In anticipation of the Bruce Lee Collector's Edition, Vol. 2’s release, we’re offering you an exclusive glimpse into the newest installment with this article excerpt straight from Volume 2. Pick up your copy from newsstands nationwide Tuesday, or have it delivered straight to your door here.
Featured in the Bruce Lee Official Collector’s Edition, Vol. 2
“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be like water, my friend.”
These sentences, perhaps the most famous of Bruce Lee’s philosophical musings, are at once simple and all-encompassing. One only needs to watch him calmly move through a gauntlet of a dozen opponents to know the words represent exactly how he hoped to move through life. As he stalks through a Japanese dojo in The Big Boss, he is able to dictate the movement of an entire cadre of karate students with a simple shift of his arms or legs, so in tune to the world around him was each of Bruce’s senses. They can’t rush at him flailing like they might another attacker any more than they can do the same in a raging sea and hope to stay afloat.
This quote is now so much a part of Bruce Lee’s legend that it’s easy to forget it was attained as part of a long and frustrating process, which Shannon Lee details on the Bruce Lee Podcast. “My father started training in Wing Chun when he was 13. His sifu, Yip Man, was a very sage man who was constantly talking to [him] about not being too rigid and not going against his nature but flowing with nature. He would talk about how the natural world and kung fu were very similar. He was constantly saying, ‘It’s not just about punching and kicking, you need to flow with your opponent.’” But the esoteric lessons of martial arts had not yet penetrated the mind of the young street fighter.
After a few years of giving the same message to his young pupil, Yip Man had had enough. He told the young Bruce Lee to go home for a week and think about what he’d been told over and over. Frustrated, Bruce got onto a boat into the harbor. With his hand trailing behind him, grazing the surface of the water, he grew more and more frustrated with his inability to take Yip Man’s teaching to heart until finally, he flailed out and struck the water violently with his open palm. This physical exhalation of frustration proved revelatory. When he lashed out at the water’s surface, it naturally moved out of his way, consuming the blow while shifting around it. Trying to grab at the water and watching as it flowed through his fingers and back into the sea, Bruce realized water, though soft and supple, also carried with it great force. Yielding when attacked by Bruce’s hand, it could also deliver forceful blows via storm, tsunami and current. Water was the embodiment of the philosophy Yip Man had been espousing; both receptive and strong, smoothly moving and hard-striking. It was this open and receptive yet forceful characteristic the sifu had been trying to impart on the student.
It is in attaining this open-minded state, according to Shannon, that one can truly be like water in the sense that Bruce meant it. “In our daily lives, we have inner dialogue in our head: ‘Should I say this?’ ‘Should I do this?’ ‘What did he really mean by that?’ Our minds can be very busy,” she says. “My father [begins this quote with] ‘empty your mind’ because he wants you to be open, in a position to receive.” From a clogged mind comes indecision, nervousness and rigidity, all of which turn one into the hand slapping at the water rather than the water itself. Emptying one’s mind, though counter-intuitive in today’s data-driven and hyper-aware society, is the key to Bruce’s philosophy. Turning the external and internal voices of judgment off yet focusing on hyper-awareness could create a mindset like Bruce at his best.
When Bruce’s star was reaching its height, he would brilliantly illustrate how a fighter could, with such a mind, flow around and through anything in his path. When a brash combatant from New Zealand on his way to the martial arts tournament that makes up the setting for Enter the Dragon picks a fight with Bruce’s character, the situation provides a chance to showcase an original Bruce Lee fable. The fable’s moral could only be one thing: “Be like water, my friend.” “What’s your style?” the Kiwi asks, to which Bruce responds, “You could call it the art of fighting without fighting.” When the westerner picks a fight, Bruce’s character suggests they take a lifeboat to a nearby beach to brawl. But when his nemesis is aboard the lifeboat, Bruce simply unmoors the craft and sets him out to sea. Faced with a blustering adversary not worth the risk of a fight so soon before such an important assignment, he slips through the New Zealander’s fingers.
