In this interview, Jessica Militello talks with world-renowned Jeet Kune Do instructor, Chris Kent, about his experiences with practicing and teaching Jeet Kune Do, how the art has involved and the positivity the art spreads. What started as reading an article on Jeet Kune Do, Chris had begun to adopt the art as part of his daily routine over 45 years ago. Now, he has become a multiple time published author and a personal development specialist. Chris enjoys sharing his experience and understanding of the art with intricate detail to his readers and listeners.
Check out the full interview below as Jessica and Chris discuss his history and experience with Jeet Kune Do, the advice he gives students, and the largest misconceptions involving the art.
A Q&A with World Renowned Jeet Kune Do instructor, Chris Kent
By Jessica Militello
For over 45 years Chris Kent has immersed himself into teaching and practicing the art of Jeet Kune Do. In 1973, after several years of training in arts such as Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, and Karate, then 17-year old Kent discovered an article penned by Bruce Lee for Black Belt Magazine titled, “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,” and a piece written by Dan Inosanto published in Karate Illustrated called, “Jeet Kune Do is Fast, Powerful, Deceptive.” After reading the articles, Kent was so inspired by what he read that he called the magazine to learn more about how to study JKD. At the time, Lee was away in Hong Kong making movies but his student, Inosanto was teaching JKD in his backyard. After searching up Inosanto in the phonebook and relentlessly calling for over a month, Inosanto agreed to meet with Kent as class was taking place. From there he became the last student to be offered a spot in Inosanto’s now legendary backyard JKD. Since then, Kent has travelled throughout the country and different parts of the world to spread his martial arts expertise.
In November, Chris Kent made a visit to New York Martial Arts Academy on a particularly chilly weekend in New York to host a two-day seminar for what has become a yearly ritual for students of the school to participate in. Students have the opportunity to get a different perspective on how to improve their training. Kent also makes himself available for any questions that students may want to ask.
Aside from being an expert of JKD, Kent is a multiple time published author and a personal development specialist. He recounts stories from his training with Inosanto vividly as if time never really passed and shares his experience and understanding of the art effortlessly and with intricate detail. The tenure of his career is admirable as it is fascinating. Kent drops gems of wisdom that anyone can draw inspiration from.
JM: In the 45 years that you’ve been training how has your understanding of the art evolved?
CK: I think my understanding of the whole structure of the art has developed as I have as a martial artist and a human being. When I first got into Jeet Kune Do, I was enamored with the idea of seeing Bruce Lee one-inch punch a guy back into a chair and knowing that Bruce could side kick a guy and launch them across the room. So the physical was very much at the forefront at the beginning. But as I continued my training, I started to see that there’s this whole other aspect which is the philosophical foundation for it. And in following Bruce and Dan’s example it was always drilled into me that if you’re interested in something, study it. I started studying exercise, physiology, kinesiology, as well as researching the various books that Bruce had. It was just about continually refining my education on what it was about. Dan was my teacher and he was also a physical education teacher, so the way he brought me up was like as a coach but he also nurtured my understanding of how to grow in the art.
JM: In one of your videos you talk about the importance of maintaining balance of the physical and philosophical aspects of JKD. What advice could you give to students on not becoming as you mentioned, physically or intellectually bound by the art?
CK: I think that goes back to understanding the relationship between the two of them. Because it’s like the yin yang symbol where they’re not separate, they’re two halves of an indivisible whole, and yet each contains within a portion of the other. A lot of people start training because of the physicality behind it. But when you understand [the relationship], it becomes this vehicle for self-growth because you learn about yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Some people have the idea to spend their entire life training, thinking, “If I get in a fight, I want to be ready, because it’s all about fighting.” But if that’s all you do, and 25 years later, you never have a fight, that’s kind of an enormous loss of time that you could have been looking at other avenues of [JKD] too. One of the fundamental questions is how in the process of learning to use my body can I come to understand myself, and that is the ultimate. If you study Bruce Lee’s overall evolution as a martial artist, it went from this idea of creating the ultimate martial arts system to doing away with the whole idea of systems and styles as conventionally defined. Hopefully you will take those ideas into your everyday life, because every one of us has to step into the same arena, and it’s the arena of life. So many of the things that you learn through Jeet Kune Do, how do you transpose those [ideas] into daily living? What does be like water mean? That takes you so far out of just the realm of fighting. I have to say, fighting is an integral part of Jeet Kune Do, but again it’s only a part, the idea is to look at it as a whole.
