Personal Growth

Bruce Lee Wasn't Just a Martial Artist — He Was Also a Prolific Philosopher

Bruce Lee is well known as one of the most influential martial artists of all time. Behind those fists of fury, though, was the mind of a thinker. He was a diligent journaler and often wrote his thoughts and ideas on how to live life to its fullest, along with reflections on martial arts as a form of expression. Many books on his philosophical thoughts have been published since his death, and thanks to newly released material, there may be more to come.

Philosophy of the Dragon

Lee famously said that life was in constant change, and encouraged people to adapt to that. "Empty your mind," he said. "Be formless; shapeless, like water. Now, if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

This is a metaphor for the philosophy of gung fu, based on the Chinese concept of wu wei, or strategic non-action. But Lee's overall personal philosophy was complex, a combination of Eastern and Western ideals that praised the virtues of knowledge and total mastery of one's self. Beyond his famous "be like water" quote, he was full of insightful and inspirational reflections:

  • "If you love life, don't waste time, for time is what life is made up of."
  • "A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer."
  • "I'm not in this world to live up to your expectations and you're not in this world to live up to mine."

His philosophical writings were largely retained within the personal library of the Bruce Lee estate, but many were made available to author John Little to compile and present in his 2014 publication "The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee to Better Understand the World around You and Achieve a Rewarding Life." Many, but not all.

Kick, Punch, It's All in the Mind

Lee's most intently philosophical work may have been the series of letters he wrote to himself under the heading "In My Own Process" in 1973. The piece underwent nine drafts but was never finished, and is a first-hand look at Lee's thought process during a tumultuous time in his life. In 2017, it was shared for the first time on Brain Pickings with special permission from Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, and the Bruce Lee Foundation.

1973 was a busy time for Lee: he had just halted production on "The Game of Death" because Warner Brothers had agreed to help him make "Enter the Dragon," the first collaboration between a Hollywood studio and a Hong Kong production company. He was re-writing scripts and developing choreography for the film while working as a producer, writer, and star. On top of it all, Lee refused to join the set on the first day of day shooting because Warner Brothers was pushing to cut the philosophical elements out of the script. He held up filming for two weeks until they finally relented.

In these letters, Lee arrived at the concept of being an "artist of life," examining fundamental questions of existence. Through the various revisions, he consistently writes that all knowledge is self-knowledge and that personal authenticity is the object of life (and the only real measure of success): "I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualizing myself someday to be an artist of life. Yes, there is a difference between self-actualization and self-image actualization."

Later, he accepts life as a process of constant discovery and expansion; the need to look inward and to take responsibility for one's self before criticizing others; and the satisfaction of finding "something real." He closes his final draft, never finished due to his untimely death in July of that year, by returning to his central idea of personal authenticity: "Where some people have a self, most people have a void," he wrote. "Because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being, a sort of 'being' vs. having — that is, we do not "have" mind, we are simply mind. We are what we are."

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10 Facts About Bruce Lee

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Written by Cody Gough May 2, 2018

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