Bruce Lee’s Metaphor of Water Sums Up a Philosophy for Life

Three Important Lessons Bruce Lee Teaches Us

Bruce Lee was a philosopher of combat. He realized that life is all about choices, just like combat. Every move or decision counts and leads to a situation that causes us to adapt or crash.

He learned the lessons of adaptability very hard in Hong Kong during his involvement in several street fights. His transformation started when he accepted that he needed to adapt to the circumstances.

Eventually, he turned to the martial arts. They trained Lee in multiple martial art styles and forms. It included Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Jing Mo Tam Tui, Choy Li Fut, western boxing, fencing, Judo, Kung Fu, Hsing-I, Jujitsu, and Wing Chun, etc. but not limited to these entirely.

All his life he expressed himself through martial arts alone. But his philosophical assertions are widely regarded as an art of living both inside and outside martial arts circles.

Style Is Not The Man

Bruce Lee was born in California, but his father migrated to Hong Kong when he was just four. When he found Bruce involved in street fighting and seeing threats to his life, he sent him the US for further studies. At 18, Bruce Lee started living with his elder sister in California. A few years later, he opened a martial art school in Seattle and started teaching Jun Fan Gung Fu, a version of Wing Chun he learned from Yip Man, his most beloved instructor. But Chinese were not happy over teaching martial arts to non-Chinese people. According to Lee, he ignored this advice. Then one of the famous Chinese martial artist Wong Jack Man challenged him for the fight. Bruce took this.

This duel in 1964 with Wong proved to be controversial and a turning point in Bruce’s life. Though the fight ended in his favor, he regretted that he could have finished early. This fight lasted longer than he imagined. Bruce felt vexed that he did not live up to his potential.

It led to a significant shift in his approach and thinking towards martial arts. Bruce Lee’s experience had suggested to him that there was no perfect martial art that could harness the full potential of the human body and mind. Every style limited him to a particular set of actions that were not consistently effective or beneficial. He then reset his martial art techniques and planned a fresh philosophy for body and mind.

Using No Way as Way

Jeet Kune Do germinate out of the philosophy of no style, meaning expressing ourselves honestly, when you adapt to the situation.

It was the martial art “Using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.”

Bruce Lee concentrated on practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency. According to him, it was a more synthesized system embracing the best techniques of different styles and forms fused into one. It was not a style yet.

If you have seen his films, Enter the Dragon, The Big Boss, The Game of Death, etc., you will find Bruce Lee expressing himself truly, poised at the moment. There is no method acting. He used the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do in the films he produced, directed, or performed.

Bruce Lee was an ardent reader. He had an extensive library that comprised many books on martial arts and philosophy, including other subjects. He scribbled his thoughts and ideas about martial arts regularly.

Water as a Metaphor for Life

In December 1971, Bruce Lee gave an in-depth interview (perhaps the last) to Pierre Berton, a Canadian journalist in Hong Kong.

In that interview, you will find an articulated Bruce Lee using the metaphor of water not just for martial arts. He aimed his poetic expression at life. During the interview, Bruce Lee quotes his lines from a TV series Longstreet, he was working in:

Be Water, My Friend.
Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow, or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.

American crime drama television series Longstreet was executive produced and scripted by Stirling Silliphant. Bruce played the character of Li Tsung, an antiques dealer and Jeet Kune Do expert in the series. He appeared in the four episodes.

Photo by Abbas Malek Hosseini on Unsplash

What Does Bruce Mean by Be Water?

When he recommends, ‘Be water, my friend,’ it means that you can never stay in the same situation, circumstance. Change is the only constant about life. This takes place at both levels–metal and physical.

He meant that water in its natural state always has some movement to it. Sometimes the water is solid and sometimes it is a trickling stream. Even if it is just a slow movement, it is constantly moving. If something comes in the way of water, it finds a flow around that obstacle. And life should be a flowing process like water.

Bruce’s close friend, training partner, and Jeet Kune Do master Dan Inosanto has closely worked with Bruce. According to Dan, he (Bruce Lee) often altered the curriculum of his martial art school every month because he was always improvising, adapting to new challenges during his experimentation. And he was not devising just the martial art but also the approach to that.

