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The Silent Flute
silent flute


Introduction by Bruce Lee


Three swordsmen sat down at a table in a crowded Japanese inn and began to make loud comments about their neighbour, hoping to goad him into a duel. The master seemed to take no notice of them, but when their remarks became ruder and more pointed, he raised his chopsticks and, in quick snips, effortlessly caught four flies on the wing. As he slowly laid down the chopsticks, the three swordsmen hurriedly left the room.


This story illustrates a great difference between Oriental and Western thinking. The average Westerner would be intrigued by someone's ability to catch flies with chopsticks, and would probably say that has nothing to do with how good he is in combat. But the Oriental would realize that a man who has attained such complete mastery of an art reveals his presence of mind in every action. The state of wholeness and imperturbability demonstrated by the master indicated his mastery of self.


And so it is with martial arts. To the Westerner, the finger jabs, the side kicks, the back fist, and so forth, are tools of destruction and violence, which, indeed, are a couple of their functions. But the Oriental believes that the primary function of such tools is revealed when they are self-directed and destroy greed, fear, anger, and folly.


Manipulative skill is not the Oriental's goal. He is aiming his kicks and blows at himself, and when successful, he may even succeed in knocking himself out. After years of training, he hopes to achieve that vital loosening and equability of all powers, which is what the three swordsmen saw in the master.


In everyday life the mind is capable of moving from one thought or object to another--"being" mind instead of "having" mind. However, when one is face to face with an opponent in a deadly contest, the mind tends to stick and loses its mobility. Stickability or stoppage is a problem that haunts every martial artist.


Kwan-yin (Avalokitesvara), the Goddess of Mercy, is sometimes represented with one thousand arms, each holding a different instrument. If her mind stops with the use, for instance, of a spear, all the other arms (999) will be of no use whatever. It is only because of her mind not stopping with the use of one arm, but moving from one instrument to another, that all her arms prove useful with the utmost degree of efficiency. Thus this figure is meant to demonstrate that when the ultimate truth is realized, even as many as one thousand arms on one body may each be serviceable in one way or another.


"Purposelessness," "empty-mindedness," or "no art" are frequent terms used in the Orient to denote the ultimate achievement of a martial artist. According to Zen, the spirit is by nature formless, and no "objects" are to be harbored in it. When anything is harbored there, psychic energy loses its balance, its native activity becomes cramped, and it no longer flows with the stream. Where the energy is tipped, there is too much of it in one direction and a shortage of it in another direction. Where there is too much energy, it overflows and cannot be controlled. In either case, it is unable to cope with ever-changing situations. But when there prevails a state of "purposelessness" (which is also a state of fluidity or mindlessness), the spirit harbors nothing in it, nor is it tipped in one direction. It transcends both subject and object; it responds with an empty-mind to whatever is happening.


True mastery transcends any particular art. It stems from mastery of oneself--the ability, developed through self-discipline, to be calm, fully aware, and completely in tune with oneself and the surrondings. Then, and only then, can a person know himself.




In a letter to Taekwondo Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, dated Tue, March 4th, 1969, Bruce Lee wrote, "We had a meeting on Project "Leng" last Friday, James Coburn, Stirling Silliphant and I. Project "Leng" is a code name for our martial arts motion picture. "Leng" is a chinese word meaning beautiful."


By the end of the year a script had been written entitled, 'The Silent Flute' and was set to commence filming in the fall of 1970 for Warner Bros.


In February, 1971, Bruce, Coburn and Silliphant went location scouting around India. Unfortunately, they ran into some problems. Bruce still expected the film to go ahead but Coburn had other ideas. He didn't believe they had the right locations to use for the picture and eventually it was shelved.


The story is quite simple. A martial arts seeker named 'Cord' is after a book of enlightenment that will reveal all of life's answers. He has to pass a number of trials and is helped by an old blind man who plays a flute. Finally he confronts the 'Keeper of the Book' (Zetan).


I think it would be best if you read the following Interview with James Coburn talking about the original film.


Could you tell us a little bit about the project, 'The Silent Flute' you worked on with Bruce?


Bruce and I were working out and we started talking about the possibilities of some kind of film. We had this friend, Stirling Silliphant, so what can it be about. We just started talking about a kind of outline, about a guy whose yoga is martial arts, and there's a book, there had to be an aim, the achievement to find the book, and the keeper of this book was this great martial artist. He (Cord) had to go through all these trials, so we invented all of these trials. It was sort of a lot of Sufi tales interspersed with a few zen ideas. We all kind of contributed to it and we worked three days a week. We'd go in and work two hours, three days a week at Stirling's office and we'd take notes and we evolved the thing in about six weeks. I thought that the script we did was a lot better than the one they finally shot (David Carradine/Christopher Lee in 1979). It had more of a mystical slant to it and a higher aim at the end and ofcourse we had Bruce. The last time i saw Bruce was in Hong Kong with Elmo Williams who was the head of Fox at that particular time and i said, "Bruce, c'mon we've got this thing together, it would be good." And he said, "But you can't afford me now, you can't afford me." I said, "Well what do you mean we can't afford you, you'll be like f****** Nureyev, man, you'll be the greatest thing anybody's ever seen." But he was involved in that whole trip so we never really got it together with Bruce, and then he died. He said he would choreograph the whole thing, he would do all the second unit stuff. But i had a feeling that he would really come in and do it all if we really got it together because by that time we could certainly have afforded it.


It carried on for quite a time, you'd got as far as going to India looking for locations........


We had a really great time in India. Stirling, Bruce and I travelling around India looking for the wilderness. Actually we couldn't find it. We didn't have a 360 degree anywhere where you didn't see thousands of people or villages or camels or buses coming over. We went all over India, it was a great trip we had at this time.

