The Philosopher-Actor Bruce Lee

Enter the Dragon Movie Poster‘Movies Mockingbird’ is a blog series dedicated to uncovering the core ideas behind movies – the core ideas that are visible yet hidden. In it, I will attempt to dive into the sea of social sciences to reveal the whole iceberg of movie plots and not just the tip visible on the surface.

In this post, I will examine Enter the Dragon (1973), starring Bruce Lee as Lee. Although dialogues from the film will be used, it will aim to review Bruce Lee holistically because of the historical depth of his acting and ideas.

Plato made a prophecy that is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago, that the world will not know peace until philosophers become kings or kings, philosophers.  This rings a bell when it comes to Bruce Lee because his acting was inspired by philosophy. Rephrasing Plato, Bruce Lee showed that true entertainment (peace) of a lifetime comes from a philosopher-actor (philosopher king). By being the philosopher-actor, Bruce Lee showed the world true entertainment and not the largely meaningless news, hype, gossip and paper-tigers we are used to seeing in the media. This article will shed light on the profoundness of Bruce Lee as  his actions and dialogue, both in his movies and outside, shed a ray of knowledge far beyond the immediate movie scenes, into the very nature of reality itself.

What is wrong?

(Bruce Lee teaching a student)

Lee: [a student approaches Lee; both bow] Kick me.

[Student looks confused]

Lee: Kick me.

[Student attempts kick]

Lee: What was that? An Exhibition? We need emotional content. Now try again!

[Student tries again]

Lee: I said “emotional content.” Not anger! Now try again!

[Student tries again and succeeds]

Lee: That’s it! How did it feel?

[Student thinks; Lee smacks his head]  Bruce Lee quote

Lee: Don’t think. FEEEEEEEEL! It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon.

[Looks at student who is looking at the finger; smacks student again]

Lee: Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”

Everyday life is full of routines, deadlines and similarities. Whether it is commuting to work, attending classes or doing household chores, we feel monotonous and have a gnawing feeling that we are somehow not fully alive. Weekends become a way to party and break these routines, only to become another routine itself. Life seems little more than a transaction; earn money (do study, ,  then work) and spend money (consume brands to make life feel  new and non-monotonous).  How many times can we say that we are doing or thinking something because we truly want it from our souls? This ‘barren busy-ness’ (Socrates) causes us to lead large parts of our lives on autopilot, an automatic spiral of action and reaction, or in other words like an exhibition. It’s just like what Plato said “We are like people looking for something they have in their hands all the time; we’re looking in all directions except at the thing we want, which is probably why we have not found it.”

Sometimes, in those rare times when we start to focus  without distractions, anger is bound to be felt, but it is because we have not paid proper attention to the training of our hearts and because we associate emotions with weakness.. Emotions are not our weakness but our greatest strengths as human beings. So do any action, fight any opponent or anything else, but from your soul, not from your mind. Feel, don’t think.

Finger pointing to the moon is a really beautiful eastern metaphor for teaching us how Bruce Lee quote 2to lead our lives. The moon is the heavenly glory of skillful ideas and proper way of life and the finger is the teacher. The teacher is not just someone who really influenced you like Bruce Lee, but your own feelings and life itself as well. The skillful way of leading a life is not dependent on one person or one experience but it is a gateway to knowing our true nature which is infinitely more beautiful and cosmic. But if we fixate and cling to the finger, to that persona, to that person, to an event in our life, we will miss the true beauty of exploration into our psyche’s unconscious.

There is also something profoundly sociological in this ‘finger’. We rely on borrowed wisdom and the prevailing thoughts of our culture and times without actually knowing it to be true for ourselves.  Whether it is education, how to lead a family, how to work, what is law, what is society, the borrowed wisdom is the finger that leads us to fixate on the immediate instead of the moon of infinite possibilities of the complex interconnected whole of reality (Max Weber, Buddha).

Know Yourself

(first lines of Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee visits his teacher after winning a fight)

Lee: Teacher?

Shaolin Abbott: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight. I have several questions. What is the highest technique you hope to achieve?

Lee: To have no technique.

Shaolin Abbott: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?

Lee: There is no opponent.

Shaolin Abbott: And why is that?

Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.

