#119 The Nature of Water


“Be water, my friend.” This is one of Bruce Lee’s most famous quotes, but how did the idea first come to Bruce? In this episode we share and discuss an essay that Bruce wrote around his epiphany on the nature of water. When Bruce first had his epiphany on water he was 18 and this essay is him reflecting back on that time. When Bruce was 18, he had been studying wing chun gung fu with his sifu Yip Man for about four years. Being a teenager, Bruce was filled a fiery dragon energy, and was set on beating his opponents. During his training his teacher Yip Man continually tried to get Bruce to be more in tune with nature and his opponent instead of being so concentrated on winning. Bruce’s epiphany on the nature of water shifted his perspective forever on both gung fu and life.

“Gung Fu is a special kind of skill; a fine art rather than just a physical exercise. It is a subtle art of matching the essence of the mind to that of the techniques in which it has to work. The principle of gung fu is not a thing that can be learned, like a science, by fact-finding and instruction in facts. It has to grow spontaneously, like a flower, in a mind free from emotions and designer. The core of this principle of gung fu is Tao—the spontaneity of the universe.

After four years of hard training in the art of gung fu, I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness—the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing the expenditure of one’s energy. All these 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. And after a series of exchanging blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only thought at this point was “somehow or other I must beat him and win!”

My instructor at the time, Professor Yip Man, head of the Wing Chun school of gung fu, would come up to me and say “Loong, relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.”

“That was it!” I thought. “I must relax!” However, right then I had just done something contradictory against my will. That occurred at the precise moment I said “I” <+ data-preserve-html-node="true"> “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 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 asset yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but to 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 of 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 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 and what 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 it’s reflection on the water. Right then as 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 bird flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached—not being without emotion of feeling, but being one in whole 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.

I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature. I just laid there and let the boat drift freely according to its own will. For at that moment I had a achieved a stat of inner feeling in which opposition had become mutually exclusive, in which there was no longer any conflict in my mind. The whole world to me was as one.”

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