider philosophical and spiritual concerns. Quotes supposedly from Lee that often pop up online as inspirational nuggets are often actually lines that he spoke in character on television and on the silver screen. His original written reflections are more interesting and evince a deep engagement with his own study as a voracious reader in a wide range of disciplines.

As has happened before while reading other texts, I was surprised to find how much of Lee’s written work resonated with my own experiences in, of all things, Ásatrú and Heathenry – new religious movements that seek to reconstruct, recreate, and reimagine ancient Norse and wider Germanic polytheist paganism.

“A universal family”

Modern Germanic paganism’s relationship with Asian thought hasn’t been great. Some branches of American Ásatrú continue to embrace – sometimes unknowingly – cultural appropriation of Asian materials that came into Pagan practice via Theosophy’s willful mishmash of world traditions and the Third Reich’s recasting of diversely sourced theory and practice as supposedly primeval Aryan.

From so-called runic “intoning” or “chanting” (overtly acknowledged by today’s Heathens as a product of the racist German völkisch milieu and an appropriation of Indian meditational practice) to “rune yoga” (an appropriation of admittedly complicated Indian yoga that was also developed within the German völkisch scene), even self-declared “not racist” practitioners continue to forward the National Socialist merging of elements from the Germanic past and Asian religious traditions.

There’s a great difference between appropriation of and engagement with. I’m disgusted by the first and dedicated to the second. Instead of taking and rebranding, the rightful focus should be on listening and learning – on fostering dialogue, recognizing parallels, and building connections.

As someone who spends so much time engaging with Old Norse mythology and poetry, it’s fascinating to read Lee’s discussions of the “kung fu man” focusing chi that evoke comparisons to the Old Norse megin that swells up within Thor when he is in need of great strength.

When Lee discusses the meaning of the word tao as way, principle, law, beginning, pattern, and truth, it is reminiscent of siðr, the Old Norse word that can mean custom, habit, manner, conduct, moral life, religion, faith, rite, ceremonial, and more.

I’m not claiming that such cross-cultural echoes are evidence of some Indo-European relation from the depths of time. I’m agreeing with Lee that communication across cultural boundaries – which are, by definition, human constructs – can be deeply meaningful and lead us to relate to each other at a higher level.

When asked by a Chinese reporter whether his marriage to a white American woman would “face unsolvable obstacles,” Lee replied:
Many people may think that it will be. But to me, this kind of racial barrier does not exist. If I say I believe that ‘everyone under the sun’ is a member of a universal family, you may think that I am bluffing and idealistic. But if anyone still believes in racial differences, I think he is too backward and narrow. No matter if your color is black or white, red or blue, I can still make friends with you without any barrier (Bruce Lee: A Life, p. 391).
There is much that American Heathens can learn from Bruce Lee on the subject of diversity.

“Return to your senses”

Lee himself was an embodiment of diversity. Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown to Hong Kong residents temporarily in the United States, he was 5/8 Han Chinese, 1/4 English, and 1/8 Dutch-Jewish. Dividing his adult life between Hong Kong, Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles, he was called “the ultimate Mid-Pacific Man” by the Hong Kong media – a term used for “Westernized Chinese.”

Birthday party in San Francisco's Chinatown (1912)

Lee dealt with prejudice on both sides of the ocean, with some in Hong Kong asserting that he wasn’t “Chinese enough” and some in Hollywood rejecting him for his Chinese accent. He had the same issues with moving between cultural and linguistic worlds as my father (a German immigrant to the United States), specifically regarding thinking and writing in two languages:
I bought this English-Chinese dictionary originally to help me find the suitable English words when I first went to the United States when I was 18. Now I find that I have to use it to find the Chinese words which I have in mind (Bruce Lee: A Life, p. 363).
After decades living in the United States, my father was similarly suspended between American students who had difficulty understanding his accent and German friends who made fun of him for losing his rolling R’s. Also similar to Lee, he sometimes found himself floating between two languages when writing.

Like the American composer and performer Charles Mingus – who had a mixture of Chinese, German, Native American, African-American, and other heritages – Lee seems to have been drawn to those who didn’t fit into tidy ethnocultural boxes. Mingus felt that he wasn’t accepted as black by his black classmates in grade school and so gravitated towards a youthful social circle including Japanese, Greek, Italian, Mexican, and mixed-race kids. When building his social network of martial arts students and practitioners in the United States, Lee likewise engaged with a diverse group.

Shortly after Lee moved to Seattle in 1959, he was approached by Jesse Glover, a young African-American man who had become deeply interested in martial arts after a drunk and racist police officer broke his jaw. Glover faced a different flavor of racism when he found that no Asian martial arts teacher would accept a black student. In his mid-twenties, he managed to earn a black belt and become a teacher at the Seattle Judo Club but again ran into an anti-black wall when he attempted to study kung fu.

After seeing Lee give a public martial arts demonstration – his first in the United States – Glover asked to study with him. Following a typically intense audition, Lee accepted Glover as his first American student in a break with traditional barriers against black students in kung fu instruction.

