Daniele Bolelli is an Italian-born martial artist, writer, professor, and podcaster. I first heard of him on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Even since then I've become a huge fan of his work.
His podcasts and books cover martial arts, Taoism, Native American history, and religion.
Please check out his work, On the Warrior’s Path, 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion, and Create Your Own Religion. They're all great books. I also highly recommend checking out his podcast, The Drunken Taoist.
In this interview, we cover Taoism, Jeet Kune Do, Buddhism and Ikkyu, martial arts and the Warrior spirit.
I am very grateful for Mr. Bolelli's time and I hope you guys enjoy. I had a great time speaking to him.
"Man, the living, creating individual, is always more important than any established style." - Bruce Lee
Hi there. Thanks again for doing this.
Can you talk a bit about the connection between Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do and your book, Create Your Own Religion?
I think Bruce Lee's approach to martial arts is brilliant—putting the individual at the center and not the system. The individual will end up choosing their own path. If you cling to one methodology, then you end up not changing and life is all about change. You end up losing out on a lot of subtleties. Had you been more sensitive to life, you would have been able to adapt.
For example, if you are raising kids, it is generally speaking good to be sweet to them. However, there will be some moments where you have to be a little more assertive. It’s not that being assertive all of the time is good or being soft all of the time is good. You need to know when is the appropriate time for each.
In Create Your Own Religion you’re essentially listing the different answers given by the different religions?
It’s really just the Bruce Lee approach. It’s all about self-discovery by looking at what’s out there, taking the good, rejecting the bad and in the end sticking true to what’s specifically your own.
Could you summarize some of the principles that Bruce Lee lived by?
It’s constantly being sensitive to life.
It’s all about individual freedom. Anything that limits individual freedom to explore and search and discover things for oneself is an enemy.
It doesn’t mean that freedom won’t lead to some fuck ups. People will sometimes use their freedom in the wrong way. But that’s part of the game. Just because some people will screw up doesn’t mean that the game is wrong. It means that you need to teach people how to be smarter.
Was Bruce Lee influenced by Taoism?
Yup. This is pure Taoism.
"The Tao that can be told, the Tao that can be explained, is not the eternal Tao." – Lao Tzu, in Tao Te Ching
What are the origins of Taoism?
The origins of Taoism are so lost in time that the only things that are left are legends.
The story goes that Lao Tzu was working in the imperial palace library. At some point he wanted to retire and go off into the mountains. He had never written down a word of his teachings.
One of the guards at the edge of town who had heard of Lao Tzu’s fame for being incredibly wise stopped him as he was about to leave.
The guard said, “It would be too much of a loss if all this wisdom goes away with you, leave us something behind.” Lao Tzu thought about it and said, “No.”
So the guard said, “That’s too bad you feel that way because I’m not going to let you go through the gate until you write me something.”
In the next three days he wrote 81 poems which formed the Tao Te Ching.
Almost all of this is a legend, but it is trying to convey a point: nothing should be put in stone. Committing words to paper misses the spirit behind them. That’s why even the first line of the Tao Te Ching says “The Tao that can be told, the Tao that be explained, is not the eternal Tao.” Meaning that words are an approximation.
Let’s be clear that the book is not it, the book is trying to point you to it.
Once you translate ideas into language, you've lost some meaning.
Yup. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a little bastard, but sometimes when I hear one person say something, I think he’s brilliant. But when I hear another person say the exact same thing, I think he’s a moron. The words might be the same and the general concept may be the same, but the understanding of what one is saying is different. Communication and life are more than just words.
"Think of it as philosophical surfing in a way. In order to stay on top you have to constantly adapt to the wave."
I was wondering if you could talk about the principles behind Taoism.
Taoism is all about understanding the proper timing for everything.
Taoism is about opposite energy, Yin and Yang, that all of life is made of. Feminine and masculine, day and night, hot and cold, soft and assertive. Rather than considering one bad and one good—the way many Western religions argue—it says that they are just opposite energies.
If you are able to apply the right energy in the right situation, then you are doing great. If you are applying the right energy in the wrong situation, then you screw up.
So Taoism is all about timing, balance and being able to adjust and adapt to life. Basically to flow with it by using the correct balance of Yin and Yang, which is constantly changing in every situation. Think of it as philosophical surfing in a way. In order to stay on top you have to constantly adapt to the wave. The idea is if you lose balance, you fall. If you manage to stay on top, then you get to ride an awesome wave.
Do you have an example that applies these principles?
Take martial arts for example. When necessary, you need to be very aggressive. But then there are moments where you need to be passive and yielding.
It’s a lot like Judo throws. Sometimes rather than just pushing your opponent, you use his momentum. But sometimes it might be better to be more explosive. It’s not that being soft or hard is good or bad, it’s that there’s a time for each and you need to apply those two things appropriately.
I guess that’s where you can combine Zen Buddhism with Taoism.
Yup. I mean to me Zen and Taoism are practically the same. Zen is really the meeting of Tao and Buddhism. It’s written in the language of Buddhism but it’s very much a Taoist theory.
Taoism to me is life. It’s not a set of beliefs. It’s just the way life works.