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‘Be Water’: 9 Quotes to Explain the Philosophy of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee accomplished an incredible amount in his short life. He died at just 32 years old in 1973, but in that all-too-brief time, he had become a star of both cinema and martial arts. Bridging the gap between Eastern and Western culture, he defied stereotypes and forever changed the nature of martial arts films. Lee became an icon of the 20th century, an instantly recognizable figure who, like Muhammad Ali, could inspire people with both his physical and verbal skills.

Bruce Lee was a philosopher as well as a fighter. He studied Asian and Western schools of thought at the University of Washington, where he developed an eclectic philosophy that influenced all parts of his life. This was reflected in Lee’s hybrid philosophy of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, or the Way of the Intercepting Fist. Its basic guiding principles of simplicity, directness, and freedom were core tenets in Lee’s overarching belief system, and he refused to place the same limits on Jeet Kune Do as found in other styles. In doing so, he helped paved the way for modern mixed martial arts.

Whether talking about life or love or martial arts, Lee’s philosophy was all-encompassing and easily transferable from one aspect of life to another. In just 32 years, he left us with a wealth of philosophical quotes that can serve as an inspiration to anyone.

Reaching Your Potential

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.

Bruce Lee was born in Chinatown, San Francisco, on November 27, 1940. Three months later, he and his parents returned to Hong Kong. His father was a famous Cantonese opera star, and at just nine years old Lee landed a starring role in a Hong Kong drama movie called The Kid. After that, Lee wasted no time developing his potential, appearing in 20 films by the time he was 18. He still managed to get into trouble, including a handful of street fights, so his parents decided he needed to learn how to fight.

Learning From Mistakes and Misfortune

Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.

In one of his most famous quotes, Lee is not deriding an easy life, but promoting the development of the tools needed during challenging circumstances. For Lee, mistakes and misfortune were great teachers, and the fear of failure was crippling. In his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Lee wrote, “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

No Limits

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine… If you always put limit[s] on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.

The concept of being limitless was a core tenet of Lee’s art and his life, both in terms of personal development and personal freedom. And for Lee, limitlessness was a state of mind. He said, “Have a mind that has no dwelling place but continues to flow ceaselessly and ignores our limitations and our distinctions.”

Simplicity

Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points. (source)

In Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Lee emphasizes the importance of simplicity in his martial arts philosophy. His concept of simplicity wasn’t limited to physical actions like the famous one-inch punch, but was applicable in daily life. To achieve simplicity, Lee advised stripping things down, writing, “Simplicity is hacking away the unessential — it is not daily increase but daily decrease.”

Belief Systems

Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.

Lee was influenced by Taoism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Buddhism. He often spoke of faith, but in connection to his own personal spirituality rather than an established religion. In keeping  with his philosophy, he steered away from any belief system or style that was rigid in its nature, and therefore didn’t adhere to any particular religion.

Love and Poetry

Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning, a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep burning and unquenchable.

While still a student at the University of Washington, Lee met his future wife, Linda Emery. Much of his poetry, which he began writing aged 18, expressed his love for her. Lee said, “My wife and I aren’t one and one. We are two halves that make a whole.” And in a 2018 interview, 45 years after Lee’s death, Linda told the Bruce Lee Foundation, “I think the most important thing in Bruce’s life was his family. Before all the stardom and publicity and attention — I think he would have given all of that up for his family.”

Defeat

Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality. To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary, and its punishment is but an urge for me to greater effort to achieve my goals.

As a martial artist, Lee was more of a teacher than a fighter. He had only a handful of official fights, only one of which was recorded. Because of this, there has been a long running debate about how good Lee would have been in a professional fight. But he was no stranger to defeat. He was bullied as a child, and must have lost his fair share of street fights in Hong Kong, which led him to train in the Wing Chun style of gung fu as a form of self-defense.

Be Yourself

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.

Lee often talked about the power of self-expression, but at the same time he acknowledged that being true to yourself, expressing yourself honestly, was not always easy. As he said in his famous interview with Pierre Berton, “to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself... now that, my friend, is very hard to do.”

Be Water

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee repeated his most famous philosophical quote at least twice on camera, once in an episode of Longstreet and once during the Pierre Berton interview (his only English speaking television interview, which was thought lost until it was rediscovered in 1994). By emptying your mind, Lee believed you could attain a heightened awareness, a neutral state free of judgment, ready to react to anything.

Photo credit: Sunset Boulevard/ Getty Images

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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