Bruce Lee: Be Like Water

Bruce Lee with his master, Ip Man. (Image: Wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Bruce Lee’s only formal master was Yip (Ip) Man. Ip Man taught him high-level martial arts. In high-level kung fu, you need to understand the Tao (Dao) to proceed and advance in your levels. Physical skills are not enough. Only when you understand Taoist concepts can you assimilate your body and mind to work together, and improve holistically.

Bruce Lee turned out to be an exceptional student, and he brought together his philosophical understanding with his kung fu to achieve higher levels in martial prowess. This is revealed through his many works. Most notably, Bruce Lee: The Art of Life, where his private letters, notes, and poems reveal to us a man who is not just a martial artist, but a philosopher and cultivator.

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Ip Man once told Lee: “Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it.” Lee went out and thought about what his master taught him. He couldn’t understand, and so went for a boat ride to clear his mind. While sitting in the boat, surrounded by water, he had an insight. He realized that his master was talking to him about the nature of the Tao, which can be found readily in water.

He struck it from where he sat and found that he could not hurt it. He held it and understood that it was impossible. He wanted to be like water; impenetrable, indestructible. Some of the qualities he found in water are detachment and strength.

'Be like water' is a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote, but digging deeper, it’s origin lies in ancient Daoist teachings. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
‘Be like water’ is a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote, but digging deeper, it’s origin lies in ancient Taoist teachings. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Not attached

To be detached is an achievement. You assume you are detached from many things, but yet, these same things have power over you; they bother you. When you have no attachments, you are free from the clutches of emotional bonds. To be detached like water, without clinging onto each and everything you pass by, Bruce Lee knew that he had to let go first if he wanted to improve.

Taoism is about simplicity and simplicity is about cutting down on things from your life. It is the opposite of accumulation.

Be strong

When needed, there can be few elements as destructive as water. Water is one of the main weapons used by Gods to punish humanity because its effectiveness cannot be rivaled. A complete destructive package, but only when needed. Otherwise, like Lee said: “You could hold water in the tiniest of cups.”

A man following the Tao is strong enough to defend and attack. But he does not show it outwardly. He is caring enough to play with a baby, while wild enough to protect the baby from all harm. This wildness is harnessed and part of his being. It is not overblown and out of control. Nature is fully in control of all the destruction that is possible.

In the normal state, like a pond of calm water, the wise man sits still and pursues nothing.

You have to be nimble like water and adapt to circumstances. You cannot rigidly hold away; based upon the situation, you need to evolve. When there is a rock in front of you, you might need to go by the side. When there is a mountain, you would need to dig under, in order to keep moving forward.

Bruce Lee is buried next to his son Brandon at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
Bruce Lee is buried next to his son Brandon at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Origin of life

Water is the origin of life. Cut out water, and life cannot sustain itself. As life can be taken away with water, it is also the giver of life. Such is the state a man of the Tao must strive to be; he rectifies the unnatural state back to harmony. Where there are abnormal interruptions or unwanted overflows, he steps in and rectifies the situation. Once the flow is disrupted, whether it be blood or qi energy, he sets it right.

As water is the origin of life, a man who follows this principle will have a flourishing existence with a healthy family, a good work environment, and be an influencer in his community. He is the cause behind that prosperity and people will look up to him to set their lives in order.

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