Tao of the Dragon

TAO OF THE DRAGON : Diving into Bruce Lee’s Water Path

By William Kwok


Enter the Dragon

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Bruce Lee, an iconic figure in the martial arts world. As a lifelong martial arts practitioner, I was honored to be the main speaker at a Bruce Lee commemoration event celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in New York. It was a truly humbling experience to have the opportunity to speak about Bruce Lee and discuss the impact of his contributions as a legendary martial artist, actor, and philosopher. He is one of my greatest inspirations, and I continue to be inspired by his teachings and philosophy every day.

As an enthusiast of martial arts during my early teens, I began to appreciate Bruce Lee’s legacy beyond the silver screen. His philosophy of martial arts had a significant impact on the martial arts community, emphasizing individual expression and flexibility instead of blindly following tradition or fixed patterns. Bruce Lee, and his kung fu mentor, my Sigung, Wong Shun Leung, were undoubtedly inspirations at the beginning of my Wing Chun journey. Later, I discovered my Sifu, Wan Kam Leung, and his Practical Wing Chun system. In this way, Bruce Lee’s influence on me extended far beyond his on-screen performances and continues to shape my martial arts journey and life to this day.


Empty Your Mind

Bruce Lee’s impact as a martial arts legend and Hollywood icon cannot be overstated. However, it is important to remember him not just for his accomplishments in those realms but also as a philosopher and visionary who bridged the gap between Eastern and Western cultures. Bruce Lee had a unique ability to break down complex philosophical concepts into practical ideas that could be easily understood and applied to daily life. He believed that philosophy should be grounded in practical application, a fundamental aspect that he emphasized in his teachings.

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

This quote has been like a guiding maxim in my life, guiding me through my personal journey. Today, as I create a short film exploring Asian immigrants’ identity, I have chosen to make the quote the guiding force of the story. During my research, I came across another quote that beautifully summarizes Bruce Lee’s philosophy: “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.” This quote concisely illustrates Bruce Lee’s belief in constant evolution and adaptation. It serves as a powerful reminder to embrace change as an integral part of our lives, essential for success in martial arts and life itself.

Much of Bruce Lee’s personal philosophy embodies the essence of Taoism, a Chinese philosophy and tradition rooted in living harmoniously with the natural order of the universe. By flowing with life’s ever-changing rhythms and accepting change instead of resisting it, we can achieve balance and harmony. Central to this philosophy is the concept of yin and yang, opposing yet interconnected forces present in all aspects of existence. Bruce Lee urges us to cultivate flexibility, resilience, and adaptability as we gracefully navigate life’s challenges. By letting go of fixed identities and forms, we can continuously evolve and grow, aligning ourselves with the dynamic interplay of yin and yang that shapes the world.


Be Formless, Shapeless, Like Water

In a civilized society, prejudices are counterproductive as they set boundaries that limit imagination and creativity for both the discriminator and the discriminated. They define a form or shape that restricts personal growth and progress. Bruce Lee countered discrimination and stereotypes not by force but by example and by showcasing his unique character and philosophical stance through the limited number of films he made. He was inclusive and openly shared his martial arts knowledge with everyone – irrespective of race and gender. He was a living example of being formless, shapeless, like water.

Bruce Lee recognized the racial prejudices and stereotypes prevalent in Hollywood during his time and challenged them by portraying a powerful, self-assured, and skilled martial artist on screen. Also, it was unusual during that era for someone to believe that Chinese martial arts should be accessible to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. However, Bruce Lee held firm in his belief in unity, encouraging individuals from different backgrounds to learn from one another. He used martial arts as a medium to unite people, breaking down the barriers created by prejudice.

As an actor, a martial artist, and a human being, Bruce Lee’s example of pushing past his limitations and striving for excellence is a true manifestation of his philosophy. His legacy is a powerful reminder that hard work and perseverance can help us overcome our limitations and imperfections. By recognizing his achievements and embracing our limitations, we can genuinely appreciate his accomplishments and use his example to inspire us to become the best versions of ourselves. Bruce Lee’s enduring legacy inspires individuals to honor diversity, foster equality, and strive for greatness.



Water Can Flow, or It Can Crash

The legacy of Bruce Lee has been a polarizing topic for many years, with different opinions emerging in recent times. Some idolize him for his revolutionary contributions to the martial arts industry, while others argue that his skills are impractical in today’s real-world combat situations. However, judging his techniques and training methods from half a century ago based on modern professional combat standards is unfair. This kind of thinking is contrary to his approach. We must focus on Bruce Lee’s philosophical stances, such as pursuing one’s true self and encouraging refinement and creation, which still apply to martial arts and other aspects of life today.

Fighters of Bruce Lee’s generation were undoubtedly impressive. Muhammad Ali, a stylistic renegade like Bruce Lee, is one example. But no professional boxers today would follow Ali’s training methods from 50 years ago. The world is constantly advancing, and the advancements in sports science are astounding. Because professional sports have high commercial value, they bring research, resources, talent, and positive motivation for progress. Today’s athletes are in a different world than those from just ten years ago. Martial artists should keep reflecting upon and refining their practices based on modern science and research.