JM: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the art?
CK: I think there’s a number of misconceptions or misperceptions as well. Oftentimes that gets back to the art itself, and part of the problem is that there is no universally accepted definition of Jeet Kune Do. Some people say its Bruce Lee’s martial art or his art and philosophy. Some say it’s just this concept and that creates confusion. I think the biggest misperception would have to be a two-fold thing that [JKD] is this solidified, system of martial art and then the other one is that it’s this nebulous idea of “do whatever you want.” And that’s the thing with words like concepts; because a concept is an idea, it can almost be an abstract thing. You and I might have a different concept of gravity but the principle of gravity is the same for you and me no matter what you think of it. There’s a number of them. The idea that only Bruce Lee could do JKD. It was Bruce Lee’s personal expression in martial arts, so it cannot be taught. That’s like saying guitar playing cannot be taught, or writing can’t be taught. There are principles you can learn, but we’re not going to write the same story. You can learn how to play the guitar, but we’re not supposed to play the same song.
JM: In your career, you’ve mentioned that the art has helped to make you the person you are today. What ways can we use the art to make us better in our daily lives?
CK: One of the first things I’ve ever learned when I started training with Dan was a quote from Bruce. It said, “Well life is combat and as such must be dealt with accordingly. If you understand combat, you understand life.” And I thought, “damn, that’s a really pessimistic point of view.” But as I began training, I started seeing how close the analogies were. Combat is a matter of choices; choosing the right weapon to use, finding the proper distance, creating the proper timing. Life is no different, it’s choices. Timing can enter into it; if you make the wrong choice when you’re training, you get smacked. You make the wrong choice in life, you might lose your job, you might lose a family member. Combat is completely fluid, it’s something you cannot rehearse, life’s the same way. Take the “be like water” quote, because that’s the biggest one that’s often thrown around. Look at the characteristics and nature of water. It’s wholeness without form. You put it in a glass it becomes the glass, it flows into a valley, it becomes the valley. So it’s malleable, it’s not solidified. If we can maintain that malleability, then whatever environment we find ourselves in, we can deal with it. Using no way as way doesn’t mean do whatever you want, it means don’t get boxed in, don’t get solidified into one way of doing things. Take the foundations of the art and ask yourself, “How do I take this and apply it?” And the only way to do that is through the practice of it and understanding those principles. The same way you have to learn it on the training floor, you have to learn it in life. “Be like water” is a really easy thing to say, sometimes it’s harder than hell to do though.
JM: What other advice can you give on “being like water” and using the philosophy to adapt throughout our lives?
CK: As I said, I got into [JKD] for the physicality but from the physical standpoint it was never about wanting to be the toughest fighter out there, I wanted to be the most well-rounded person about JKD. Then there’s this whole other avenue that offers so much to people, especially in today’s world because it’s complex and it’s changing so fast that you need both the fluidity and the tools. I think it’s great for anybody. The philosophy tells you you’re not going to pass every test in school, you’re not going to get every job you go for, that’s okay. There’s not these false expectations, but there’s the philosophy; “I’m going to be like water and I’m going to find my way through this.” One of Bruce’s favorite quotes was, “Keep blasting.” Sometimes life is going to hit you with an unexpected shot and knock the wind out of your sails. The question is do you allow it to do this or do you say, “I’m going to keep blasting and walk on from there.”
JM: What keeps the art alive for you after 45 years?
CK: Well, it’s a living, breathing art. If JKD has a soul, we as human beings are the soul of it. It’s up to us to keep that alive. Bruce Lee was this dynamic, living, breathing, human being. The art he created is this dynamic, living, art, so it has to continue to breathe. A lot of people say it has to continue to evolve, but it still has to follow the theories of evolution. Evolution can be a very slow process, so it’s up to the individuals to keep it alive. That’s why Bruce used to have this little tombstone on his desk that said, “In memory of a once fluid man crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” Well, if you’re not careful you can do that same thing to Jeet Kune Do and it will lose its aliveness.