"The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I sit back in my chair and reflect on my years of martial training. Attempting to understand what it is that I have been doing. Constant learning is important, but there needs to be time to digest. Otherwise, my understanding is only surface level. It is like eating without tasting. We often get too absorbed with accumulation, and we become unaware of what it is that we have taken in. Buying books without reading them. Picking up habits when there is no point for them. Pointless productivity is not productivity.
We are taught, but we are not learning. The teacher is free to speak, but our mind is not free to listen. We have yet to organize and inspect what is already there. It is too much. We count hours of practice but what about hours of meditation? When there is practice without deep-thinking, how are we different from machines? How can we be creative with our practice while mechanically going through our practice? How do we create?
There is a need to step away and dwell. How can one look at something in a new way if one never looks away?
So I open myself and muse, not only to my experiences but the experiences of others. As a collective stream of consciousness; to forget whatever it is I think I know and start anew.
Based on the Taoist concept of wu-wei (無爲), Bruce Lee gave this now famous metaphor:
It has become so emblematic of Bruce Lee's philosophy, one assumes Lee was born with this cognition. In reality, it took years of frustration and the careful guidance of his master Yip Man to develop. Lee first had to overcome himself.
In Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams writes:
"The Swordsman and the Cat," from D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, resonates the same timbre. What you think you know, you do not know. Suzuki writes:
The question arises, what does all of this physical practice amount to if it has not been to realize a mental-spiritual change? Suzuki explores:
In the Artist of Life, after struggling with the difficulties of "self" detachment, Bruce Lee recounts the lessons of his master Yip Man:
Bruce Lee took a very long time to appreciate contemplation, and the untethering of oneself to connect to the unconscious efforts of nature. The shine of physical practice and the ability to beat another man is obvious even to a child.
Immense knowledge requires more prolonged thought. Suzuki on "The Swordsman and the Cat":
It is easy to get swept up in being the hero of our own movie and treat everyone else like the extras. Author and teacher David Foster Wallace examines this in This Is Water:
After taking the advice of Yip Man, Lee spent a week in deep contemplation with no physical kung fu (gung fu) practice. In the Artist of Life, he reflects on the moments leading up to his discovery of "water" and wu-wei (action of non-action):
When acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace reflected on water, he too was struck by a similar jolt:
In this instance, Bruce Lee is one of the young fish, Yip Man would be the older fish. In Enter The Dragon, Lee recreates this motif, this time assuming the role of the teacher and warning the student not to focus on the obvious:
Many of Lee's best thoughts were inspired by ancient texts. What was captivating was his ability to convey Eastern philosophy to the Western audience. To become a student like Lee, we must delve further than surface level quotes from movies and deep-reflect.
David Foster Wallace and Bruce Lee both warn of the dangers of seeing what is only on the surface, when we don't look deeper than the obvious. Wallace heeds:
Water works as a perfect metaphor; you can see the surface, but you can also see further than the surface since water is clear — being able to see the obvious and beyond the obvious at the same time. Though it is the same water, it can be many different things in many different contexts. Much like yin can become yang based on the context. It can have boundaries, and it can also immerse you.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo in Hagakure illustrates this paradigm:
In the continuation of "The Swordsman and the Cat" parable, Suzuki writes:
On the paradox of water, Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching writes:
From the Cat, the rat, to the aerial freedom of a bird, Bruce Lee contemplates from the water:
David Foster Wallace posits that when there is no belief, we default into a different type of belief:
Physical liberties are not accurate measures of freedom. Freedom in the philosopher's sense is about balance. It is the only true freedom one can (should) strive for — and it can only happen if we come to the end and there is no other path than letting go. In submitting our minds, Suzuki contends is freedom.
In the mystery of the Cat in D.T. Suzuki's allegory, the Cat represents the spiritual teacher; the swordsman, the physical teacher. The Cat embodies a harmonious level of awareness:
The martial artist stands between two opposing ideals (at the center of yin-yang, alpha-omega) and creates harmony. If "martial' is conflict, then they are the artists of conflict, bringing balance and peace. But, for this to be possible, harmony must first exist within the martial artist (artist of life). D.T. Suzuki continues:
Bruce Lee on the elusive qualities of water, quotes the teachings of the Tao Te Ching:
On freedom and the universal representation of the "rat" being the antithesis of freedom, David Foster Wallace suggests:
The differences between the swordsman, the Cat, and the rat only exists in how they react to getting wet. Suzuki on the control of the mind:
Self-realization is not about realizing one's full potential nor related to gain or ambition. The irony is in the translation; "realization" conjures up ideas of attainment for the uninitiated, but, in this case, the purpose of finding the "self" is only to destroy it. That is metaphoric death, and that is symbolic reincarnation. To destroy the self, one must find the self. It must be released so one can connect to the greater movements of nature (universe).
The swordsman searches for the rat, not for glory nor to praise, he searches for the rat to release himself from it, it's distractions, and to connect to something greater. Then in this context, there is no paradox: to release the "self," one attains the greatest self-realization. The purpose of the "self," physical, spiritual, or figurative, has always been to be released. This awareness is freedom, and this is when we truly live.
Zanshin (残心) is a state awareness — relaxed alertness. The meditative posture is the seat of wisdom, zanshin is the "remaining mind."
We practice without meditation, and we meditate without practice. We have severed them from one another when meditation is the other half of practice, and practice the other half of meditation. (By meditation I mean both: deep-thinking and no-thinking.) Accumulate and disperse, disperse then accumulate; balancing what we do with our thoughts, our thoughts with what we do. When they are in sync, we are in balance. We find liberation.
Bruce Lee defines the martial arts as:
The conversation I have in my mind begins with Bruce Lee, "Become water my friend."
D.T. Suzuki then asks, "What is water?"
David Foster Wallace answers:
(For the full expanded version of this article, see: Be Like Water, This Is Water)
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Zen In The Martial Arts - Joe Hyams
- Zen And Japanese Culture - D.T. Suzuki
- Bruce Lee: Artist Of Life - John Little (Editor)
- This Is Water - David Foster Wallace
- Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee's Wisdom For Daily Living - John Little (Editor)
- Hagakure - Yamamoto Tsunetomo
- Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu
- Tao Of Jeet Kune Do - Bruce Lee
- The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng - Red Pine