Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong movie star and martial artist, coined the slogan “Be Water” in an interview during the late 1960s. This iconic tagline is more than a statement of Lee’s kung fu philosophy; it has been borrowed as a tactic of various political and resistance movements.
“Be formless, shapeless like water.” For those familiar with ancient Chinese philosophy, it is clear that Lee has simply lifted the water metaphor from Lao Tse’s classic text “Tao Te Ching.”
If one of the tenets of Taoism can be turned into applications in modern martial arts, we may further ask: what is the contemporary significance of Taoism?
One of the key concepts of Taoism is “Wu Wei” (literal meaning: nonaction). We may translate it as “the art of calmness.” How can such a “negative attitude” be useful for highly dangerous activities such as hand-to-hand combat?
This painful process of mastering the secret of detachment has been documented in Lee’s various biographies. According to the biographers, Yip Man, Lee’s teacher, always told his student to “relax” when practicing kung fu. Lee, however, was then a young man in a hurry whose only goal was beating every opponent. With such an aggressive attitude, he found it difficult to understand the importance of being “relaxed”—even in the most extreme situation of being assaulted.
“When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the ‘double-bind,’ my instructor [Yip Man] would again approach me and say: ‘Loong [‘Dragon,’ Lee’s Chinese name], 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 said.
Most commentators have missed the significance of Master Yip’s last sentence: “Go home and think about it.” More practice does not mean more intelligence, and intelligence is gained by “nonaction” because more action means sensory overload. Sensory overload inhibits a clear mind and breeds “bad thinking.” Nonaction, or calmness, is the gateway to wisdom.
“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 kung-fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the [principle] of kung-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 of 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,” Lee continued.
Lee might have dramatized the whole story to impress us. It really sounds like the sudden enlightenment of a Zen master. The incident might be more mundane: Lee reread one of the chapters of “Tao Te Ching” and discovered that, unlike Western boxing, Chinese martial arts always have a philosophical foundation.
The proof of this insight is that, until now, it is typical for a Taoist monk or a Buddhist monk to be a kung fu practitioner at the same time. Nothing like that happens in Western religions. A Catholic clergyman may take up boxing as a pastime, but it is not related to his religious belief.
Taoism is not just a religion because it seeks to understand the mechanics of the human body, such as breathing, self-healing, and longevity. The late British scholar Joseph Needham had devoted decades of effort to retrieve this scientific project for Western readers.
In the Chinese-speaking communities, we are luckier because the practice of qigong and meditation is not an academic activity but instead has a long tradition among the common people. Qigong practitioners realize that bad breathing habits lead to bad health, affecting our heartbeat rate and blood pressure. Moreover, they discovered the body itself has self-healing capabilities. Many sufferers of chronic diseases have been cured through the persistent practice of qigong.
If we go back to Yip Man’s advice to the young Bruce Lee about being “detached,” we can add that it is not just an “attitude” but more about the scientific technique of breathing. We cannot achieve tranquility simply by being “calm,” we need to know the body’s mechanics because it controls our mind. By controlling our breathing and heartbeat, we become the master of our mind. And there are tons of ancient Taoist texts discussing the relevant methods to achieve this goal. It is a pity that they are only being taken seriously by Western medical scholars and psychologists in recent years.
Many students of religion have considered Taoism “mystical.” This is a misunderstanding. Taoism is, in fact, one of the most “scientific” religions in the world, and we can gain more understanding of ourselves and the universe by studying it seriously.
Eddie Leung is a veteran Hong Kong journalist who has been working in various news media for more than three decades. His main interests range from Hong Kong affairs, international politics, movies, and Chinese kung fu. He is one of the pioneers of Hong Kong internet radio broadcast.