Footnotes to Being Water: An Inquiry into The Lee Family Philosophy

As a happy coincidence to my decision to practice of Tai Chi, I stumbled-upon Shannon Lee’s Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee at my local public library. The book clearly acts as much as a bridge to Shannon Lee’s podcast as it does the Lee family’s legacy and philosophy. Naturally, all of these things are interconnected. This broader connectedness led me to title this essay as An inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy (LFP).

It is the rare person that does not have at least a passing awareness of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and cultural icon. Notwithstanding a general awareness of Bruce Lee and his family, I have completed no other study of Bruce Lee or his ideas as they may have been originally documented or expressed. Shannon Lee’s book serves, therefore, as the initial and primary conduit to whatever I may learn of (or through) Bruce Lee and the LFP.

This outlook is not intended as neither a slight to Bruce Lee nor a particular compliment to Shannon Lee. Clearly the book identifies Bruce Lee as the primary source and inspiration of its themes and ideas. Equally clearly, Shannon Lee is the book’s author and the current curator of the ideas it contains. It is an acknowledgement of their several roles and contributions to suggest that the book is a king of collaboration between these two Lee family members. Collaborated may seem an odd term to use given that Shannon Lee did not have the opportunity to discuss these ideas with a father who died in 1973. It is however, the best term to convey a unique intimacy of ideas as they have eddied through a family over the course of multiple generations.I feel justified in this approach given that Shannon Lee wrote in the introduction of the book, “It might surprise you that I am not that precious about the material. I’m not a Bruce Lee purest about anything other than his energy. I do not practice an academic exactitude with his words. Where I have found it useful to illustrate what I want to say, I have combined quotes and edited quotes to make them more digestible.” (pg. 7) More on this a bit later, but I am pleased to follow a similarly non-academic position.

As mentioned, I decided to read Be Water, My Friend as an extension of a personal objective to learn and practice Tai Chi. Bruce Lee is famous for having practiced and trained in Kung Fug as well as for developing his own martial arts system, Jeet Kune Do (JKD). Be Water, My Friend, is not a book which explicitly promotes JKD, nor is it a deeply detailed book about the martial arts. For me this is fortunate, as I am almost wholly devoid of interest in physical combat. Excepting where LFP utilizes physical combat as an operative metaphor, there seems to be little reason to spend much effort to maintain JKD as an irreplaceable element of LFP. The book does argue that there is Importance in having a physical manifestation of one’s philosophy. For Bruce Lee, that was JKD. For others , something else may be more appropriate.

The book would comfortably be considered a “self-help” genre book. It is about a particular perspective of life and living. Shannon Lee seems to have ambitions that Be Water, My Friend be considered a book of philosophy. Such an ambition may or may not be a reasonable desire, depending upon what a person considers “philosophy”. That is a genuine consideration. There are professional philosophers who reject popular and non-academic approaches. However, if one considers the attributed writing of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (the Stoics) to be books of philosophy, then there’s good reason to label Shannon Lee’s book the same way.

LFP concepts, ideas and expressions are frequently similar to ideas I have encountered or investigated elsewhere, even if not (yet) documented on this website. What Shannon Lee has done in Be Water, My Friend is to collect and re-present her family’s interpretation of these ideas that anyone may find with a certain degree of investigation. It is a curated and customized collection of wisdom.

I do not intend to try to reproduce every salient point of Shannon Lee’s book nor will I pretend to present all that there may be within the Lee Family Philosophy. This isn’t a recitation of someone else’s ideas nor is this a book review. This essay is an interpretation of what one person has found in the LFP and how it connects with related notions and inquiries. These are footnotes.

The LFP Foundational Maxim

Following the handful of nearly-blank title pages that sits at the beginning of most books, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee begins with an exhortation, presumably written by (but not expressly attributed to) Bruce Lee. The exhortation functions as a foundational maxim of the Lee Family Philosophy:

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

As printed in the book, the above exhortation appears as lines of a poem might. In this essay, I have reformatted the exhortation as a paragraph because it seems to suit the exhortation better than the format I found in the boo

Does the form of this small passage matter? It does and it doesn’t.

