From 'Art' to 'Artlessness'
Bruce Lee’s martial artistry was phenomenal. Lee attained a level in his martial art practice in which he was no longer confined by technique or principle, and his high degree of physical skills and finely tuned awareness gave him the ability to become formless, adapt himself to fit in with any opponent, and ‘flow’ like water in any situation. This high degree of mastery is referred to the “artless” state or the “stage of artlessness.”
However, we need to keep in mind that Bruce Lee’s skills and abilities were not hardwired into him. His knowledge and proficiency in martial arts was developed through countless hours of diligent and consistent training and effort, and moving through an evolutionary process that is referred to as the “3 Stages of Cultivation.” What are these three stages?
“Stage of Innocence” -- The first stage is known as the “stage of innocence” or the stage of ‘original ignorance.’ The word ‘ignorant’ does not mean dumb or stupid. Rather, it simply refers to having little knowledge, education, or experience with regard to something. In this stage the person knows nothing or very little about martial arts. They don’t have any idea what they’re doing and simply flail or react to whatever situation they encounter, blocking and striking instinctively without any concern as to what might be good or bad, or right or wrong. Their mind is not riddled with thoughts or concerns about things such as techniques or style, and while they might not be considered ‘scientific’ in their actions or reactions, they are nevertheless being themselves, and their reactions, even if inappropriate, are pure and honest.
“Stage of Art” -- The second stage is referred to as the “stage of art” or the “mechanical” stage, which begins when a person starts training in a martial art and is taught such things as the mechanics of different ways of striking, footwork movements, various attacking, counter-attacking and defensive actions, how to control their breathing, etc. In JKD we refer to it as learning the “vocabulary” of the art. In addition the person might study martial arts by reading books and magazines, watching martial art training videos or films, following martial artists they admire, examining and analyzing their techniques and training methods. They may even end up consciously or unconsciously imitating the martial artist’s style and approach.
During this stage of training, while the student gains scientific knowledge of combat, they also often develop very mechanical or “patternized” methods of responding which they learn through instruction. As a result, their original self and sense of freedom they had before they began training become restricted or are lost. Furthermore, their mind often tends to freeze at different movements for calculations and analysis, and their actions cease to flow. In extreme cases it can lead to what is known as “paralysis by analysis.”
“Stage of Artlessness” -- The third stage is the “stage of artlessness” or the “spontaneous stage.” It occurs when, after years of consistent training and countless hours spent in the diligent practice in the perfection of their tools and skills and effectively laying down neuromuscular pathways, the martial artist’s skills in using them becomes simply an extension of the individual themselves. They reach a point whereby they are no longer confined by technique or principle, and their actions and reactions are reflexive, but unlike in the first stage, scientific and very efficient and effective. They react with the same purity and emotional intensity they had in the first stage, but now their limbs and body move in the correct manner. They are fully present and emerged in what is happening in the moment, in a state of complete presence of mind or complete concentration and without any preset programming dictating what they will do; what actions or techniques they should use, etc. When they move, their actions seem completely divorced from conscious effort, and their body does what it needs to do without any interference of the mind. At this stage they become formless, spontaneously adapting themselves to fit in with their opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall or flowing through the slightest crack. Whatever comes up moment by moment is accepted and instantly dealt with, and they simply “flow” with the opponent. When a martial artist reaches the stage of artlessness they will express themselves fully and without any form of restriction or confinement. However, they cannot reach this point without progressing through the prior two stages.
This three-stage evolutionary process is not limited only to martial arts. Countless other people who have excelled in their chosen endeavor, from world-champion athletes such as surfer Kelly Slater, to world-renowned musicians and artists such as Yo Yo Ma and Pablo Picasso have all followed the developmental path.
The three stages of cultivation can and will apply to each of us in developing our knowledge and proficiency in something we are passionate about and wish to attain mastery of, be it cooking, dancing, painting, playing a musical instrument, playing tennis, or whatever. In the first stage (stage of original ignorance) you might be unfamiliar with or know little about what it is that you want to do. However, while you might lack the requisite knowledge and/or skills, there is honest passion and emotion in what you do. You just pick up a guitar and start strumming away on it. You just grab a camera and starts shooting photographs. You just grab a surfboard and head out into the waves. While you may have no clue what you are doing, yet you are making your best attempt, and in doing so, you nevertheless are being completely true to yourself. Your approach is pure and your mind is not concerned with thoughts of what is right and wrong, proper technique or good style, or worrying about whether or not you will ever get “good” at it.
In the next stage (mechanical stage) you learn fundamentals of what it is you wish to do. If, for example, you are working toward becoming a top culinary chef, you learn such things as how to cut and slice various foods, how to mix various sauces, the various methods of cooking such as sautéing, poaching, baking, etc. If your goal is to become a great guitarist, you start learning how to play the various notes and chords on the guitar, how to combine the notes and chords into riffs or sequences, and understanding rhythm, etc. If your objective is to become a high level photographer, you start by learning about cameras, develop your understanding of photographic elements such as light and shadow, and learn how to compose what is considered a ‘good’ photograph. If your passion is tennis and your goal is to become a champion player, you must learn fundamentals such as the various strokes you can use to hit the ball, how to serve and return serve, etc.
As with martial arts development, while you are gaining important knowledge and necessary skills during this stage of development, your thinking, movements or actions can become patternized or mechanical. You are learning things that may be very awkward or different to what you are accustomed to, and you may find the original sense of freedom you had before you began training restricted as you get caught up in analyzing yourself or everything that you do. Some people, for whatever reason, choose to remain in this stage, forever working on adding new techniques or acquiring more and more knowledge, but never moving to the next level.
When you reach the third stage (stage of artlessness) you return to the simplicity stage. You react/act with the same purity and emotional intensity you had in the first stage, but now with proper skills techniques, etc. You enter a mind-set of “no-mindedness” (wu-hsin) in which your mind is without obstructions or inhibitions, and flows from one thing to another freely and without stopping or hesitating. You do not have any set thoughts or set method, but your mind is free to respond reflexively to each situation as it unfolds before you. You are completely involved and completely absorbed in what you’re doing and you ‘flow.’ If, for example, you are a musician, you’re able to improvise on the spot as well as fit in and jam with all types of other musicians. If you’re an athlete you have the ability to effortlessly adapt and fit in with whatever situation you find yourself in. Eleven-time world-champion surfer Kelly Slater expresses it in the following way -- “When you get to a really high level of performing on a wave, I feel that my board and the wave are not separate, like I’m part of my board and we’re part of the curve of the wave and you tap into the flow line of what’s happening on the wave. You go to the right place, you don’t have your mind getting in the way. You’re not thinking, its instantaneous, thought to action. You just react without thinking about it.” Bruce Lee expressed the same idea when he said, “There is no opponent… because the word ‘I’ does not exist. When the opponent expands I contract, and when the opponent contracts I expand. And when there is an opportunity to hit, I do not hit, ‘it’ hits all by itself.
For each of us, attaining a high degree of mastery in something we do or wish to do is a developmental process involving the “3 Stages of Cultivation.” And each of us has to go through all of the stages. It is an experiential process and not a theoretical one. Also, it’s important to remember that the final stage, the “stage of artlessness,” is not an end-point, but rather forever a “work in progress.”