Having rigid thoughts or opinions limits and prevent us from seeing the world accurately or from different perspectives. Bruce Lee believed that the key to personal growth and success is cultivating a balanced, holistic perspective on life. His philosophy also emphasized the importance of living in the present moment and avoiding fixed ideas or dogmatic beliefs. He believed that by being open to new experiences and perspectives, we can avoid becoming trapped in our thoughts and biases. This allows us to be more flexible and adaptable in our approach to life, which can help us navigate challenging situations and achieve our goals.

In martial arts, skill matter more than styles. Bruce Lee was not completely satisfied with the name “Jeet Kune Do” — he believed a name does not necessarily reflect the true essence or effectiveness of a style. Jeet Kune Do represents Bruce Lee’s martial arts vision and combines elements from different styles tailored to his strengths and preferences. He designed it to exist beyond parameters and limitations. His martial art was designed to be outside of parameters and limits. Hence, an individual martial artist’s ability and skill are of utmost importance, surpassing any specific martial arts school or style. It is crucial to evaluate and consider the aspects and styles of the various martial arts systems and how they suit an individual’s preferences and goals before committing to a particular school.

It is important to note that Bruce Lee was a product of his time, and his ideas and techniques were influenced by the cultural and social context of his era. However, it is crucial to recognize that his philosophy of changing and adapting remains relevant and inspiring today. While it might be true that his practice over 50 years ago may not be practical in certain contexts, his inspiration and impact on martial arts and popular culture are undeniable. The legacy of Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy goes beyond its relevance in today’s combat sports — his philosophy is about adjusting course and developing the ability to remain flexible and adaptable, like water.



Be Water, My Friend

“Be water” emphasizes the importance of adaptability and flexibility in one’s approach to life. Just as water can take on any form and shape, a person should be able to adapt and build their own style to achieve self-improvement, which is not just about physical strength or abilities, but also about mental agility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Although Bruce Lee achieved greatness in the martial arts and film industry, he wanted people to see him as a human being with limitations and imperfections. He had one leg shorter than the other and was nearsighted, which are typical human flaws. It is vital to recognize that he was not a perfect or invincible god, but rather, a person who worked hard to overcome his limitations and achieve his goals, becoming a role model for others.

When I embarked on my Wing Chun journey, I quickly realized that the tense muscles in my shoulders and upper back from my previous training were limiting the range of motion required to perform my Sifu’s Wing Chun techniques. Additionally, my Sifu pointed out that my arms were shorter than average — the demanding movements were even more difficult for me. Later, my Sifu told me he had even doubted whether I could learn his kung fu when I first started. However, he felt gratified that I refused to let my physical limitations hold me back and dedicated countless hours to stretching and practice. A few years later, I gained a surprising level of flexibility I had never thought possible. I had learned to transform my shortcomings into strengths.

In the spirit of Bruce Lee’s philosophy, I didn’t get set into one form; I adapted to my limitations and built my own way, allowing it to grow. Everything is constantly changing and evolving, and we must adapt and grow. This concept applies to individual development and the evolution of Wing Chun — and every martial art we practice. In today’s martial arts community, we have an incredible opportunity for growth and unity. Inspired by the wisdom of Bruce Lee, we can embrace an open mind and a spirit of inclusivity. By becoming like water – formless, adaptable, and embracing diversity – we can foster collaboration, respect, and a strong sense of community. Together, we can break down barriers, celebrate our differences, and collectively advance martial arts. With an open mind and heart, we can inspire practitioners from all backgrounds to reach new heights and forge a vibrant martial arts community. Ω



  • Larry Butler

    It is very refreshing to read a well-written and insightful article featuring the late Bruce Lee that is not the usual ranting and raving about JKD, what it is, what it is not, whether it’s real, whether Lee was any good or not, and so forth. Kwok Sifu dives deeply into one of Bruce Lee’s unique and often overlooked abilities and powers; his philosophical take on martial arts and life. Master Kwok speaks eloquently on how that philosophy remains vitally relevant in today’s world and how it can not only help the individual become a better human being in all aspects of his or her life, including its potential to unite people rather than divide them. This is especially relevant for fellow martial artists, as divisions among us have, unfortunately, so often been the norm. Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking read. “Walk on.”

  • George D Hall

    This article articulates the complexities beneath the common public image of Bruce Lee in a lively and informative manner. The author clearly has admiration for and understanding of Bruce Lee’s contributions to martial arts, and his role in the changed perception of Asians in the performing arts. He was a true innovator and fought against prejudices and preconceptions at a time when that was particularly difficult. I appreciate Master Kwok carrying on the true Bruce Lee legacy and informing us all just how holistic and useful his writings and techniques are, within and without martial arts practice.

  • Noemi Santana

    As within, so without. The timeliness of this article keeps pace with the philosophy as I am experiencing it moment to moment, breath to breath, in sometimes the most cotidian ways. Fluidity tempers the experience of suffering. Thank you, Sifu.

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