Published on April 20th, 2016 | by msalt

Bruce Lee and the Power of Water

I just ran across a classic post at Maria Popova’s always worthwhile BrainPickings that illuminates the connection between martial arts and Daoism.

She’s telling the story of Bruce Lee’s epiphany about the power of water. Lee is often quoted (from the obscure TV show Longstreet (1971) spelling it out for James Franciscus:

“Empty your mind. Be Formless. Shapeless. Like water.
Put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
Put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow, or drip, or creep, or CRASH.
Be water my friend.”

Bruce Lee studied Wing Chun martial arts in Hong Kong in the 1950s under a teacher named Yip Man. Popova quotes the book “Bruce Lee: Artist of Life” where Lee describes getting blocked by self-consciousness. Yip Man told him to take some time off of his rigorous training:

“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 problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.”

Lee went sailing instead, and this happened:

“On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

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