When we first begin our martial arts journey, we start from a void, a vacuum where we know nothing. This idea holds for almost any kind of learning. As we expose ourselves to more knowledge and experiences, we slowly fill that void.
But as we grow, part of learning must also come through our own discovery and not just from “the way things have always been done.”
In his Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee wrote, “if you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow––you are not understanding yourself.”
Lee believed we should learn the classical models, but also realize they are shadows of reality, a reality that lies within us, not in tradition. Some 2400 years ago, Plato wrote about reality and shadows in his Allegory of the Cave.
In chapter 7 of his Republic, Plato wrote about men chained from birth in a cave. These men saw shadows on the wall in front of them. These shadows were cast by a fire behind them and gave the figure of people enjoying various activities and of animals or other objects in nature.
What these men saw was reality for them. They made a game of guessing what was next. When one would guess correctly, the others would proclaim the man a genius and believe he was a mastery of reality.
One of the prisoners becomes free and sees the fire. He realizes the shadows aren’t real. He escapes the cave only to find the sun blinding and the vividness of the real world overwhelming.
After he adjusts to being outside the cave, he tries to return and tell the other prisoners. He stumbles in the darkness, his eyes no longer accustomed to it. The others believe the outside world has hurt him. They scorn him for his crazy idea and refuse to admit their view isn’t reality.
The man leaves the cave saddened that he could not help his friends, but with the understanding that he cannot go back to the cave now that he has experienced reality.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to illustrate what it’s like to be a philosopher trying to educate the public. It also demonstrates that when people only accept what they are given, they have a skewed vision of reality, a shadow of the real form.
Lee essentially argued in his statement that we can’t know our own realities without searching for them within ourselves. We must leave the cave, or we will only ever see shadows.
Just as we begin with a void, not of our own creating, no one chooses to be in the cave. It’s just where we happen to start. We all start in the cave, but we don’t have to stay there.
For martial artists, this begs the question, “Where did my art come from or from whom?” Contemporary martial arts built on the past arts just as modern ideas were formed from previous concepts.
We know Bruce learned the traditional art of Kung Fu from Ip Man. But to see the bigger picture, he studied several arts and took what he felt necessary from them. He also pressure tested his skills and looked inward to understand himself as a martial artist, not just as a Kung Fu practitioner.
Seeing the sunshine
If you have only tried one art or never left your own dojo to see other perspectives, how can you know if your knowledge works? Moreover, if you have never thought about how you shape your art as much as it shapes you, you may be “merely seeing phantoms on the wall.”
As a caveat, you have to learn the traditional or have been in the cave to see the difference. It gives you a frame of reference to know what’s real. You can’t understand the power and beauty of the sunshine if you’ve never seen the darkness of the cave.
If Bruce Lee is correct, we won’t truly master a martial art until we grasp it from our own reality, not someone else’s. It’s about building on what we see and finding our expression of it. Getting out of the cave is about our personal journey into the world of knowledge.
Will you stay in the cave?