We started off in Delhi, and ofcourse India is probably one of the most bureaucratic countries. We were trying to get some frozen rupees that Warner Brothers had over there, they said sure we can break these loose, and we had to see the secretary of the secretary of the secretary or whatever it was. In order to get to the top guy we had to go through a kind of devious route. I knew some people in India and one of them happened to know the real secretary of the secretary but in order to get him to do it we had to get him laid. We got him laid that night, then we had to have a meeting with him the following day. "What about Tara, we can't call the woman Tara." "Well we'll call her Mary or something." "Oh, okay," and that was his only comment, so we signed the thing, we got the frozen rupees broken loose, so we had ten hundred thousand frozen rupees to go around India.


We went to Rajasthan, which was great and we saw the desert there but we didn't find the wilderness. I took some great shots of Bruce doing some flying kicks off a sand dune, did you ever see those? He was soaring, it was great. We spent, i guess, about four days in Rajasthan. Had a meeting with the Maharajah of Bikaner and the three of us had dinner with him that night which was right on the edge of the desert.. He was a member of parliament there, he showed us around. We found some wonderful places, it was such a great trip, we didn't really find any place we could shoot.


We went to Goa after that and all the hippies were running around naked on the beach. Bruce, Stirling and I were walking along the beach and all the naked Americans and Swedes and everybody, they were carrying on, playing the flutes. 'The Silent Flute,' everybody was worried about the title, The Silent? what's that? I said that's the flute that's played inside, that only he can hear, that's the key, that's the essence, that's the thing that causes him to bring it all together, bang! Stirling had a hard time really coming to terms with it, but he got it finally, yeah that's right. They changed the title but put it back again on television when they showed it.


Strange to see that when it actually came out........


Yeah, it was really weird, the guy that played Cord (Jeff Cooper) was really not much of a martial artist, but to them it didn't matter you know. I was sad about that. Our trip was cut short because of the earthquake that happened there. We were in Bombay at that great hotel, the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, that wonderful, beautiful hotel. We were all staying in the Maharani Suit, the giant suites they had there, it was really a lot of fun. But we never found any place really that we could shoot. Elmo and I did a tour of Turkey as well, we found some great places in Turkey to shoot. We were gonna shoot all around the world with this thing, they finally ended up shooting it all in Israel.


Why was the flute player blind?


Because there was a martial artist, a famous character that was blind and we wanted to exemplify the idea that it wasn't necessary, that other senses were finding oneself, that the blind man could do more as a blind man because his senses were so astute. That he could feel things rather than having to see them or having to know them intellectually. He could respond instantaneously, almost instinctively. I guess we're born with very little instinct. Animals have instinct, we have consciousness and in order to get back to the instinctive stage we have to use our consciousness to make that circle. Cord and the blind man were really one and the same, and our ending was they both united at the end and became an eagle and flew out over the thing and passed over the entire thing, but they didn't know how to do that one, they had them dancing on the top of the hill (laughs).


Could you just discuss slightly the planned and released version of the film? What upset you most, what do you think Bruce would have like to have seen?


The writer, the guy who took the script and made something that was more produceable, i guess they felt or maybe they just didn't understand it. They thought wow this is kind of like a theatre of the absurd. That's what he told me, we're gonna try to do the theatre of the absurd here like Inesco or something like that. The guy in the can, the character that Eli Wallaugh played was one of the things that i really objected to. I thought it was a little unnecessary and it broke that whole flow of that particular Sufi tale of the guy finding the money in the wall, saving the woman and the horses charging down, and the breaking of the boat because they were commandeering all the boats and so on and so forth, and also the killing of the child because he was growing to be a tyrant. I don't think they accomplished that with any kind of.....anyway, it's like looking at something that could have been, maybe it still can be. Bruce's son (Brandon) called me the other day, he wanted to get hold of a script, an original script and i don't have one. I don't know who has one. I told him i didn't know but get hold of Sandy who produced the Circle of Iron, he may still have an original script or maybe Stirling has one, i don't know.


A couple of things now, the monkey man, why did Bruce choose the monkey man and what were the reasons for the trials, just for the journey?


Well, the trials were....he had to accomplish something, he had to go through a certain amount of trials. The monkey man was really his (Bruce's) invention because there's a monkey kind of form of martial arts where the monkey is all over the place. The monkey on your back, etc. you can never fight a monkey because the monkey is always going away from you, as soon as you stop he's back again. You go away and he comes back again. That was the challenge of ego....where you have to drop your ego, you have to become more essential, keep the ego in front of you so that it can take all the slings and arrows rather than having the essence be contaminated with all of that nonsense and that was the idea of that.


Who was coming up with the ideas borrowed from the wide variety of sources, the mirrored book?


Those were ideas....I kind of came up with the Sufi stuff because i was more involved in the Sufi tales and Sufi teaching stories, and that kind of teaching fitted really well within the context, so we borrowed a couple of those stories. The rest of it was all invention it came together so perfectly. It was really a lot of fun working, all of us really had a good time working on that script and we could get a lot from our own beliefs. Bruce was involved in the physical side of it; how do we exemplify the physical side of it. I was involved with the esoteric side of it, and Stirling was involved with putting it down in some form. And so working with three like that it's always really the best way to work. I find when you have three people who are generating an idea you don't get involved in ego. You have an active, and a passive and a neutralizing force. So it all works together to exemplify the idea. And that's what happened with 'The Silent Flute' and i was really proud as we all were, of the original script, but as things go you know you can't look back. It's all now, it's just a manifestation of the everlasting, like the balloon on the vertical scale rather than on that linear one.


james coburn

Mike Stone, James Coburn, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee