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Bruce Lee Philosophies Part 1 of 2: Be Like Water

Bruce Lee quotes

by Billy L Greer

Bruce Lee is known not just for his martial prowess but also for his ideas and philosophies.

He’s credited with popularizing kung fu in the Western world and is often said to be the

father of the mixed martial arts. It’s hard to find a martial artist today who isn’t familiar

with at least a few quotes attributed to Lee.

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Perhaps the best-known quotes are “Be like water” and “Absorb what is useful.” Did these

words of wisdom originate with Lee, or do they have a deeper history? Do they mean what most people take them to mean? Let’s explore.

The Chinese martial arts recognize four primary elements that are essential to have a complete system. One of them is shuai, which refers to takedowns and throws.

Be Like Water

This quote comes from a longer one that says, in part, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Be water, my friend.”

Although these words come from Bruce Lee, the concept predates him. A translation of Chapter 78 of the classic text Tao Te Ching reads: Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.

This passage describes the Chinese concept of wu wei, which is often translated as “effortless action.” Professional athletes know this concept as “being in the zone” — or in a state of “flow‚” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In this state, work is expressed without conscious effort and just seems to flow out of the body with ease.

Many people have taken Lee’s quote to mean that martial arts practice should be literally without forms, that practice should be free flowing, random and without any predetermined structure. But is this what it means to be water?

Water has many unique qualities. Known as the universal solvent, it can dissolve more substances than powerful acids. Pressurized water jets can cut through steel. Gentle flows of water over time can wear away the hardest rock, creating spectacular places like the Grand Canyon.

As a liquid, water will assume the shape of any container and automatically seek to be level. Like most liquids, it expands when heated, yet unlike most liquids, it also expands when frozen. This means that water can penetrate the smallest crack and then, when heated or frozen, expand to split the object apart.

Water can crash down with force to destroy objects in its path or push them aside; if the object cannot be moved, water will find a path around it. It can support the heaviest ship or flow through the slightest crack in the hull to sink it. No matter how hard you strike it, you cannot damage it, and it will absorb your power or even reflect it back. Water clearly has many powerful attributes that are advantageous to martial artists, but what is the source of those attributes? Yin-yang theory influences the traditional Chinese martial arts and gives us the paradox that taking something to an extreme often results in its

opposite. Could the free-flowing and formless nature of water be due to its rigid and specific structure? The attraction of the two hydrogen atoms to the single oxygen atom, balanced by the repulsion of the hydrogen atoms from each other, creates a specific 105-degree angle between the hydrogen atoms and gives the structure a strong polarity. It’s this polarity that allows the individual molecules to bond together in a manner that’s strong but not rigid.

The structure of water is simple but precise. There are only two elements — hydrogen and oxygen — but they must be arranged in a specific proportion and order to create H2O, the stable arrangement we know as water.

Not only does water have all the amazing qualities described, but it’s also essential to our health. If we add just one oxygen molecule, we get H2O2, a compound that’s unstable, reactive and toxic. This is hydrogen peroxide, and it has very different qualities than water does. By adding sulfur, we get sulfuric acid. By adding carbon, we get alcohol. Small changes can cause something beneficial to become harmful. If we want the beneficial qualities of water, we must duplicate the structure with precision and not add anything extra.

Anyone who has trained with a traditional martial arts master is familiar with the demand for precision in movement. A deviation of a quarter of an inch is sure to be met with a rebuke and a demand to do it again, only correctly. The simplest skill will be repeated countless times until the body’s structure and movement are exactly right. Practicing forms allows for the repetition that shapes the body and creates the “molecular arrangement” with the correct angles and structure that later allow for freedom, adaptability and flexibility of movement. Even those martial artists who take Lee’s quote to mean that practicing forms is a waste of time routinely use this concept. When they practice a partner drill or a combination on the pads, they’re practicing a mini-form. They’re creating a consistency, a structure, that later enables them to move fluidly.

MA Drills

Lee seems to acknowledge the importance of this in another of his quotes: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”


Part 2 of 2 coming next week

Billy L. Greer and his wife Nancy own the Jing Ying Institute of Kung Fu & Tai Chi in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1973 he began studying folkstyle wrestling, and in 1987 he transitioned to traditional Chinese martial arts. A disciple of Willy Lin, Greer is a third-generation inheritor of tian shan pai kung fu. He’s also a disciple of Chen Zhenglei and a 12th-generation inheritor of Chen-family tai chi chuan.

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