It may be reasonable for the passage to be considered a poem given that it uses imagery-laden language and metaphor to convey a particular message or meaning. The words also seem to have been chosen with some care to be evocative and memorable. There is a rhythm. However the reach me like a prose paragraph. As a poem, I would not be satisfied.

The passage feels like a technical instruction. There is a linearity to the communication that is not as playful and exploratory as a poem ought to be. I appreciate the explanation that water may take on the shapes of the containers it is poured into. I consider the ways that this applies to my practice of Tai Chi or my way of experiencing and living.

However, it does not matter how the words are conveyed on paper. The words are only a stand-in for a view of reality that is being described. The poetry or prose doesn’t matter…it’s an understanding of the need for fluidity that is important. As will be explored later, the words are just a finger pointing to the moon. To get caught up in the gesture of the hand misses the point.

This difference of possible presentations – poetry versus prose helps to feature a difference between Tai Chi and other martial arts. I would say that Tai Chi is a poetry of martial arts where Jeet Kune Do, karate and many others are the practical prose of martial arts.

Tai Chi is a formal system and collection of movements that serve as a metaphor of combat; many other martial arts are combat.

Be Water

Clearly, the central Lee metaphor is to “be water”. The introductory exhortation is a call to the audience to personify the flexibility of water as it responds to its environment. The depictions of water within various vessels is to suggest that people should adapt to the circumstances within which they may find themselves. It is an exhortation against inflexibility and rigidity.

In Philosophy for Polar Explorers, Erling Kagge re-tells what he calls a “Classic Zen Buddhist pilgrim’s tale” about a wrestler named O-Nami. You may currently find a version of the story on “The Liar” blog. The tale describes a wrestler who visits a Zen teacher where he learns to meditate and overcome personal obstacles. O-nami, which means “Great Waves” was given a similar message to “be waves”. The similarity of LFP’s “Be Water” and O-Nami’s “be waves” is to establish that each is a particular version of a metaphor within a larger archetype.

Empty Your Mind

The entreaty to ”empty your mind”, is a familiar refrain from Buddhism, meditation and other methods or philosophies. It is a requirement to adopt an attitude of openness, or a beginner’s mind. The concept that “emptying” of one’s mind of pre-conceived notions, judgments and expectations is requisite to progress is not unique to LFP. Nor exclusive to Asian philosophies. Certainly Rene Descartes required this at the beginning of Meditations on First Philosophy.

Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed—just once in my life—to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.

There is a similar requirement for receptivity, though expressed in very different terms, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith

Daoism, Zen, Buddhism

LFP is clearly linked to Daoist Philosophy through Bruce Lee’s teacher, Yip Man. This connection is clearly demonstrated in the exhortation to “be whole”. This is a reference to ideas of the completeness of yin and yang.

The second chapter of Be Water, My friend is largely devoted to the requirement to empty one’s mind. There seems also to be a strong connection to Zen concepts. Shannon Lee also states that her father followed (Jiddu?) Krishnamurti.

On page 43, Lee writes “There is only ever the right here and the right now.” As a stand-alone statement, I orient this as LFP but heavily drawn from Daoism and Buddhism.

LFP as a Process Philosophy

According to Bruce Lee, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” (pg. 8). This position recalls various perspectives of reality and even tends to suggest the notion of being as “becoming”. In this, I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality. A thorough review of that book is currently beyond the scope of these brief notes. For now, I will merely observe that “life is a process” is not inconsistent with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

In Be Water, My Friend, LFP asserts that a physical practice, or implementation, is essential to any philosophy of living. As a martial artist, Bruce Lee’s physical implementation was Jeet Kune Do; for Robert Pirsig, the practice of riding a motorcycle was the manifestation; for another person, it may be painting, sitting in Zazen, practicing Tai Chi or some other process. The reality is the physical practice, the process.


In the book and on the podcast, Shannon Lee spends considerable time on “flow”. In my investigations of this concept, I found psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which he seems to have been promoting in an academic environment since the 1970s. Certainly contemporary to Bruce Lee’s practical approach to the same subject matter. With the rather rigorous investigations of flow as part of physical, and by this I may actually emphasize athletic, experience, it is no surprise that the concept is found in LFP, which emphasizes a need for a physical enactment of the philosophy.

