When I was six years old growing up in Israel, my bedroom walls were adorned with posters of Bruce Lee. I watched all his movies and wanted to be just like him. I loved that Lee was so good at what he did – a true master – and that his characters stood up for what was just. He was my first hero.
Years later I can say that Bruce Lee the man, not only the archetype, is still one of my heroes. So much so that I’ve named my first-born son (who’s half Chinese) after him. Here are a few reasons why.
Bruce Lee the philosopher
Lee was an avid and eclectic reader with over 2,000 books in his personal library. The volumes were categorized by subjects such as: exercise, training, fighting methods, religion, philosophy, poetry, acting, film, self-help, history, geography, fiction, sales, Chinese arts, and language books. For a list of some of his books, click here.
In his own writings, Lee was a brilliant unifier of Eastern and Western thought. The paradigm he developed is one of pragmatic individualism centered around the Taoist principle of wu wei (“effortless action” or “spontaneous action”).
Never one to separate theory from practice, Lee applied his holistic philosophy to his own style of martial arts (which he called “jeet kune do”). Dissatisfied with rigid and codified styles of combat, Lee sought to create a dynamic, resilient, and evolving system. “Absorb what is useful,” he would tell his students. “Reject what is useless, and add what is essentially your own.”
For Lee, the goal was to remain fluid and be ready to adapt to the situation. Borrowing a metaphor from the Tao Te Ching, Lee famously explained his approach.
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, 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.
Bruce Lee the visionary
Breaking with the tradition of only teaching Gung Fu to Chinese students, Lee insisted on teaching his craft to all races, ages, and genders. Being all-inclusive was unorthodox at the time, and the more traditional teachers resented the young maverick. As a result, the Gung Fu community in San Francisco issued a famous ultimatum: a battle to decide whether or not Lee would be permitted to teach. Eye-witness accounts attest to Lee winning the fight in under three minutes.
Always the student, Lee was not content with just being victorious (he thought the victory should have been swifter), and he used this opportunity as a catalyst to develop his own (non-style) style of fighting.
Bruce Lee the activist
Lee was a fighter in many arenas. Attempting to break into a film industry that was saturated with overt racism – where white actors would commonly portray stereotypical Asians characters with yellowface – Lee was adamant on succeeding without compromising his integrity or reinforcing stereotypes.
When he was told that there was no place for Asians as leading men he forged his own path under his own direction. As a result, Lee’s roles broke with the undignified ways in which Asians were being depicted at the time.
In the words of actor George Takei, “Bruce Lee made a tremendous impact on me and on the world’s psyche. He was an action hero when we’d been saddled with all these one-dimensional stereotypes: the servant, the buffoon, or the enemy. He was someone Asians could be proud of.”
Bruce Lee the lover
One of Lee’s favorite sayings (attributed to Confucius) was, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.” Lee was universal in every facet of his life. When he married Linda Emery in 1964, interracial marriages were still illegal in many parts of the country (US Supreme court legalized interracial marriages in 1967). While they experienced resistance (especially from Linda’s family), Lee believed in the universal power of human connections above all else.
On love, Lee wrote, “Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”
Bruce Lee the master
While there is a near-universal consensus that Lee was a master of martial arts (he is often credited as fathering Mixed Martial Arts [MMA]), few people know that he was also a great dancer. In 1958, Lee won Hong Kong’s Cha Cha championship. Not surprisingly, Lee approached dancing in the same assiduous manner as he did Gung Fu (his personal notebook meticulously documented 108 different Cha Cha steps).
For Lee, any form of physical activity was the embodiment of self-expression. Throughout his short life, Lee epitomized the Aristotelian concept of the virtue of excellence. “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Likewise, Lee stated, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Bruce Lee the bad-ass
Of course, this list would be incomplete if I was to leave out the fact that Lee was just an overall bad-ass. His charisma, good looks, physique, passions, playfulness, and confidence made him the epitome of cool and a cultural icon.
My son was born 44 years to the day Bruce Lee was laid to rest. I hope he will have many heroes in his life, but I think that living up to his namesake is not a bad place to start.
This post was originally published here.