Breaking down the wisdom of Bruce Lee in book form would be a daunting task for the average philosophy professor, but that certainly was a roadblock for his daughter, Shannon Lee. In her just-released book, “Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee”, Shannon presents the depth and scope of her father’s philosophy, famously summarized in those immortal words, in a way that’s never been done before.
Whether devoted martial arts practitioners or simply readers curious about how Bruce’s words could help guide them through their own lives, “Be Water, My Friend” offers a philosophical compass for everyone.
Shannon, of course, has long been an ambassador for the legacy of her father, so presenting it in book form was always a logical vehicle in that arena. But, as both of them would tell you themselves, simply reading a book on Bruce Lee’s teachings, however enlightening it may be, is just the starting point. It’s up to the individual readers to carry the teachings with them on their journey through life, with the knowledge that all of us are in a never-ending, liquid state of growth and learning.
Today, Shannon speaks with KFK to share the process of distilling her father’s philosophical teachings into the pages of “Be Water, My Friend”, along with sharing a peak behind the curtain at Season 2 of Cinemax’s “Warrior”, based on her father’s own writings. So without further ado, let’s welcome Shannon Lee!
Hi Shannon, welcome back to Kung Fu Kingdom! We hope you’ve been holding up well during the coronavirus lockdown?
Hi Brad, thank you. I’m doing well, as well as can be hoped for under the circumstances, and I hope the same is true for you.
Yes, albeit we appreciate it’s definitely tough times for most out there.
The Bruce Lee & Kung Fu Kingdom Connection
Well, before we dive in, we fully stand behind your father, Bruce Lee’s universal ideals, actually he’s one of the main inspirations behind us starting Kung Fu Kingdom about a decade ago – we just wanted to share that with you. In that connection, our mission is to encourage 100 million people around the world to get into martial arts for all the positive benefits that it brings to individuals, physically, mentally and socially – your thoughts?
I think that’s a wonderful goal. I’ve benefited myself as much from the study of martial arts, even though I don’t consider myself a martial artist in the way that my father did. (Laughs)
But I’ve gained so much from it with my own inner strength, my own confidence, and my own discipline, and I see that there is so much value in the study of martial arts, and it is something that everyone would gain a lot of valuable experience through pursuing. I think it would also change the perception that a lot of people have of martial arts as something violent and understand the true practice of it, which is so beneficial.
Shannon’s Just-Released Book: “Be Water, My Friend”
Exactly our perspective. In relation to that, do you think there are some parallels in your book “Be Water, My Friend” that will also appeal to non-martial artists?
For sure. In the book, I talk about different tools that my father used for his own growth, and I use a lot of martial arts’ analogies to help express some of the different philosophical concepts that I’m talking about. And I talk about him being a martial artist really being a stroke of luck for someone who had such a sharp mind as he had and as interested in personal growth as he was.
I often found that martial arts has so many wonderful analogies to living life and in a high stakes kind of way. When you’re sparring or something like that, you’re really dealing with instantaneous challenge, which is something we face in life all the time, but we don’t at times look at it that way. And having some sort of physical practice is an important tool that my father used and I think everyone can use.
Agree. Well, on that note, how did your book “Be Water, My Friend” initially come about?
I would say that it was sort of a natural progression from the Bruce Lee podcast. It’s been on hiatus for a little while, but there are 130 plus episodes, and it’s a bit of an experiment and a niche podcast in the sense that it is an applied philosophy podcast, where we talk about my father’s philosophies, how he applied them, and how you can also in your life.
As a natural progression of that and spending so much time with his material, a book just became the natural next step, and in fact, I had a literary agent reach out to me and say, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?”. And I had, because I do love to write but I had just never known what to write a book about, and so it all just sort of unfolded very beautifully.
With the podcast, the first episode was really just an introduction of us, but the second episode was about the ‘Be Water’ philosophy, and it just felt like the right thing to focus on because there are just so many layers that could be explored through that one philosophical phrase.
Timeline & Challenges
For sure. So, what was the process of writing a book on your father’s philosophy and teachings like, and how long did it take? What was maybe the biggest challenge for you to overcome in order to complete it?
Well, I wrote the book over the course of a year, and I would say the biggest challenge was to try to express these things as simply and as accessibly as possible.
The book also has a bit of progression to it, so it starts off with some of the simpler notions of what it is to be like water, and as it gets into the later chapters, it starts to deal with the deeper and more esoteric notion of things like emptiness and the living void and what it means when he says ‘it hits all by itself’, which can be a little heady if you’re not a philosopher or someone who spends a lot of time with Taoist or other sorts of spiritual contexts.
There’s not typically a lot of in-roads into those types of discussions, and so I really wanted to present it in an accessible way and in this progression so that the reader could really understand the real depths of where it can go and what is possible and why Bruce Lee continues to be remembered so many years later because of these thoughts and principles that he put into practice in his life. So I would say that was one of the bigger challenges, and I had to rewrite those later chapters a couple of times (laughs).
