Be Like Water.


Bruce Lee’s most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu: “Be like water.” is a metaphor difficult to understand.

It has now been explained by his writings in Bruce Lee; Artist Of Life.

It is so beautiful that I want to share it with all my readers.

“When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, 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.”

(And so he did, spending the following week at home.)

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, 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 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.”

Quoting from Lao Tzu’s famous teachings, Lee writes:

“The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water, But when it attacks something hard Or resistant, then nothing withstands it, And nothing will alter its way.”

The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.”



9 thoughts on “Be Like Water.”

  1. I really like that. I have a related concept about having a good life that I try to explain to patient using water as a metaphor. If you kneel by a stream and try to grab a handful of the water, you get nothing. If you gently cup your hands, you can actually hold a little. And if you just immerse your hands loosely, the whole stream is in your hands. People try so hard to grab onto things (material and emotional) and they only end up not having anything.
    Secret Agent Woman recently posted..Still de-cluttering…

  2. That is beautiful and apt indeed! I particularly was taken with the reflections passing on the water. If, however, one wishes to be fully involved in emotional exchanges, the drinking of the water can go to all parts of the body, or one can immerse in the water. It offers both detachment and ultimate involvement as the need arises.
    The Old Fossil recently posted..Tomorrow

  3. For some reason this post reminds me of the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Utah. When we were there the river was a quiet peaceful little thing, but the deep canyon had been carved by it. “Small but active” was the way it was described. It may not have had a shape of its own, but it didn’t always mold itself to the receptacle. It tore huge chunks of the receptacle away as it made more room for itself. Spring runoffs can be violent, and hikers are still warned to be wary of flash floods. It sometimes pays for mere humans to stay out of the way.

    Lee’s philosophy is somewhat like the idea behind aikido, but I like Terry Dobson’s story better because it talks about love:
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    1. I can relate to that experience CM. One of the most awe inspiring sights that I have seen is the Narmada cutting through solid marble rocks and flowing near Jabalpur in North India.

      And Terry Dobson’s story is beautiful too.

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