Though it’s clearly useful in martial arts, Bruce’s advice to “be like water” extends beyond athletic struggle to the idea of life itself. “Life is a process,” Shannon says. “If you step back and look at life you can imagine it as a river. My father used water as a metaphor for real, active living. He’d say, ‘You don’t want to get stale; you want to keep flowing.’” Inherent in this principle is action—we must either flow around the obstacle or become mired in it, and the time for deciding is precious. Water that has grown stagnant can breed disease, become undrinkable and of no use to us. Movement, even if it’s slow as the drip in a cave that slowly erodes a boulder is essential.
“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done,” Bruce once said. And anyone who’s ever applied for their dream job a day too late or hesitated through a chance with an attractive stranger knows what he meant. But as Bruce was always quick to point out to his students, there is never any dishonor in failing, only having failed to attempt.
We need not look further than Bruce’s own life story to find an example of his ability to flow around adversity rather than confront it in the most obvious way. After finishing his work on The Green Hornet, Bruce was vying for a leading role on his own American TV series. Told in typical 20th century fashion that an Asian man couldn’t play the lead role on an American show, frustration began to plague him just as it had after Yip Man told him he’d been failing at a most important part of his lessons. But this time, Bruce had learned the lessons that water could provide and, as water in a stream flows around a boulder, Bruce would have to let this obstacle slip past him instead of becoming mired in it. How would he traverse this boulder and continue unimpeded down the stream? Unlikely inspiration came from actors like Clint Eastwood, who, struggling in America themselves, had gone to Italy to create the famous Spaghetti Westerns that would eventually make them bona fide stars. So like water, Bruce flowed around his Hollywood rejection and went back to Hong Kong, where his role in The Green Hornet had made him a huge draw for local moviemakers. Before long, Bruce’s feature films were among the most popular in Hong Kong, and he was ready to take Hollywood by storm in his own way. With better roles came a stardom that no martial artist had ever dreamed of, but Bruce’s long-considered principles kept the Hollywood celebrity machine form dulling Bruce’s discipline.
“Most people only live for their image,” Bruce once said in what could almost be considered a prophecy of our current Instagram age. “That is why where some have a self, a starting point, most people have a void. Because they are so busy projecting themselves as ‘this’ or ‘that,’ they end up wasting and dissipating all their energy in projection and conjuring up of facade, rather than centering their energy on expanding and broadening their potential, or expressing and relaying this unified energy for efficient communication.” One’s own natural flow, paramount in Bruce’s understanding of how to effectively move through life, is disrupted by the kind of capitulation to what others think that might have caused Bruce to continue banging his head against the wall after The Green Hornet rather than taking his future as a leading man into his own hands.
“I think it’s very clear that he really believed in being yourself and finding your personal flow, your personal process, and never mimicking someone else’s because then it’s not authentic to you,” Shannon continues. “The essence of being like water is this essence of being present, aware of yourself and being able to go with your own instinct. There’s no more lonely place than when you’re standing on your own path and you can’t look around and say, ‘Well all these other people are doing it so it must be OK.’” For Bruce, that solace was ultimately a false one. True satisfaction came from learning one’s own individual way--as individual drops, sprays or eddies of water do the same.
Not to be discounted in a philosophical sense is the closing of this famous quote, the simple send-off, “my friend.” Hearing Bruce say these sentences aloud makes the warmth of the final words even more pronounced. They seem to suggest a camaraderie so strong it borders on conspiracy: Bruce is sharing his distilled version of the meaning of life, and he wanted it to feel like every student heard it as an individual. “My father said ‘my friend’ a lot...and that is a very important part [of this quote],” Shannon says. “He had a desire to be inclusive with people. With his students, he not only taught them but thought of it as showing them their own selves. He didn’t treat people differently in any way because of how they looked, how they acted [or] what they did outside of class.”
It’s this abiding respect for all others, even those whom life might call on one to confront, that is the essence of Bruce’s philosophy. Just as a crashing wave doesn’t judge, neither did Bruce.
It was only through this constant process of love, learning, respect and even failure that forms the edifice of Bruce’s philosophical legacy. Or, as Shannon puts it, “The reason he’s unique in the world is because he was trying every day, with everything he was doing, to get to the essence of himself.”
For more insight into applying Bruce’s philosophies into your life, check out the Bruce Lee Podcast with Shannon Lee wherever you get your podcasts.