On Water: Bruce Lee, David Foster Wallace, and D.T. Suzuki

"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:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now 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.

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:

What stands in the way of effortless effort is caring, or a conscious attempt to do well.

"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:

There was once a swordsman called Shôken, who was very much annoyed by a furious rat in his house. The rat was bold enough to come out of its hiding place even in the daytime, doing all kinds of mischief. ... Taking up his wooden sword he approached it, but every effort of the experienced swordsman proved ineffectual... As a last resort, he sent for the neighbouring Cat widely known for her mysterious virtue as the most able rat-catcher. ... The Cat almost nonchalantly went for the rat and came out carrying it by the neck.

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:

What you have learned is the technique of the art. Your mind is ever conscious of planning how to combat the opponent. The reason why the ancient masters devised the technique is to acquaint us with the proper method of accomplishing the work... Those who follow the master fail to grasp his principle and are too busily occupied with improving their technical cleverness and manipulatory skill. The end is achieved, and cleverness attains its highest efficiency, but what does it all amount to?

In the Artist of Life, after struggling with the difficulties of "self" detachment, Bruce Lee recounts the lessons of his master Yip Man:

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the ‘double-bind’ type, my instructor would again approach me and say, ‘Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.’

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":

To make Nature display its mysterious way of achieving things is to do away with all of your own thinking, contriving, and acting; let Nature have her own way, let her act as it feels in you, and there will be no shadows, no signs, no traces whereby you can be caught; you have then no foes who can successfully resist you.

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:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe. The realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. ... Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

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):

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. 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 substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

When acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace reflected on water, he too was struck by a similar jolt:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And 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?’

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:

It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

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.

Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.
— Hui-Neng

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:

... if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

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:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

In the continuation of "The Swordsman and the Cat" parable, Suzuki writes:

The one is a great river incessantly flowing, and the other is a temporary flood after a heavy rainfall, soon exhausted when it encounters a mightier onrush. A desperate rat often proves stronger than an attacking cat. It has been cornered, the fight is for life and death, and the desperate victim harbors no desire to escape unhurt. Its mental attitude defies every possible danger which may come upon it. Its whole being incarnates the fighting ch’i (‘spirit’), and no cats can withstand its steel-like resistance.

On the paradox of water, Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching writes:

Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard, or resistant, then nothing withstands it, and nothing will alter its way.

From the Cat, the rat, to the aerial freedom of a bird, Bruce Lee contemplates from the water:

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

David Foster Wallace posits that when there is no belief, we default into a different type of belief:

There is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. ... Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

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.

First of all, therefore, he is to have an insight into the Reason of life and death, when his mind is free from thoughts of selfishness. This being attained, he cherishes no doubts, no distracting thoughts; he is not calculating, nor does he deliberate; his Spirit is even and yielding and at peace with the surroundings; he is serene and empty-minded; and thus he is able to respond freely to changes taking place from moment to moment in his environment. On the other hand, when a thought or desire is stirred in his mind, it calls up a world of form; there is ‘I’, there is ‘not-I’, and contradictions ensue. As long as this opposition continues, the Way finds itself restricted and blocked; its free activities become impossible. Your Spirit is already pushed into the darkness of death, altogether losing its mysterious native brightness. How can you expect in this state of mind to rise and wager your fate against the opponent? Even when you come out victorious, it is no more than accidental, and decidedly against the spirit of swordsmanship.

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:

When you are in a state of mind known as ‘mindlessness’ (mushin), you act in unison with Nature without resorting at all to artificial contrivances. ...

Some time ago there was in my neighbourhood a cat who passed all her time in sleeping, showing no sign of spiritual-animal power, and looking like a wooden image. People never saw her catch a single rat, but wherever she roamed no rats ever dared to appear in her presence. I once visited her and asked for the reason. She gave no answer. I repeated my query four times, but she remained silent. It was not that she was unwilling to answer, but in truth she did not know how to answer. So we note that one who knows speaks not a word, while one who speaks knows not. That old cat was forgetful not only of herself but all things about her, she was in the highest spiritual state of purposelessness. She was the one who realized divine warriorship and killed not. I am not to be compared with her.

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:

Because of the self there is the foe; when there is no self, there is no foe. The foe means an opposition as the male is opposed to the female and fire to water. Whatever things have form exist necessarily in opposition. When there are no signs stirred in your mind, no conflicts of opposition take place there; and when there are no conflicts, one trying to get the better of the other, this is known as ‘neither foe nor self’. ... Your mind is cleansed of all thought movements, and you act only when there is a prompting.

Bruce Lee on the elusive qualities of water, quotes the teachings of the Tao Te Ching:

Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.

On freedom and the universal representation of the "rat" being the antithesis of freedom, David Foster Wallace suggests:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. ...

Think of the old cliché about the mind being ‘an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

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:

Such conditions as pleasure and pain, gain and loss, are creations of your own mind. The whole universe is indeed not to be sought after outside the Mind. An old poet says: ‘When there is as particle of dust in your eye, the triple world becomes a narrow path; have your mind completely free from objects — and how much this life expands!’ When even a tiny particle of sand gets into the eye, we cannot keep it open; the eye may be likened to the Mind which by nature is brightly illuminating and free from objects; but as soon as an object enters there its virtue is lost.

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."

‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. ... It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.
— David Foster Wallace
It is yourself who realizes the truth of it. The truth is self-attained ... self-realization is the keynote of them all, and it is transmitted from mind to mind... There is no transference of secrets from master to disciple. Teaching is not difficult, listening is not difficult either, but what is truly difficult is to become conscious of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own. This self-realization is known as ‘seeing into one’s own being’ which is satori. Satori is an awakening from a dream. Awakening and self-realization and seeing into one’s own being — these are synonymous.
— D.T. Suzuki

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:

Ultimately, martial art means honestly expressing yourself. ... I can show you some really fancy movement, but to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself ... now that, my friend, is very hard to do... Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

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:

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

’This is water.’

’This is water.’

(For the full expanded version of this article, see: Be Like Water, This Is Water)

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