Shannon’s Favourite of Her Father’s Words & Quotes
His teachings are definitely multidimensional. Speaking of which, in the book you say you try to live by your dad’s words as best you can. Which of Bruce’s warrior-wisdom quotes or philosophy in the book resonates with you the most, and has helped you become who you are today?
I would say that even though there are things that I’ve read and come across a million times, depending on where I am and what I’m going through right in that moment, or how I myself have grown over time, things I’ve read before will suddenly have new meaning or they’ll suddenly pop out in a new way and I’ll have that sort of ‘Ah-ha’ experience all over again.
Grieving her brother Brandon Lee’s Passing & the Process of Healing
When I really went into his writings in my 20’s, I was still grieving my brother’s death and I was going through a really hard time, I was in a lot of darkness, and I did not know how to feel better. And I came across this quote that I had never heard before, and it was:
“The medicine I have for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it, and my ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it until this moment. And now I see that I will never find the light unless, like a candle, I am my own fuel.”
And it was really this call that you have be your own fuel. You can’t sit there and wait to feel better, and you’re not going to feel better until you seek your own cure.
“The Problem is the Answer. You Have to go into the Problem to Discover the Answer…”
From there, there were quotes like “The answer is never separate from the problem. The problem is the answer, and you have to go into the problem to discover the answer.” And that just set me on a path to seek my own cure, and once you’re on that path, there are so many discoveries that are made. My father talks in his writings about how he’s discovering something new every day and there’s no end in sight, and every day that he’s alive, there’s an opportunity to learn something new. That’s been my experience and I’m so much better for it as a human being.
That’s quite an exploration. Do you think that your father may have eventually written or published a guide such as this one?
I think for sure that’s where he was heading. “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” was published posthumously and the only book he wrote that was published in his lifetime was “Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense”, but he was always concerned about putting his thoughts down in a book because he didn’t want people to think that this is all that there is.
Bruce Lee Advocated each Person to Discover Themselves
Once it’s written down, it’s concretized, and then people have a tendency to treat it as the gospel truth, and they don’t continue their own journey of discovery. He always advocated that people should continue to discover themselves. But I think he would have found his way. In 1973, he started to write a series of articles called “In My Own Process”, and he was really trying to get at some essential information about himself and his journey and what was important to him.
Bruce was an Artist of Life
There, you see him using the language of actualization and saying “I’m a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but what I really am and am hoping to be is an artist of life.” And that is what a philosopher is, an artist of life.
That is profound. There are many biographical references in the book. Have you ever been tempted to write a full biography of your father’s life, or even of the Lee family overall?
I personally don’t have an interest in writing a biography on his life, but in a way this book has some biographical sense to it, because I do tell a lot of stories about him and the more seminal moments in his life. But I’m not as interested in dates and facts as I am the more esoteric, philosophical, spiritual side of things.
So, in a way, this book is my biography of him, but from an energetic and essential standpoint, and I really hope that people can feel him and get a sense of him from this perspective. Maybe someday I’d be called to write some kind of a memoir, but really the goal of writing this book was to put some useful, healing information into people’s hands.
I know that I’ve been healed and motivated and inspired by these writings and I think other people can be too, especially if they’re given a more straightforward access to it than they might get in a spiritual book or something like that, although I do find this book to be quite spiritual. I don’t know if I’d ever go hardcore biography, but never say never! (Laughs)
Well, on the topic of biographical material, one of our team wrote a book about the history of Jingwu/Chin Woo, which was famously featured in The Chinese Connection/Fist of Fury. During his research he came across a report that Bruce Lee had trained in Chin Woo forms with Master Siu Hon Sang in exchange for Cha Cha lessons. Legend has it that Bruce mastered the forms in just a few nights, but Master Siu Hon Sang never mastered the Cha Cha. Have you ever heard this story, and is there any truth to it?
I was not aware of that story, but him mastering something in a few nights doesn’t surprise me. (Both laugh)
Understanding Bruce Lee as a Deep-Thinking Philosopher
Likewise! So, what would you say is the biggest thing you hope readers take away from “Be Water, My Friend”?
Really, I hope the biggest thing they take away is just anything that is useful for them. I hope they come away with a new understanding of my father as a philosopher, as a deeply educated and practiced, deep-thinking man, and that they see that is the foundation of his exciting and entertaining performances. If a lot of it is useful, great, and if they come away with one great little nugget that helps them to shift perspective or approach life in a more open way, then that is all that I can ask.
Bruce Lee’s 80th Birthday Anniversary: 27th November
A little is all it takes. Are you and the family planning anything special to mark what would have been Bruce Lee’s 80th birthday this November?
We definitely are. Of course, most of it is going to be in the virtual space these days because of the state of the world. We’re going to have a bunch of online celebrations across social media and some releases of some awesome items in our store, and a number of our licensees are going to be doing some great things as well. We have some new programs and great tributes. So I’m very excited for that, and starting in November, we’re going to start seeding the digital wires with a lot of great new content for people to be able to experience and interact with.
Warrior Season 2: Most Memorable Moments
Looking forward to that! Kind of related, “Warrior” season 2 has also recently debuted on Cinemax. What was the most memorable moment for you in the making of season 2, which fortunately dodged the COVID-19 pandemic!