Lee’s studio soon grew to include Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic, and white students. Biographer Matthew Polly calls it “the most racially diverse group of students ­– white, black, brown, and yellow ­– in the history of the Chinese martial arts.”

In one of the many versions of an essay he penned on jeet kune do in 1971, Lee wrote that the article
is primarily concerned with the blossoming of a martial artist – not a “Chinese” martial artist, a “Japanese” martial artist, and so forth. A martial artist is first a human being, which we are ourselves; nationalities have nothing to do with martial arts. So please come out of that protective shell of isolation, that proud conclusion or whatever, and relate directly to what is being said – once again return to your senses by ceasing all that intellectual or mental mumbo jumbo (Artist of Life, p. 152).
Here is something on which practitioners of Ásatrú can meditate.

How many of those who repeatedly insist that they’re “not racist,” that they’re not like those awful Heathens over there who declare whiteness a prerequisite for participation in Ásatrú, will happily testify that they came to this religion because they discovered they had Swedish or some other Scandinavian ancestry? How many decide to become Heathen because a mail-order DNA test told them they had a bit of Nordicity in their bloodline? How many announce that they chose to leave the faiths in which they were raised and “return to the religion of their ancestors?”

Ásatrú and Heathenry are not ancient ancestral religious traditions. They are new religious movements more closely related to Scientology than they are to Hinduism, in the sense that they are modern inventions rather than branches of ongoing development on a religious family tree. As such, the decision of who can practice is totally up to us here today, right now. If only more Heathens would actively seek out diverse fellow practitioners as Lee did!

We should be educated on and respectful of the cultural precursors to modern Ásatrú in long-ago times, for sure. The more we learn about how the ancient religions were practiced, the more we are informed on how to build the modern religions in a way that is positive and meaningful for all involved.

Being respectful of origins, however, is quite different from being worshipful of those origins. Being informed should include what learning what to avoid and discard from the old days, as well. The manifestation of DNA test results as driver of religious adherence and an emphasis on ancient “original” practitioners as some sort of “Arch-Heathens” who practiced a purer form of religion is a deadly combination that leads naturally to a fundamentalist worldview.

“Behind these curtains”

On a table by the entrance to Bruce Lee’s school in LA’s Chinatown, there was a small grave with a tiny tombstone that read, “In memory of a once fluid man crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” It was meant as a declaration of Lee’s key concept that rigidly following the classical teachings of particular kung fu or other martial arts schools would hobble the fighter in an actual fight. Instead, he emphasized, the fighter must go with the unpredictable flow of real combat and respond to reality as it is.

Bruce Lee (in black top) in his Los Angeles school (1967)

This was absolutely not an argument for an “anything goes” approach or for the disposal of dedicated training. To the contrary, Lee studied and incorporated elements form a wide variety of fighting forms – from the Wing Chun he studied with the legendary Ip Man in Hong Kong to the American boxing of Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali to the finer points of fencing theory and practice. By learning from the strengths of various systems without prejudice and refusing to blindly follow the failures of traditional forms, Lee was able to reach a point where he could truly inhabit the moment and fight by educated instinct.

Lee’s motto for jeet kune do is “using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.” The emphasis is on flexibility in the face of changing circumstances, on responding in real time to the realities of life, on living in the time that we actually and bodily inhabit. What Lee says about adapting to the changeable moment in street fighting applies, mutatis mutandis, to adapting to the changeable moment in our lived lives as practitioners of modern polytheist religions.

In parallel to Lee, my argument is not for an “anything goes” mindset regarding Ásatrú nor for turning our backs on the historical record. Instead, it is for a breadth of learning that leads to deeper understanding. That breadth should include information and insight from other traditions that is internalized without being appropriated.

A resolute obsession with trying to know the ultimately unknowable interior worldview of ancient Germanic pagans – as if there even were some overarching worldview shared by members of some true and unified universal church of Odin over large stretches of time and distance – leads to a form of fundamentalism that insists on the possibility of reconstructing a Viking Age Icelandic or other ancient Germanic religious world of belief and practice in today’s United States. One result of this obsession is to leave today’s American practitioners “crammed and distorted by the classical mess” as they constantly turn their inner eyes backwards through time.

Lee criticized this focus on replicating the forms of the past rather than engaging with the present:
Instead of facing combat in its suchness, quite a few systems of martial art accumulate “fanciness” that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the actual reality of combat, which is simple and direct and nonclassical. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms and artificial techniques (organized despair!) are ritually practiced to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of being in combat, these practitioners are idealistically doing something about combat (The Tao of Gung Fu, p. 170).
The applicability to Ásatrú seems clear.

When we obsess over how we think things were done in the distant past, whether relating to attempts to self-consciously adopt a putative worldview or replicate ritual dress, we place the “fanciness” of doing methodology over the “simple and direct and nonclassical” being in a living religion.

Lee’s student and movie co-star Bob Baker reports that Lee had planned a sequel to his “classical mess” tombstone:
He always had this idea if he was ever to open another school. When you walked through the door, there would be these large red curtains and then a sign that said, ‘Behind These Curtains Lies The Secret’… And then when you opened the curtains there was just a full length mirror. And that would be the way you get into the school (Bruce Lee: A Life, p. 380).
The message of the mirror for today’s Heathens is we are Ásatrú.