LFP as Metaphorical Expression of Life

The configuration of the LFP within a set of metaphors is not novel nor are its individual precepts entirely unique. That really isn’t the point. The LFP is a particular tributary of larger bodies of thought.

A personal philosophy (and one may almost interchangeably use the term “personal mythology“) functions, for the individual adherent, as a lake fed by the tributaries of concurrent and previous iterations of the philosophy. In turn, the personal philosophy may function as an estuary to a larger sea of cultural mythologies and ultimately the global oceans of universal human mythologies. This reminds me of an essay by Umberto Eco titled The Liquid Society. Eco had drawn the term, Liquid Society, from Zygmont Bauman as a depiction of contemporary society. The essay is work reading.

Shannon Lee argues that “martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life. There are few disciplines where the stakes are so personal and so high as in a fight…..the threat of physical harm.” (pg. 11). While I do not fully agree with this position, it is a compelling argument. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig uses motorcycling as a metaphor for living – emphasizing motorcycling’s inherent dangers as the symbols of life as inherently dangerous. Similarly, Jules Evans published Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations in 2012. There is something odd about this trend to view life and living as inherently dangerous, or in the case of LFP as inherently a situation of competition and conflict.

When Shannon Lee suggests that martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life, or when Robert Pirsig does the same with the motorcycle as a metaphor of the person, they are offering a lens through which they believe insights may be gained.

Lee’s depiction of the martial artist as an ”artist of movement, expressing yourself powerfully in the immediate, unfolding present with absolute freedom and certainty” is romantic and, perhaps exciting but nothing about this passage suggests that competition and conflict is necessary. It could as readily refer to a figure skater or a Tai Chi practitioner.

Translating philosophy from ideas to action. Avatars not metaphors.

There is, however, a parallel communication, and that is the LFP as avatar of Bruce and Shannon Lee and “the metaphysics of quality” as avatar of Robert Pirsig. These philosophies “are” Bruce Lee and Robert Pirsig. When Shannon Lee states that she is a purist of her father’s energy, she is talking about the avatar of Bruce Lee. The philosophies are informational artifacts of the person. They remain in the place of the people after they are gone. In a note that Pirsig wrote about his books Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described a “pattern” of people after they had died – in his case, he was describing his reactions to his son’s death. The pattern he described is that avatar that I describe and the “energy” that Shannon Lee is a purist of.

Certainly other kinds of avatars can and do exist. Some people leave a great many avatars, others none or almost none. Any artifact may be an avatar. In the case of Bruce Lee, his films are an avatar. How he moved and acted on the screen, embodying his martial arts is translation of his ideas into action. Robert Pirsig’s Honda CB77 Superhawk is an avatar. It’s functioning as a machine is a translation of his ideas into action. Any crafted thing, and here I include written documents and poetry (especially poetry), is a translation of ideas into action.

Provisional Summary

The LFP contains several deeply-embedded cultural sources, but attempts to set itself apart. Shannon Lee shares a story of Bruce Lee’s early attempts to share and teach a modified version of Wing Chun Kung Fu. He wanted to shake off what he called a “Classical Mess” to include his own innovations. In this sense, Bruce Lee was a modernist.

Bruce Lee brought Asian martial arts to North America but also sought to innovate within those traditions. Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington to help him to “infuse the spirit of philosophy into martial arts.” Lee had a drive to connect the physical practice of his life. The process of his life with a coherent philosophy. Shannon Lee helps to communicate that drive (albeit, using terminology from Czikmentmihalyi) when she wrote “This state of constant independent inquiry that leads to new discoveries will be the means by which we uncover our potential and thus find our flow”

For LFP, the literal translation of Kung Fu as a skill achieved through hard work and discipline connects to another exhortation to “be yourself”. The specific metaphor….motorycles, JKD, Tai Chi, or whatever it may be is not the essential thing. “Man the living creature , the creating individual, is always more important than the established style or system.


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