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Don't Focus on the Finger

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Don't Focus on the Finger

In an often quoted and misquoted scene in the beginning of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's character, aptly named "Lee", uses an old Zen Buddhist teaching from the Lankavatara Sutra to advise his student.

"It is a like a finger pointing away to the moon.  Don't focus on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."

Centuries before Bruce Lee was born or the script for Enter the Dragon was written, Korean warrior monk Hyujeong, the Grandmaster of the Western Hills, also drew from this teaching of the Lankavatara Sutra in a discussion with monks from a rival faction.

"The Great Sutras are nothing more than a finger pointing you to see the moon.  If you are really bright, you will see the moon, and if you are stupid, you will see the finger.  Therefore, a bright person is like a lion, and a dull person is like a dog from the state of Han.  The dog chases mudballs.  The lion bites the one who throws them."

This week, letters from Bruce Lee's time in Los Angeles and his later years in Hong Kong have been published that provide irrefutable documentation of a rather sizeable cocaine habit.  This has led to several reactions in the martial arts community.  The Bruce Lee haters have of course latched on to it as just more fodder for their fire.  Some in the Bruce Lee fanboy community have hand-waved or white washed his habit, which given some of the letters themselves, may have been a potent addiction that had drastically negative effects on his life.  Some in the JKD community may look at Bruce Lee's example with the mentality of justifying their own addictions and behavior.

Aside from having a nuanced sense of the historical character of the man Bruce Lee aside, I am not sure any of those extremes are the most helpful for someone who is following the path of Jeet Kune Do.  They end up chasing mudballs and focusing on the finger.

Seeing the flaws and sins of people we elevate to the level of hero is often a harrowing experience.  It can be easy to yank them down off of those pillars we put them on without pausing a moment and considering our own falls from glory.  If we're going to actually look at Bruce Lee's drug addiction, then let us actually take a look at the legacy of those who follow him, at our own legacy.  Let's avoid chasing mudballs and see if we can look beyond the finger.

I won't name names beyond my own, but it's hardly unspoken in the JKD community how one of early my JKD teachers had a reputation for "Peruvian marching powder" that has had a drastically negative affect on his own life, his students, and his organization throughout the decades.  Another JKD teacher of mine would frequently show up to his own seminars an hour or two late, hungover and/or baked, forcing his student hosts to start teaching the workshop for him to keep the paying clients (who were paying to learn from him, not us) from demanding their money back.  Both of these men have lost students, friends, and opportunities due to erratic behavior and addiction.

Looking at these examples, it would be very easy for me to rest on my laurels, tear these men down from their pillars, and put my ego up there.  After all, I've never done hard drugs in my life, but that would just be creating another mudball for me to chase.  Rather, it's important for me to look up and own up to the fact that my own behavior with alcohol in my younger years, living in the bar scene while bouncing, and trying to numb pain that I had suffered, led to negative outcomes for my family, my friends, and myself.  These are certainly not my better moments, certainly not the legacy I want to leave for my children or my students.  I can continue to chase after the mudballs of my own ego and judge others while whitewashing my past, or I can turn and deliver a crushing bite to the neck of the thrower.

Bruce Lee can certainly be your inspiration as you follow the path of Jeet Kune Do.  He's not the path itself, however, and in his better moments, I don't think he wanted to be.

The flaws in the people we consider our heroes often point out our own flaws.

Where in you life are you rejecting wisdom or valid criticism from a source because that source isn't perfect?

What can you do today to see past that finger to the moon?

- MuSsang

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