On the anniversary of his death in 2011, I visited the grave of Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee would have turned 73 years old today, Nov. 27, 2013.
I am now 27 years old and Lee inspired me to become involved in martial arts more than 17 years ago. This story is a tribute to his genius and recounts how his teachings helped shape my life.
It’s June 20, 2011. I stand in front of a grave in Seattle.
The day is overcast. I approach a red marble headstone in silence. The gold lettering pops from the modest marble, gleaming even in the stone-gray light.
The memorial is that of the late actor, modern-day philosopher and martial artist, Bruce Lee. It’s been 38 years since Lee died from a swelling of the brain due to a hypersensitivity to the medicine he was taking.
Legend on film
As a kid I merely wanted to be like my idols — my father, Bruce Lee, maybe even the Red Ranger. What I couldn’t have known then was how Lee’s teachings would profoundly affect me in ways that went far beyond physical martial arts training.
I’m eight years old. My father, a long-time fan of Lee’s, tosses the master’s first film The Big Boss into the VCR. My brother Michael, still a toddler, squirms and coos next to my father on the couch. I plop down, excited because I am about to watch the man my father has talked about so much.
The tape whirs to life; the static lines on the screen of the old cassette tape dance and jest.
For the hour-and-a-half the film plays, I don’t move. I watch in stunned silence as a real-life superhero launches feet-and-fist projectiles at his opponents, knocking them down as quickly as they propose a threat.
I had just been introduced to the martial arts legend whose teachings would give direction to the lives of many, including me.
Looking for a hero
“Martial arts has a very deep meaning as far as my life is concerned because as an actor, as a martial artist, as a human being, all these I have learned from martial arts.” — Bruce Lee
Before moving to Canada, my father practiced taekwondo for five years in El Salvador. He hoped I would take lessons and perhaps start a family tradition.
As he watched me perform my one-man karate shows for him, he recalls my interest in martial arts was never the problem.
“Before Bruce Lee you would watch a lot of things on TV like the Power Rangers,” my father says. “You would always jump around mimicking the movements from the show, I knew you liked it.”
The martial arts in the Power Rangers and watching Bruce Lee defeat a gang of disgruntled factory workers in The Big Boss had me standing in the middle of the living room imitating the kicks and iconic cat-like howl Lee would use during his fights.
From my living room, I became the protagonist of each of his films. I avenged the death of my master, I rescued a small Chinese food restaurant from Italian mafiosos in Rome, and I competed in a martial arts tournament as a spy to take down a villain with steel claws for a hand.
In my super-hero pajamas, I single-handedly fought injustice.
The next step was actually taking a martial arts class. When I turned nine my father asked me if I wanted to take lessons and says he remembers me immediately saying yes.
The constant fight
“My life is a life of self-examination… I do have a bad temper. A violent temper in fact.” — Bruce Lee
Something that Lee and I had in common growing up was that we were both hotheads by nature. His involvement in a Chinese gang resulted in him fighting. In the book Bruce Lee: The Celebrated Life of the Golden Dragon based on his own writings he calls himself mischievous and aggressive.
My father says that as a boy I had a lot of misdirected rage. I would sometimes go on tirades, pummeling inanimate objects or instigating fights.
Taekwondo helped me direct that anger a little bit, but it didn’t help completely.
As an immigrant kid, I was small in stature, which made me feel small, and felt I needed to impose myself on people to prove my worth. My English was broken. Kids would intentionally mispronounce my name, at first not being able to say it, then turning it into a joke.
I kept all of this in until I grew big enough to lash out.
My dad recalls an occasion where the vice principal of my school called him at work to tell him I had been fighting. I had reacted almost instantly to a kid taking a swing at me and ended up hurting the boy.
“You were always very explosive with a short fuse,” my father says. “You had the same anger problems I had and I know what kind of trouble you could get into acting that way.
Taekwondo helped a bit but it was something you continuously worked on, even now.”
Never the aggressor
“If I tell you I’m good you’ll think I’m boasting. If I tell you I’m not good, you’ll know I’m lying.” – Bruce Lee
Taekwondo has a set of principles students must strive to learn and abide by, one of which is self-control.
This means that all those gung fu — the traditional Chinese spelling of kung fu — and karate movies were right — martial arts is for defense, never for attacking. Identifying wrong from right was a key virtue in Lee’s philosophy.
Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. The city would also be where he would open his first gung fu school — the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. He would eventually develop his own “formless” style he named jeet kune do.“I think you learned respect for people through taekwondo and Bruce’s books.”
– My father, Guillermo Sr.
As I progressed through the emotional Molotov cocktail that was high school, I began to explore more of Bruce Lee’s teachings. I bought his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do, which teaches as much about the inner person as it does his newly-formed combative style.
It was around this time that I received my black belt in taekwondo. It was a rigorous exam that unearthed physical weaknesses I had to overcome in order to pass.
After passing my exam I knew I had reached something I had been trying for since hollering my first Bruce Lee battle cry. I began to explore the adaptive lifestyle Lee conveyed in his teaching. Although I still struggled with anger, I was rarely the aggressor anymore.
Honestly expressing oneself
“I have no fear of the opponent in front of me, I am very self-sufficient … they do not bother me…” — Bruce Lee
As a testament to his philosophy, for years, Lee wore around his neck a medallion with the inscription: “Using no way as way. Having no limitation as limitation.”
I have attempted, and often failed, to live by Lee’s philosophy. On the other hand, I have succeeded in producing my own unique style in my martial arts.
“To me, ultimately martial arts means honestly expressing yourself,” Lee said in an interview in 1971.
“Now this is very difficult to do. It is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky… but not lying to oneself and to express myself honestly, now that, my friend, is very hard to do.”
I have consciously tried to express myself through my martial arts and I have found that as I mature and progress, my style also changes.
Reflecting on my style as a teenager, my father recently shared with me one of the bigger compliments I’ve received in regards to my training.
“While you were sparring in class and you kicked and recovered,” my father says. “You moved like him. You bounced back on your toes like he did in his movies.”
Tribute for the master
I stood in front of his grave holding the black belt I had earned in taekwondo.
My thoughts turn inward and I kneel at the foot of the grave. The words engraved on a marble book attached to the gravesite read, “Your inspiration continues to guide us toward our personal liberation.”
After a moment of silence, I stood up and bowed but made sure to keep my eyes on the stone.
“Never take your eyes off your opponent even when you bow,” Lee says in the film Enter the Dragon.
I left Lake View Cemetery without my belt.
All Bruce Lee quotes taken from the documentary Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998)