[Book Review]: Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee by Shannon Lee

Bruce Lee, an iconic martial artist, instructor and movie actor, rose to international fame in the 1970s through films, including ‘The Way of the Dragon’, ‘Enter the Dragon’, and others. Although he died suddenly at age 32 in 1973, his legacy continues. 

As an Asian American, Lee faced racism and prejudice for being too Chinese when assuming a role in the Hollywood movie – ‘Enter the Dragon’. The white supremacy in the film production and the audience xenophobia at the time mirror the vicious cycle of anti-Asian sentiment in American society, both then and now. 

In her new book, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, provides a probing account of her father’s ‘Be Water’ philosophy, which is to ‘empty your mind; be formless, shapeless like water’. She explores his philosophical concepts based on the archive of source material, including Lee’s diaries and other collected writings having lost her father at age four. 

Young Bruce Lee began studying wing chun gung fu in Hongkong at age thirteen. At the time, he was trapped in his obsession to win a fight and fell short of understanding his teacher’s words not to assert oneself against nature. The turning point in his transformation was when he took a small boat out onto Hong Kong harbour, then let the waves take him. As he observed the water flow, a thought struck him. Water flows and finds its way around obstacles, presenting no limitation. “This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substances in the world,” Lee wrote. 

Later in life, he developed his martial art of Jeet Kune Do (JKD), emphasizing formless and non-telegraphic movement to keep himself flexible in responding to change or attack. Moreover, his philosophy is influenced by Taoism, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Zen Buddhism.

To be like water, we need to listen to our thoughts and notice where they get stuck. It is crucial to see things purely, not to project any preference or preconceived ideas onto a situation. “Do not like or dislike, and all will then be clear,” wrote Lee. The author gives an example of a fight scene. A fighter might come to the stage with much confidence at first, but confidence spins into anxiety when getting hit in the face. This is because it does not match one’s preconceived plan; that is, ‘I am going to win; I am better than them.’ He lost because he got attached to ‘what should have happened’, instead ‘what is happening.’ 

Ignorance is a part of human nature, but Lee saw growth as an endless process, seeking new ideas, new possibilities and new directions. “Once you say you’ve reached the top, then there is nowhere to go but down,” he contended. 

There are six diseases to be cautious of. First, ‘the desire for victory’ makes people want to be the winner while forgetting that winning or losing is only temporary. Second, an individual falls into ‘the desire to resort to technical cunning’ to show how clever or great one is. Third, ‘the desire to display all that has been learned’ triggers ignorant behaviour, showing one knows lots of things. Fourth is ‘the desire to awe the enemy’, which is to wow the other to get approval or attention. Fifth, ‘the desire to play the passive role’ means trying to please the other to like oneself. Last is ‘the desire to rid oneself of whatever disease one is affected by’ which one does not try to get truly better but acts to look like one is trying. 

It is a pleasant read. Near the end of the book, the author discusses some principles to follow, including partiality, fluidity, emptiness, and Jeet Kune Do. Her father’s self-actualization philosophy allows readers to feel calm and sharpen their personal growth.

Thematically organized as life lessons, the book is a mix of memoir and self-help guide. The narrative, with advice-giving purpose, does not get preachy. However, to what extent it is helpful in real life depends on whether or not one applies these principles. Soon enough, after finishing reading, most people start to slide and live their lives in the same way as before.  

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