Shaolin Abbott: So, continue…

Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

Shaolin Abbott: Now, you must remember: the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”

Here Bruce Lee speaks of the Wu-Shin concept to have no-mindedness in your actions and thoughts. It does not literally mean giving up mental faculties but rather that emptying the mind allows us to be intuitive and to flow naturally in our actions. It is in such attuned states that the doer disappears; It is now not Bruce Lee hitting but his body that is hitting instinctively.

But No-mindedness is not an isolated concept to be practiced only by martial artists. It follows the deep philosophical thinking of many eastern teachers over history. The Sufi concept of ‘fana’, as well as the ‘annata’ idea of Buddha, says that our cherished ‘self’ does not exist. There is no unchanging fixed individual isolated ‘self’ to aspire to become because change is eternal and everywhere. We change and our ideas change and we are not consistent over long times. This ‘fana’ idea seems very alien to our modern societies where we are influenced by the whole world and rely obsessively on an egoistic unique self that is imagined to be superior to others. But here’s the thing; the idea is not to allow everyone to hurt you, or merge with whatever society tells you to do; the idea is to merge with existence. This does not make  us small or insignificant when we realize what the Sufi Mevlena Rumi explained as “you are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop”. So it is not that ‘I’ hit or ‘I’ suffer, but that ‘it’ suffers, ‘it’ hits. This view is espoused in different words but almost same ideas by the 5th Century Greek Philosopher Parmenides that ‘All is One’. We are the entire ocean in a drop, and it is our collection of drops that makes it the ocean. There is no antagonistic duality that mind is separate from body (Baruch Spinoza), existence from individuals, logic with emotions; All exist in dialectical harmony and cannot exist without the other.

The aspiration for such ideas can lead us to flow like water, as Bruce Lee says: “Empty Bruce Lee quote 3your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend”.

Know Your Enemy

Shaolin Abbot reminds Bruce Lee of an existential truth in the end of the dialogue that the enemy has nothing substantial and no inner core. What he has are only images and illusions and we allow the enemy to preside by believing in those illusions. When we break the illusion, the enemy breaks.

The first step to creating illusions is to come up with perceived differences between different humans to justify inequality of power. Michel Foucault argues in striking similarity with Lao Tzu that we create differences between us and others which leads to stratification. With specialist technical experts the division between layman and technical experts arose, with the formation of a saint, the sinner emerged. Nationalist ideologies are bent on ‘WE’ being the superior and ‘others’ being the inferior enemy. That is the problem right here. Differences have to be cherished, not criminalized or be made a basis for discrimination.

Arguably, the strongest basis for discrimination we now face is between the haves and the have-nots. Despite their differences, Sociologists come on very strong here. Baudrillard argues that in post-modernist society, we are subject to relentless ‘simulacra’. Simulacra is simply the bombardment of our senses by images and sounds meant to represent reality. The problem is that they are distorted and not an accurate reflection of reality. The bigger problem is these become reality themselves, the ‘hyperreal’. In a globalized world where we rely relentlessly on media and smart phones, the hidden ideology criminalizing differences is imparted to us without us knowing it most of the time. Nationalist protesters will talk about dying for nation (but never about killing for nation), the one with Ferrari and the one without etc. Clever play on words and imagery changes our very perceptions ranging from advertisements to fear inducing aspects of terrorism .

The illusions operate on a cultural level as well. Karl Marx aptly notes that the ruling ideas of any given society are the ideas of the ruling class. It is information overload, continuous financial crises making us insecure, divide and rule policy, consumerism,  sports and anything other than accurate political awareness on inequality that serves as illusions to us and why we do not strive for emancipation. So clear is the similarity in Shaolin Abbot’s reminder and Marx when Marx famously proclaims in the Communist Manifesto that ‘You have nothing to lose but your illusions. You have a world to win’. A potential solution is to realize that we share a common destiny as humans and that under the sky, we all have one earth, we are all one family and there is no distinction . The differences exist to make life more colorful, not more pervasive.

Bruce Lee quote 4


We round up our discussion with the realization that we must know ourselves in order to know others and society. No-mindedness, oneness, and being true to ourselves can go a long way to help us to achieve lasting peace. In the end I would like to share an inspiring ‘Bruce Lee Ultimate Tribute’ Video that accurately captures some of the greatness of Bruce Lee.

Danish studied for the BSc Sociology in Pakistan. The BSc Sociology is not available to new students, however you can still study for a Diploma for Graduates in Sociology.


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