top of page

Bruce Lee Philosophies: Absorb What is Useful - Part 2 of 2

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

by Billy L Greer

Bruce Lee

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.

BB+ Memberships

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.

Part 2 focuses on the phrase “Absorb What is Useful”

Absorb What Is Useful

This is a shortened version of Bruce Lee’s full statement: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” Again, these words come from Lee, but the concept is a common one in Chinese writing. We can find an almost identical quote in Mao Zedong’s Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War:

“We should put these conclusions to the test of our own experience, assimilating what is useful, rejecting what is useless and adding what is specifically our own.”

This is often compared to another quote from Lee: “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” 

People who use either quote often point out that Lee studied many martial arts and freely borrowed effective techniques to incorporate in his own system. Because of this approach, he’s often credited with being the father of MMA. The idea is that by picking the most useful techniques from different arts while discarding the useless ones, you can build a system that includes only the best techniques.

The Chinese martial arts recognize four primary elements that are essential for a complete art: da (hitting), ti (kicking), shuai (takedowns/throws) and na (grabs/locks/submissions). It seems logical that if we find arts that specialize in these areas and combine their best techniques, we will create the ultimate fighting system. In MMA, this is generally taken to mean boxing for punching, muay Thai for kicking and striking, wrestling for takedowns and throws, and BJJ for locks and submissions.

This idea of picking and choosing techniques from different styles has led many people to cross-train in a variety of arts instead of specializing in one. They hope to gain skill more quickly by absorbing the good stuff and then moving on to something else.

Does mixing the best of different things lead to something superior? Not always, as I learned at an early age. When I was a child, my two favorite sandwiches were fried baloney and cheese, and strawberry jam with chunky peanut butter. Each seemed so good that I was struck with the idea of how great they would be if I mixed them together — double the deliciousness! Unfortunately, when I combined them to make my ultimate sandwich, let’s just say it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Here’s another illustration: If you have a recent injury, you might be advised to soak it in ice water. If you have an old chronic injury, you might be advised to soak it in hot water. It’s unlikely anyone will advise you to combine ice water and hot water and use the resulting lukewarm water to treat the injury. When we mix things, they can dilute each other rather than strengthening each other.

Another problem with the approach of collecting great individual techniques is that we believe as we collect the “bricks” of great applications, we will end up with a beautiful structure. Unfortunately, the reality is we often end up with just a pile of bricks.

This is what happens if we collect techniques rather than absorb them. If we combine oil and water, no matter how much we shake them, they eventually will separate. To absorb something, we must have a place to fit it into an existing structure. A sponge absorbs water because it has a compatible nature and spaces in its structure for the water to fit.

To absorb what is useful, we must be like water, having a defined structure. The structure determines whether we have the spaces for something to fit and be absorbed. But remember that we’re not supposed to absorb anything that happens to fit, only what is useful. How do we determine what is useful? It’s important to understand the difference between useful and useable. By useful, we mean useful for our intended purpose. Rollerblades can be useful for traveling on the boardwalk at the beach, but if you’re planning on walking in the sand along the water’s edge, they’re not so useful.

If you give a short stick to a person who has no weapons experience, almost immediately the person will grasp the basics of using it to swing and thrust at an attacker. Human beings are familiar with making those motions to hit things with their hands, so the stick almost instantly becomes an extension of the hands and gives the user the advantage of greater reach. Here is a tool that’s useful, enabling us to reach an attacker before the attacker can reach us, and that’s useable with natural motions.

On the other hand, if you give the same person a bullwhip, he will struggle to use it. If he swings it like a stick, he will have greater reach, but it will be slow moving and lack power at the end. If he tries to use it to thrust at an attacker, the whip will seem useless.

Given the choice between a short stick and a whip, the unskilled person is likely to choose the stick, believing the whip to be ineffective and useless as a weapon. But if a person is skilled with the bullwhip, it’s easy to see the advantages it has over the short stick. It allows you to strike an attacker from a greater distance. The tip can move fast enough to break the sound barrier and create a force that can rip flesh and even break bones. It also can entangle and trip attackers, or trap and tie them up at close quarters.

The whip can be more useful as a weapon than a short stick. However, it’s less useable. It requires practice to develop the proper motion to access the true power of the weapon — and even more practice to develop the accuracy needed to deliver that power to the intended target.

This is the problem faced by the technique collector who experiments with applications from different martial arts. Without a strong foundation to provide structure, the collector doesn’t know if there is a proper place for a technique. Without that structure, he might be mixing techniques rather than absorbing them. Also, without dedicated practice, he might attempt a technique but be unable to make it work.

He discards the technique because he thinks it doesn’t work when the reality is he didn’t practice enough to learn how to make it work. Some of the most useful skills have a steep learning curve and are not very useable until you’ve invested the time and effort to make them work.

MA Drills

Action Items

So how does one learn to be like water and to absorb what is useful? Old-school training follows the philosophy of imitate and assimilate, then innovate. New students are expected to do their best to imitate their teacher. Through correction and repetition, they strive to move just like their teacher. As they progress, the corrections and the practice are assimilated by the mind and body. The body may be physically changed through correct practice, and the mind absorbs the movements so thoroughly that they can be performed without conscious effort. This creates the foundation of the martial art.

Once the training has been assimilated, it’s time for innovation. This is the stage at which kung fu is personalized for the practitioner, and there is freedom of action and reaction that’s infinitely adaptable rather than relying on fixed responses. Paradoxically, it’s the initial rigid and precise training with strict form that ultimately creates the foundation for “formless” movement.

This is the path of skill development followed in many disciplines. Traditional training in painting had apprentices begin with the “boring” basics of grinding pigments, preparing canvases and mixing paints. Then they would learn by copying the art of their master or other famous artists. Through this imitation, they would assimilate the knowledge of their teacher. With the knowledge they absorbed, they were able to innovate and develop their own recognizable style.

All too often, people think the advice to be like water means to skip right to the “innovate” part and develop their own style. They put the emphasis on creativity and doing things naturally, but the first two steps — imitate and assimilate — are essential for true skill to develop. Without those steps, budding artists might not understand the usefulness of techniques such as underpainting and wonder why they should waste time doing something that will just be painted over. They might jump to the conclusion that they can improve on what the old masters did by skipping what seems to be useless.

The poet E.E. Cummings studied Latin and Greek in high school, explored many traditional forms of poetry and wrote a poem a day from age 8 to 22. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Harvard University. Without the imitation and assimilation of tradition, he would not have had the grasp of language required to become an innovator. He might just have been an uneducated writer with no understanding of grammar.

Black Belt Magazine Shop

If you want to be like water, there are no shortcuts. First, you must develop the form and structure that will allow you to be formless and flowing. You must spend countless hours imitating and assimilating the basic principles of movement before you can express them without limit. This is the foundation and where you should invest the most time and care.

The old masters will tell you that you can build the most beautiful structure, but if you build it on sand, it will eventually collapse. If you prepare the foundation properly, it may take longer to construct, but what you build will endure. You not only must select good construction materials, but you also must ensure that they work well together. If you start by randomly collecting materials and then try to build something with what you have, you’ll quickly discover limitations caused by materials that are incompatible.

Water is simple. There are only two elements and three atoms. But as my teacher Willy Lin likes to say, “Simple is not easy.” Simple requires exacting discipline. Be like water, perfectly aligned and precisely structured. Only then can you absorb what is useful, transition from hard to soft, change from going around to going through, and thus adapt fluidly to changing situations.

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.

bottom of page