Watch the famous interview here: https://youtu.be/NN0gSXWysMo
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes about martial arts is Bruce Lee’s “Be water my friend”. Given in an interview in 1971 with Pierre Berton, Lee was asked to repeat some lines from the show “Longstreet”1 and he responds with:
“Be Water, My Friend.
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.”
I can bet that any martial artist has heard some paraphrasing of this line. The trouble with any “well known” bit of philosophy is that the meaning often gets mutated away from the original intent. Too often this admonition to “be water, my friend” gets turned into advice for ignoring deep training and drilling of techniques in favor of “spontaneity”. Let’s break the quote down to see just what it says.
Empty your mind
“Empty your mind” can refer to two concepts/stories within Zen: mushin (wuxian in Mandarian) and the story of the tea cup.
Mushin – The Empty Mind
Mushin is a Zen/Daoist concept for being devoid of thoughts, ego, fear, etc. Devoid of thoughts, however, is not the same as empty of thoughts. Instead of having no thoughts whatsoever the goal of mushin is to have no active or recursive thoughts – instead only accepting and reacting to what is happening. For martial artists this presents as, when your opponent attacks, instead of thinking about how to move or what technique is best to apply in this situation you just move. An analogy I like is to image your mind is a pool of water (hehe) and every thought you have is a ripple. Too many ripples and you can’t see what’s in the water. But if the water is still it will neatly reflect the circumstances around the pool.
And this isn’t just a sentiment expressed by Bruce Lee. In Munenori’s Heihō Kaden Sho (Family Transmitted Book on Swordsmanship)2, the author says “If you are conscious of using a sword when you are doing so, you will not be able to take aim properly”.
Fancy a cuppa?
There is a famous story about a Zen/Daoist/Buddhist scholar who goes to visit a temple/monastery. The story usually goes as follows:
Once upon a time, there was a wise Zen master. People traveled from far away to seek his help. In return, he would teach them and show them the way to enlightenment.
On this particular day, a scholar came to visit the master for advice. “I have come to ask you to teach me about Zen,” the scholar said.
Soon, it became obvious that the scholar was full of his own opinions and knowledge. He interrupted the master repeatedly with his own stories and failed to listen to what the master had to say. The master calmly suggested that they should have tea.
So the master poured his guest a cup. The cup was filled, yet he kept pouring until the cup overflowed onto the table, onto the floor, and finally onto the scholar’s robes. The scholar cried “Stop! The cup is full already. Can’t you see?”
“Exactly,” the Zen master replied with a smile. “You are like this cup — so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup.”3
So here is another meaning to that first line – you need to come prepared to learn. Emptying your cup doesn’t mean forgetting all prior knowledge; it means making room at that time for new knowledge. A big red flag when approaching someone to learn from them is if they declare that you MUST forget everything you’ve known before. Uh uh. You need to be open to the new knowledge; see how it integrates with what you already know; be ready to change behaviors and habits.
The next four lines are all riffs on this phrase – “be formless”. This was a particular soap box of Lee’s. In The Tao of Jeet Kune Do he hits this idea of formlessness really hard – “Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles”4. This attitude is a direct response from Lee towards what he viewed were the problems with traditional martial arts – an over-focus on forms and specific styles. The philosophy of Jeet Kune Do is to train techniques, but if you find a technique that doesn’t work for your body, don’t use it. For example, my body really doesn’t like to kick above my own waist. Could I focus and train my flexibility? Yes. But I am unlikely, right now, to have the time to train that hard so I won’t use those kicks in a fight. I’m not bad mouthing high kicks, they are very effective. They just aren’t for me.
The key with traditional forms (and HEMA forms – they do exist), is that, like specific technique training, they are a study guide for the principles in the Art, not a final test. The forms are NOT the final arbiter of knowledge and skill – they are tools to help you achieve that knowledge and skill. And here is the true meaning of all these anecdotes about water fitting & filling its container – the truest expression of skill is the ability to express the principles of your art in novel ways. Adapt to the situation, terrain, weapon, and opponent – become the teapot. It doesn’t matter if your system is designed for striking at the edge of measure if you are fighting inside of a Port-a-Potty. You have to find a way to make it work. In his introduction to a translation of Okakura’s “The Book of Tea”, Sam Hamill puts it this way: “In many ways, yea mind resembles Basho’s advice to poets, ‘Learn all the rules, then forget them.’ He doesn’t mean to throw out the rules of compositions; rather that one becomes at one with tradition.”5
The best systems for the adaptability (spoiler – almost every system is like this) are those that focus on a small number of techniques or concepts that can be expressed infinitely. I think of systems like Daniel Mendoza’s pugilism, indeed boxing in general. Four punches, a few bits of footwork, but look at the diversity of boxing styles. Khevsur sword and buckler out of Georgia in another example – a very simple set of positions, defenses, and attacks and yet the variability is endless. Insular broadsword (the broadsword systems of what we call the British Isles starting in the 16th century) are another fine example of this. Usually only four or five guard positions and a few bits of footwork but these were (and still are) viable systems of sword fighting.
This isn’t to say that more complex systems – Fiore de Liberi’s Armizare, the Bolognese corpus of material, Le Jeu de la Hache, traditional Chinese arts like Xing Yi Quan, etc – don’t possess this adaptability. They do, one just has to sift through all the complexity to get back to the basic principles. Most often, what appears as complexity is just someone showing the adaptability of their system.
So, after all this, I really hope people in the martial arts community will stop using “be like water” and “be formless” as an excuse to avoid training, especially the “boring” parts of forms and individual technique practice. Both of those are there to ingrain movement patterns into your brain and body. But as you grow as an artist you can begin to enter the No Mind state and stop thinking, stop analyzing, and just flow.
- Found in The Sword & The Mind translated by Hiroaki Sato, pgs 74 & 75
- This version from https://medium.com/jumpstart-your-dream-life/empty-your-cup-a-zen-proverb-on-opening-yourself-to-new-ideas-10e8c9545c7b
- The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Black Belt Books, 1975 (2018 version), page 16
- Okukara, Kakuzo The Book of Tea, Shambala Pocket Library, 2001