You know, season 2 is so wonderful, and I think it’s better than season 1.
In season 1, we were really introducing the world and getting audiences into the world of the show, and now we really get to dive deep with the conflict and seeing and learning more about our characters and what drives them, their faults and their virtues and how they’re all clashing in such deep and emotional ways.
The stakes are much higher in season 2 for the arc of the show. It was such a sweet thing for everyone to come back together again. Our show really has such a sense of camaraderie. Everybody was just so supportive of one another and it was really such a wonderful environment. To get to come back a second time to South Africa and dive back in after forging these initial relationships, was like family coming back together again.
Shannon Lee’s Favourite of Her Father’s Films & Fights
The end result came out beautifully polished indeed. Bruce would surely be proud of what you’ve produced. May we know Shannon Lee’s favourite Bruce Lee movies and fight scenes and why? Let’s do this!
You know, I used to always say when I was younger that it was “Enter the Dragon”, because I just felt closer to it because it was the last movie that he filmed. So that and “Game of Death” I had a lot more memory and experience of visiting the set. “Enter the Dragon” is also his actual voice on film in English, so I just liked that personal connection.
But as time goes on, I have to say that at the beginning of the pandemic, we did a live watch party of “Fist of Fury”, and it had been a while since I’d seen it from beginning to end, and I just have so much love for that film. It also seems so relevant for our times, as well. He almost glows in that movie, and I just love the dojo fight.
Then with “Way of the Dragon”, the last time I really sat down and watched that was when I was in Rome with my daughter, and I said “We’re going to go to the Colosseum tomorrow, so we have to watch it tonight.” (Laughs)
And what a special way to share that with her and then get to go to the physical location. The fight in the alleyway in “The Way of the Dragon” has always been a favourite of mine, but there’s just so many amazing, iconic fight scenes that are imbued with humor and power.
What I love about them is that they’re emotionalized. They’re part of the story, and they’re simple but they’re so powerful in their simplicity, and to me, that’s Bruce Lee to a ‘T’.
Fun & Leisure
Sublime. So, moving into fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky or interesting thing that people don’t know about you?
(Laughs) I love sweatpants, they’re my favorite lounge wear. I love to sing at the top of my lungs in my car, so there have been many people who have actually caught me in full show tune mode in my car! I also love to trade sarcastic barbs with my daughter. We’re very good at it, and we enjoy it immensely. (Laughs)
If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to have?
That’s hard! When I was a kid, it would’ve definitely been the ability to fly, because how awesome would that be. I think anything like that, that allows you to go somewhere where others can’t go. I used to have dreams as a kid about being able to fly and also being able to breath underwater. So I feel like either of those two would be pretty spectacular.
Future Goals & Ambitions
Freedom! So, what other dreams, goals and ambitions are you keen to accomplish?
Well, it’s an unfolding scenario, but I have a number of film and TV projects in development that I’m hoping to bring to fruition over the next few years. I would like to write more books, and I would like to write a novel at some point.
I think that’s something that’s calling to me. I love fantasy and sci-fi type stuff. So probably something in that realm but always with a bit of a philosophical twist. To me, the writing of “Be Water, My Friend” was a bit of an act of service. I really want people to be well, and so to figure out for myself how to continue to be of service in that way as much as possible I think would go so far to changing the world for the better. And if it’s one person at a time, it’s one person at a time.
So far, the course has been that as I’ve gotten older, life just keeps getting better and better, because I just keep being able to step into my flow more and more, and so I just want to keep on flowing. (Both laugh)
Shannon Lee’s Message to Kung Fu Kingdom Followers & Fans
Like water! Well, as we sign off what special message would Shannon Lee like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
Well, the last two words of the title of the book are “My Friend”, and I talk in the book and I’ve said on the podcast as well, that that is not just a throwaway. Those words are actually really important, and what I would say is that there are a lot of people out in the world who are doing a lot of things that are challenging a lot of people right now.
But if we can attempt to adopt a stance or notion of friendship or even just mild acquaintance with one another before we have to get to the nobility of consistent compassion, if we can do that, then I think we can create a more connected space. And that’s how I want to approach everyone, whatever the pain is being experienced, they can work on it to move through it, and that we all need to understand that everybody has some level of discomfort in some part of their lives.
A lot of times our actions come from that discomfort, and we should all give one another a little bit of grace as much as possible and wish one another well. It doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time with people who are maybe challenging to you, but it does mean that you can hold space for them in a positive light and wish them well. My father had all these quotes like “Under the sky and the heavens, we are one family”, and “If everyone would hug their neighbor, then no one would be without help”, and to me, that’s friendship, even just casually. You don’t have to be my BFF (both laugh) but, we could all be neighborly to one another, and that would be a huge start.
Well said. Thank you Shannon, it’s been a real pleasure to interview you again and we wish you all the best of success with “Be Water, My Friend”, the “Warrior” series and your exciting upcoming projects in 2021 as well.
Thanks Brad, it’s been great to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom today!