Daniele Bolelli is a writer, martial artist, university lecturer and podcaster. He lectures at various Southern California universities on the subjects of Native American history, world religions, ancient Rome and the history and philosophy of martial arts. He is the author of On The Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting and Martial Arts Mythology, a book which approaches the martial arts in the broader context of MMA, Bruce Lee, Nietzsche, Native American culture, Taoism and Star Wars. He has even applied Bruce Lee’s philosophy of Jeet Kune Do to the subject of religion in: Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book without Instructions. Daniele is a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts, training in: kung fu san soo, taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan, submission wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing, and judo. I first met Daniele, ten years ago, when I was a student in his History of Martial Arts class at UCLA. He was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few questions.
Fightland: What is Taoism and what role did it play in the development of East Asian Martial Arts?
Daniele Bolelli: Taoism is both a philosophy and a religion. As a religion, it is basically a Chinese form of animism. But Taoist philosophy also exists independently from its religious form. It’s the philosophical aspect of Taoism that has most influenced East Asian martial arts. Taoist philosophy basically holds that there are certain universal natural principles, and that learning how to harmonize our actions with them will make things easier for us. In this sense, Taoist philosophy requires no faith or belief. It’s something to be applied in daily life. One doesn’t even have to be a Taoist to be applying Taoist principles, since these ideas are not exclusive to any one particular time or place.
Taijiquan lore believes the art is entirely based on Taoist concepts, but since the history of Taiji is largely lost in mythology, it is difficult to tell whether this was true from the beginning or it is a more modern development. Similar things can be said about other styles of Chinese martial arts. We have no doubts, on the other hand, that Bruce Lee was heavily influenced by Taoist concepts in developing the key concepts at the roots of Jeet Kune Do. It is also well established that Jigoro Kano, the creator of Judo, based his art almost entirely on Taoist concepts such as non-opposition of force. This is quite a big deal if you stop to consider how popular Judo is and how it has influenced other arts such as Brazilian jiu jitsu. And Taoist concepts clearly play also a role in Morihei Ueshiba’s Aikido.
Lots of people claim to practice jiu jitsu while under the influence of marijuana; are there any ancient or medieval examples of warriors using mind altering substances for use in, or preparation for, battle?
Eddie would be pleased to know that there are quite a few. Among the most notable, the great ancient historian Herodotus wrote about the Scythians’ reputations as some of the fiercest raiders of their day, about their habit of making drinking vessels out of their defeated enemies’ skulls, and about their passion for marijuana. It is, however, not entirely clear whether they went into battle high or if they saved the weed for the after-party. Another great example is offered by the Viking Berserkers. According to some scholars, they worked themselves up to a battle rage epic enough to make Odin proud thanks to the consumption of Amanita Muscaria. Some ancient Spanish sources suggest that, in some cases, Aztec warriors consumed hallucinogenic substances before the beginning of the fight. And of course, plenty of armies down to modern times have turned to ‘liquid courage’—using alcohol to help soldiers get over their fears at the beginning of battle.
To what extent was Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do influenced by the philosophy of Krishnamurti?
Lee was fascinated with the anti-authoritarian aspects of Krishnamurti’s philosophy. Krishnamurti emphasized the power of the individual to carve one’s own path rather than relying on ‘masters’ and gurus. Similarly, Lee loved the notion of creating one’s own way and viewed the function of martial art teachers more as guides than infallible masters. Clearly, both Lee’s and Krishnamurti’s philosophies included several other points, but this is their main point of contact.
Judo, jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, boxing everyone knows these work in real fighting. As a martial arts historian and practitioner, which martial art do you see as the most underrated, in terms of real fighting?
Most martial arts worked at least at some point in their history before they were watered down, and what actually made them effective was lost. It’s not so much a matter of which style is effective as much as who are its practitioners and what training methods are they currently using. Look at Shotokan Karate, for example. Shotokan clearly doesn’t have a great reputation in modern MMA, and Lyoto Machida’s application of Shotokan has been nothing short of amazing. We should also consider what we mean by ‘real fighting’. Are we talking about the ring or the street? Arts like Krav Maga may be great for the street but not well suited for the ring. Having said all that, a couple of examples of underutilized arts that come to mind are Shuai Jiao, which is incredibly effective in the hands of a good practitioner, and the empty handed component of Escrima—in particular Gunting techniques which would very much enrich the technical repertoire of any martial artist.
You are the author of 50 Things You are Not Supposed to Know: Religion, can you share with us something we are not supposed to know about martial arts?
No martial art is ‘real’—in the sense that all martial art training are an approximation of real combat. Even MMA is limited by quite a few rules in order to ensure the safety of the practitioners. And those martial arts that reject sportive application because they don’t want to water down their ‘deadly’ techniques end up being forced, only relying on cooperative training—which by definition is not real combat. The most devastating techniques for life-or-death fighting can’t be safely trained in sparring, and yet sparring is the best way to learn how to apply techniques against a resisting opponent. So, all martial arts have to simulate as best as they can real combat.
The Samurai practiced Zen; you have written on the subject. Who is your favorite Zen Master?
Ikkyu Sojun is my all-time idol. He was a Zen master who lived in the 1400s in Japan. His mom put him in a monastery when he was five years old in order to save his life. He was, in fact, the illegitimate son of the Emperor and the object of several conspiracies trying to thin out the numbers of potential heirs to the throne (think Game of Thrones here). His childhood was brutally harsh since Zen training was quite severe. Possibly because of this, of his uncommon sensitivity and of growing up without a mother or father, Ikkyu was prone to heavy bouts of depression, even bringing him to attempting suicide. Ikkyu, however, was able to conquer his demons and emerged as the wildest, most unorthodox Zen master of his times. The Zen establishment of the monasteries bugged him: too many political games and formalism, and not enough understanding of what real Zen was about.
When his master presented him with a certificate of enlightenment—which was both a great honor and the necessary document to begin climbing the Zen hierarchy—Ikkyu promptly decided to wave goodbye to a monastic career and burned it. The so-called professionals of Zen were in Ikkyu’s eyes a bunch of posers—too busy acting ‘spiritual’ to be able to really taste spirituality in its rawest forms. Some people believed Zen enlightenment could only be found among clouds of incense in silent meditation. Ikkyu, on the other hand, found sake-drinking and wild sex more to his liking. As he put in his poems, “The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sterile sitting meditation.” Or, even more bluntly, “Don’t hesitate: get laid—that’s wisdom. Sitting around chanting sutras: that’s crap.” Ikkyu denied the separation between sacred and profane, and firmly believed that Zen was a matter of awareness that could be practiced in any environment. He ended up attracting plenty of friends who followed him in his adventures, and had a particularly powerful impact on several Japanese art forms (from tea ceremony to calligraphy, etc.) The stories about him are both enlightening and hilarious.
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