Was Bruce Lee right about Fixed Set Patterns?

“All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”
– Bruce Lee

It's ironic. The Founder of JKD, that's Jeet Kune Do, and attributed as the Father of MMA, Bruce Lee was brought up schooled in Wing Chun. A talented athlete with a keen intellect, he assessed the tactical strengths of his traditional martial skills (based on those fixed patterns), and then reached for and assimilated new skills to round off his fighting base.    

But you don't totally 'empty' your cup of your existing skills. You 'empty' that cup of your preconceptions, your bias, and incomplete assumptions. With new insight, you add to your skills and build your foundation. 

Minus the grandstanding you see in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the quote above which has been attributed to Bruce Lee is correct. Fixed Set Patterns will not help you better deal with a dynamic situation. If you take out the posturing from actor Jason Scott Lee, the quote isn't to pick on those systems that use 'fixed set patterns.' You know why? It's because almost all systems I've come across use fixed set patterns. 

Call them Kata, Hyung, Tuls, Punyo, etc. Even boxing at various levels uses drills that are repeated over and over again. Know what those are called? Those are called Fixed Set Patterns. 

In my tradition, I use Fixed Pattern Sets called Hyungs. Early in my career, I started spreadsheeting individual techniques within those patterns to associate them with every skill I could identify. Neck deep and about a year in, I started to realise that I was just spinning my wheels. Some enthusiasts were impressed but I knew I wasn't on the right path, and appending more words to techniques wasn't creating any value. 

Eventually, there was a threshold that needed to be crossed. That threshold was a Fixed Set Pattern that a 19th century Karateka claimed was all he needed for street combat. It was a kata that I had been obsessed with for a long time. It's simple mirrored techniques seemed superficially simplistic, until I looked at it as a problem solving mechanism. I found I could use just the one technique for a same side attack. Then I saw it applied to an opposite side attack. And extending that train of thought, it would also work if I had guessed either wrongly! That I could recover using that technique! 

The Kata did not produce this tactic. It inspired the insight within me to see this for myself. 

Since then, the more I understood of the technician's situation, of his opponent, and the dynamic situation in an engagmenet, the more value I could draw from our fixed set pattern. 

I know sometimes I seem dismissive of patterns. That I seem more than happy to choose my own flipbook story ending. Nothing can be further from the truth. The pattern is our unchanging benchmark. But it is a benchmark created by an architect who was limited to chunking a few skills into a sequence of about 40 moves. 

The pattern does not show in entirety that architect's skill. 

Partly, to understand the kata, you need to look at it from its 'insides'. To make sense of what the architect wanted you to see of its sequences. To search out the patterns within the pattern. Identify logic which helps you as a tactician face off a dynamic situation, and make key decisions that help you counter the opponent's counters. 

Beyond the technical level, you'd need to apply knowledge that is beyond the kata. The assumption is that the architect of the pattern would have a high level of ability to deconstruct his three dimensional world, understand multiple opponents, use his structure and centre of gravity in such a way as to not be limited by any one technique, and like the architect have the ability to deploy weaponry without constraint. Basically linking to that famous quote "Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation."

Look at Jion Bunkai: Why So Many Upper Blocks. This application works because the initial upper block sets up an equal and opposite reaction from the opponent. Then it uses a perpendicular or lateral movement to strip the raised guard off to the side. The realisation that the opponent's guard can be stripped that way happened while working Taekwondo's Dosan years ago. (See the post Trapping Hands and Knocking on the Front Door posted in mid 2020.) So when we looked at Jion, a Traditional Okinawan kata, the upper block used to remove a lead hand guard tapped into knowledge we acquired whilst working a Taekwondo form, using insight from koryu Aikijujutsu!  
Then compare closely how that upper block is applied initially on the opposite side v same side. The same side tactic has the same setup but uses a small imperceptible elbow roll to break the opponent's structure before stripping it. The opponent's arm then goes towards the counter-intuitive outside of opponent's body. 

This would be categorised as a mizong or secret technique, and is not in the form. It would never make it into a form. And if it was ever in the form would never have been transmitted consistently because it would be too difficult to institutionalise. In that way, Bruce Lee was right, such value exists outside that Fixed Set Pattern. However, without having that Fixed Set Pattern inspiring us to look for it in the first place, we would not have had this applicaiton and insight today. 

The truth is that a Fixed Set Pattern is what it is. Don't think they're there to save the day. They don't teach you tactics. They don't fight your fight. You need to be trained by someone who is walking the path. All forms have to be applied. Their application needs to consider the technician, the opponent, and the dynamic situation. And then this understanding needs to be drilled into the practitioner through your training methodology. 

Don't just fall for his rhetoric. Look at how he developed. Those Fixed Set Patterns were his launchpad; not ball and chain.  



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