Empty your mind

The second most famous line.

According to the Zen masters emptying the mind is to avoid feeding it reactions, thoughts, ideas.

Shannon, daughter of Bruce Lee, in a podcast in 2016, explained this verse in these words:

It’s actually a very active thing. It’s hard, first to all to turn off all these voices down and keep yourself in a very non-judgemental open place, yet very aware, you are ready, you are listening; you are not tense; you are not aggravated in any way. But it's actually neutrality in a very hyper present way, with awareness. So, it’s not passive, actually.

Some people suspect Mushin, a view of the Zen state of mind, inspired Bruce Lee. The philosophy of Mushin is still behind Japanese martial arts.

Its meaning is the mind without mind or as the state of “no-mindness.” In easy words- a mind not restricted or occupied by thought or emotion and, therefore, open to every angle.

Some Zen masters believe that Mushin is the psychological state when a person finds all the techniques futile and becomes free to move. In fact, those people will no longer even consider themselves as “fighters” but merely living beings moving through space.

Zen master Takuan Soho has put this in these words:

‘‘Completely forget about the mind, and you will do all things well.
When you dance, the hand holds the fan and foot takes a step. When you do not forget everything, when you go on thinking about performing with the hands and the feet well and dancing accurately, you cannot be said to be successful. When the mind stops in the hands and the feet, none of your acts will be singular. If you do not completely discard the mind, everything you do will be done poorly.’’

And Bruce Lee puts it–Using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.

Be Formless, Shapeless

Again, there is a difference between mixed martial art style or no martial art style.

Bruce renounced the styles. He saw that it was a cage. It reduces you and strips you from your individuality. You live in it, abide by or conform to it. You are not free to improvise, not allowed to add, subtract, divide, and multiply anything into that style. Ultimately, every style limits you to a specified pattern, less practical and more predictable. It becomes easy to get beaten up by someone because he/she then studies your style and exploits your weaknesses.

In the same Pierre Berton Show, Bruce Lee had said:

‘‘I personally do not believe in the word ‘style’. Why? Because unless human beings are with three arms and four legs, unless we have another group of beings on earth that are structurally different from us, there can be a no different style of fighting. Why is that? Because we have only two hands and two legs. The important thing is that how can we use them to the maximum?’’

Bruce’s philosophy suggests that as a martial art, life is also practical and unpredictable. He further adds to that:

‘‘.. Because of styles, people are separated. They are not united together because styles became laws. But the original founder of the style started out hypotheses, and now it has become the gospel truth. People that go into them became their product. It doesn’t matter how you are, who you are, how you are structured, how you are built, how you are made. It doesn’t matter. You just go in there and be that product. And that, to me, is not life.”

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

This is the core message of Bruce Lee’s philosophy.

The theory of evolution suggests that the species that adapt to their environmental conditions end up surviving best. Evolution does not favor the strong and sturdy.

But adapting to the environment is challenging. Most of us resist. We are mostly prisoners of our time, circumstances, geography and weather, mental boundaries, social constructs, etc. We let our past control who we are. It leaves us rigid. It means we only fit into certain conditions and crack at others.

Bruce Lee’s assertion of “Be water” is that you should not hold your image so tightly. You are not your past; you are not the object shaped by others. Those were all the situations that temporarily took a form and gone away. Now, you are happening in the present, free from any style.

Famous boxer Mohammad Ali has also put it in these words- “Float like a Butterfly and Sting like a Bee.” The essence of these two quotations is almost the same.

You adapt when you respond to the present with its awareness.

Bruce Lee contributed to martial arts significantly and distinctively.

But I think his most significant contribution to humanity is the advocacy of style free-thinking, non-conformism, and openness to be in the present.

It enables you to assess things as they present themselves to you, not as you think they are.

Bruce Lee’s no way as way restores you to your original primitive mental state- being formless and shapeless.

Don’t think, feel… it is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!
(Enter the Dragon, 1973; In a training session with one of the temple students.)

Media professional | Interested in history, psychology, genealogy | atajaynet@gmail.com

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