Photo by Toni Josephson

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee

Lee’s most famous quote. But do you know where Bruce Lee found this philosophy?  Its roots or true meaning? These are ancient Chinese thoughts, taken from the Dao de Ching and The Art of War. Let’s take a closer look:

Be Like Water

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves…”

This is a Daoist principle. Water is one of the five elements, and can manifest as yin or yang: flowing water, ice, or steam. It flows and finds its way into all places. This is seen in the Dao de Ching, which says the highest good is like water. The best of man is like water, giving life to all things, it flows in places that men reject. So, it is like the dao.  All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are, humility gives it power. Think about that.

Lee’s quote also has its origin in Sun Tze’s Art of War. Military tactics are like water:

  • Water in its natural course runs away from high places & moves downwards.
  • In battle, the way is to avoid what is strong & to strike at what is weak. Like water, take the path of least resistance.
  • Water shapes its course according to the kind of ground over which it flows: the warrior works out his victory in relation to the foe he is facing.
  • Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in battle there are no constant conditions.

Empty Your Mind

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

This philosophy is from the Dao de Ching: “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”

A Daoist perspective seeks to move us beyond our ego. Learn to observe reality, without attachments to your emotions. They will not give you a clear perspective, or a course of action. Shifting away from self absorption sharpens your sensitivity to the opponent. The ego is a core part of our human illusion. As you peel away the false self, emptiness remains. Working on reducing it, and ultimately letting go of it, leaves you “empty”. Think of it this way:  move away from being” full of yourself”!  In conquering your ego,  you also conquer fear. There’s nothing to lose if you aren’t holding on to anything. It has a freedom inside of it.

It also goes back to the Art of War: just as water retains no constant shape, so in battle there are no constant conditions. In fact, if your strategy has no visible form, if it is subtle or secret, opponents can’t plan against it. Keep them guessing. Do the unexpected, be prepared for anything.

Toni Josephson

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8 Comments on Be Like Water

  1. Rose says:

    “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it…..” What a profound statement.

    I have a meditation cd with sounds of gentle music and a babbling brook in the background. When I listen to it, I feel a comfort which I cannot describe. When I feel as if I have become part of that babbling brook, it is then that my mind, body and spirit have become one, peaceful, steady. It would be nice to feel like that most of the time!

    Again, I LOVE this article!

    Rose
    :o )

  2. arnuld says:

    Your quotes do seem like as if they were the origins from where Bruce Lee started to think. I still don’t get one thing though.

    If these quotes have roots in ancient Chinese thought then why no one else talked about style-less fighting ? Why only Bruce Lee developed JKD and no one else thought of getting rid of rigid styles ?

    or does it conform my fidning that the people who preach anything are the ones who know nothing about the basics e.g. inc ase of programming, the programmers who ar epaid highest in companies are the ones who have weakest basics of programming. The ones who preach religion are the ones who don’t have any information on the fundemental existence of their religion.

  3. tandao says:

    Hi Arnuld,

    Valid questions. There is always the possibility that when someone veers off the traditional path of a discipline that its foundation becomes lost in the art.

    In any discipline, we’d advocate formal training first, to have a basis for comparison. Lee did the traditional training. A realization came to him after his solid, classical study of forms. He was insightful and innovative in his thinking.

    You may be right — there are many people who “preach” without any grounding. In the end, Lee’s “no system” is, of course, now a system. It can’t survive without being passed on. And in its own way, it has become a tradition!

    regards, Toni & Lawrence

  4. Lemuran says:

    One thing I would like to point out, if I may? In the examples Bruce Lee gave;

    “If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.”

    I don’t take that which the water is being a symbol of to be passive like water. While it is true it will take on the shape of the container, yet this spiritual water also has a will of it’s own, and like a chameleon, can also take on shapes defined by the intent of it’s Will.

    Psychological pathologies are negative examples of how powerful this effect can be. And the same laws that produced the negative examples can be turned around for equally powerful positive results. All it takes is an undivided Will. . .

    Lemuran

  5. Lemuran says:

    About my previous post, I understand Bruce Lee was thinking about physically embodying the adaptable quality of water, while I was thinking about the inner life force symbolized by water.

    Like when sparing I don’t think of a particular technique, instead I apply a pressure, like water, and trust my body to do the right thing.

    I think that is what he meant, whereas I was talking about directly using the inner spiritual water to aid me by shaping it to my will.

    Lemuran.

  6. TanDao says:

    Lemuran,
    Thanks for your insights on the negative psyhcological interpretations that can be extrapolated from Lee’s water quotes. If viewed from the original Daoist spiritual context, then the yielding and receptiveness is not meant to be an extreme wishy washy inability to assert will nor an inept surrendering to opposition.
    Daoism advocates total committment and action through non action, towards achieving one’s goals but not to directly oppose opposition. It is to go around – not retreat. It is to adapt, to follow the path of least resistence to achieve the goal.
    It is a subtle expression of will.

  7. arnuld says:

    I guess, http://www.tandao.com has quite an impact on my thinking by showing me the traditional way of Kung-Fu. Now I came to know that Bruce Lee’s thoughts were actually rooted from traditional Chinese arts. He did learn from a master Yip Man who was master of a traditional art Wing-Chun. I don’t think if Bruce Lee could have been so popular and genius if he could have gotten a poorer master.

  8. Joseph Hartgraves II says:

    Sorry to side note but I find it hard to believe that bruce lee was the first one to think of getting rid of a specific style. I think he was the first one to give it a name and write a book about it. If someone has never been trained at all they automatically pick up “formless fighting”, it’s the only thing they could possibly know. And if someone were to cross train in various arts their reflexes would probably revert to whatever they think will best suit a situation. I say this because I study several styles, and though I study and practice them separately, it is hard not to just do whatever works when faced with a split second decision.

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