This thing of ours is what we make of it. How we reify the religion in our own lives right now determines what it is today and influences what it will become tomorrow. There is no secret answer hidden within the surviving texts, the found physical remains, and the secular academic theories. These various sources should all be studied and considered, but the living faith emanates from ourselves.

“Constantly changing and constantly adapting”

In another version of “Toward Personal Liberation,” his 1971 jeet kune do essay, Lee wrote of turning away from national organizations:
Upon my arrival in the States, I did have my “Chinese” Institute; but since then I no longer believe in systems (Chinese or not Chinese), nor organizations. Big organizations, domestic and foreign branches, affiliations, and so forth, are not necessarily the places where a martial artist discovers/finds himself. More often this is quite to the contrary. To reach the growing number of students, some pre-conformed set must be established as standards for the branches to follow. As a result, all members will be conditioned according to the prescribed system. Many will probably end up as prisoners of a systemized drill (Artist of Life, p. 176).
Like Lee, I no longer believe in systems nor organizations for Ásatrú and Heathenry.

Not only are the national organizations deeply flawed, it is in the very nature of national organizations to be deeply flawed. No matter what the company line is regarding universalism, acceptance, or inclusion, the fact is that larger groups attract both those who want to dictate and those who want to be dictated to.

These fatally attracted and codependent mindsets necessarily feed upon each other, even when in seeming conflict, and achieve unity when rallying against any who challenge fundamental assumptions in the way that Lee did with traditional martial arts. This tendency only becomes more vulgar in the online and social media world where these organizations largely exist.

Postcard of martial arts performers in Manchuria (before 1911)

When asked about the difference between various schools of kung fu, Lee was openly critical of instructors who pushed one traditional approach over another:
Of course we hear a lot of the teachers claiming their styles are soft and others are hard; these people are clinging blindly to one partial view of the totality. Because if they have understood and transcended the real meaning of gentleness and firmness, they wouldn’t have made such an impossible separation. I was asked by a so-called gung fu master once – one of those that really looked the part, with beard and all – as to what I think of yin (soft) and yang (firm). I simply answered “baloney!” Of course, he was quite shocked at my answer and still has not come to the realization that “it” is never two (The Tao of Gung Fu, p. 164).
Modern Heathenry has had more than its fair share of “those that really looked the part, with beard and all,” as if there were some necessary correlation between pseudo-Viking machismo and polytheist spirituality. As Lee said when teaching responses to street attacks that appear irrational, “There are many irrational people on the streets today.”

I must admit that I long for more of Lee’s type of iconoclast to appear in Ásatrú. I hope for younger practitioners to appear who will throw aside the macho posturing, the knowing or ignorant replication of völkisch practices, and the rote repetition of tired concepts and catch-phrases. Hopefully, we can someday yell “baloney” together.

After distancing himself from national organizations, Lee set out the path he had chosen to follow:
I believe in teaching/having a few pupils at one time, as teaching requires a constant alert observation of each individual in order to establish a direct relationship. A good teacher can never be fixed in a routine, and nowadays many are just that. During teaching, each moment requires a sensitive mind that is constantly changing and constantly adapting. Above all, a teacher must never force his student to fit his favorite pattern, [which] is a preformation (Artist of Life, p. 176).
This statement also works as an argument in favor of the small, local, face-to-face Ásatrú kindred of limited membership and long-term commitment over any national-level Heathen organization. Where the larger organization codifies and enforces, the smaller group questions and evolves. Lee’s small circle of friends, colleagues, students, and training partners is a positive role model for building vibrantly diverse kindreds that practice and grow together.

“Artist of life”

I’ve written before about my personal saints, which include John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Malcolm X. I explained my conception of sainthood in an article on my “patron saint” Jim Bouton, writing that a better term would perhaps be “ancestors, as we use that term ritually in Thor’s Oak Kindred to refer to those now gone who inspire us, those departed souls with whom we feel a kinship that can be stronger than that to an unknown and nameless progenitor.” But it’s fun to say I have saints.

I’ve recently added Bruce Lee to my private pantheon of decidedly un-saintly saints. Like all the rest, he was complex, difficult, inspiring, problematic, hilarious, shocking, and deeply human. What makes him so meaningful to me is that he has that powerful quality which all of these figures have in common, a quality which I summed up in my article on Jack Kirby, another one of my saints: they all “challenged themselves to be greater while publicly speaking out against the failings of their own society.”

In Lee’s case, the self-challenge and the speaking out were defining elements of his complex character. In the final draft of his essay “In My Own Process” from around 1973, he wrote:
Basically, I have always been a martial artist by choice, and actor by profession. But, above all, I am hoping to actualize myself to be an artist of life along the way (Artist of Life, p. 256).
It’s a worthy goal for each of us.

Sources for this column include Artist of Life, Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method, The Tao of Gung Fu, and Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee; Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly; and Mingus: A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley. An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

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