While many revere Bruce Lee as a master of the martial arts, far fewer are aware of the deep philosophical underpinnings which served as a base from which these skills arose.
One of the most prominent factors in Bruce’s development was the influence of Taoist philosophy. Taoist philosophy was developed in the sixth century BC by Lao Tzu, credited with writing the classical work, the Tao Te Ching. The word Tao means “the way,” meaning in deeper terms the way of balance or the way of nature.
The practice of martial arts is reflective in nature, as the martial artist must examine the issues of self defense vs offense, and life and death, while realizing the ultimate goal is deep introspection into the nature of the self.
According to essay written by Bruce Lee, for a freshman English course in 1961 and later published by his wife Linda Cadwell in Bruce Lee: The Man I Only Knew:
“After four years of hard training in the art of gung fu (kung fu), I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness — the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing expenditure of one’s energy. All this must be done in calmness and without striving. It sounded simple, but in actual application it was difficult. The moment I engaged in combat with an opponent, my mind was completely perturbed and unstable. Especially after a series of exchanging blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only thought left was somehow or another I must beat him and win.
“My instructor, Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school, would come up to me and say: ‘Relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow your opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the countermovement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’
“That was it! I must relax. However, right here I had already done something contradictory, against my will. When I said I must relax, the demand for effort in ‘must’ was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in ‘relax.’ When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists call the ‘double-blind’ type, my instructor would again approach me and say: ‘Preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.’
“The following week I stayed home. After spending many hours in meditation and practice, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched at the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me: Wasn’t this water, the very basic stuff, the essence of gung fu? Didn’t the common water illustrate to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it just now, but it did not suffer hurt. Again I stabbed it with all my might, yet it was not wounded. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, could fit itself into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”
The often unexplored depth of Bruce Lee’s philosophical underpinnings are crucial keys to understanding the heights of his ability. Bruce had harnessed not only the art of wu-shin, or no-mindedness, but had begun to find his oneness with the Tao itself.
Later in life the Tao would play a major role in Bruce’s development of Jeet Kune Do, his own style of martial art.
“When he was in Seattle Bruce used to quote Confucius and Lao Tzu and all those people like that, and he believed it,” says Taky Kimura, Bruce’s senior student, and best friend. “But pretty soon he made that transition himself and he became the philosopher.”
So what does it mean to “be water?”
Water deals with whatever environment it finds as it flows and adapts. It explores space without plans or expectations. It does not change inside even as the outside adapts to its surroundings. Water is virtually formless.
According to Bruce Lee:
“Don’t make a plan of fighting
that is a very good way to lose your teeth
if you try to remember you will lose
Empty your mind
put water into a cup
becomes the cup
put water into a teapot
becomes the teapot
water can flow or creep or drip or crash
be water my friend”
On a deeper level, Bruce is referring to the Tao concept of Wu Wei, or knowing when to act or not act. Other interpretations translate to “effortless action or effortless doing.”
These realizations depend not upon a teacher showing one how to identify these moments, but rather learning to harness our intuition by looking inward.
“When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to always be yourself, express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. They always copy mannerism; they never start from the root of their being: that is, how can I be me?”
Bruce believed that he could not teach his students so much as point them in the direction of knowledge. For Bruce all knowledge inevitably led to self knowledge. This was Bruce Lee’s the path towards oneness with the Tao.