Philosophy / Spiritual | Self Protection/Reality Based Martial Arts

Was Being “Formless” Really Bruce Lee’s Idea? And What Does It Really Mean?

This post builds on last weeks post, How To Train For Reality In Your Martial Art.

Bruce Lee famously said:

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water.  When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup.  When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle.  When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.  Water can drip and it can crash.  Become like water my friend”.

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee

This is often quoted by those who follow his teachings as a criticism of traditional Oriental martial arts who from their perspective, place too much emphasis on the form of techniques (precise body mechanics & structures) with little to no emphasis on how to apply those movements under pressure.  It is argued that the fluid and chaotic nature of real fighting does not lend itself to trying to perform techniques with such correctness and precision, we need to be much more free flowing.  Modern reality based styles like Krav Maga and Systema argue that they are principle based rather than technique based like traditional Oriental martial arts.  Being principle based, they can learn a principle and apply it to many different circumstances; therefore they only need to learn and perfect a few principles to cover a wide range of self defence scenarios.  However, a technique based system (it is argued) needs to learn many techniques to cover the vast range of possible different self defence scenarios.

So are these criticisms of tradition Oriental martial arts justified?

Well, sometimes.  Many traditional martial arts have been dumbed down and many of them do focus on a techniques form over its function.  However, this was not how they were originally meant to be.  Lets look at what some of the older Okinawan masters had to say.

Kenwa Mabuni, (1889 to 1952) Founder Of Shito Ryu Karate

“A kata is not fixed or immoveable.  Like water, it’s ever changing and fits itself to the shape of the vessel containing it.  However, kata are not some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self-defense – which determines life and death”.

Kenwa Mabuni
Kenwa Mabuni, (1889 to 1952)

It’s very close to Bruce Lee’s statement, including the references to being like water and taking up the shape of the container.  The idea that kata (or the techniques within the kata) are not fixed or immoveable is basically saying that the form/technique is not cast in stone and you can adjust/adapt then as you need.  As it is not fixed or immoveable you can move without the basic techniques rigid form.  Or another way to put it, you can move less the form – formless.

I have discussed before, that techniques are a shorthand for learning principles.  We may practice say a reverse punch for example in a deep stance, starting with one hand extended, the other on hip; but what are we really learning.  We are learning to coordinate moving our body weight forward with the punch.  We learn a good straight structure from the knuckles to the shoulder so that no power is lost by joints bending or buckling on impact.  We learn to coordinate all this with exhalation of breath.

When confronted by an aggressor, I would likely be in quite an upright position.  By the time I’ve stepped back into a stance, extended one hand and chambered the other on my hip; I’ve likely already been hit.  However, if I strike from my informal upright position, I can still hit them whilst moving body weight forward, with good structure from knuckles to shoulder and with exhalation.  So I can apply all the principles that I learnt from practicing the basic form of the technique, but I can apply those principles less the form of the basic technique.

Now before anybody suggests that Kenwa Mabuni was copying Bruce Lee; Bruce lived from 1940 to 1973 whilst Kenwa Mabuni lived from 1889 to 1952.  I don’t know exactly when Mabuni’s quote above was made, but at his death, Bruce Lee would have been about 14 years old and unheard of.  So no disrespect to Bruce Lee, he was a brilliant martial artist, but this was not his idea.

I have discussed before that basics and kata (forms/patterns) work on different levels.  They simultaneously teach a fighting technique, body mechanics, self awareness and attitude.  But when applying a fighting technique for real, you need to let go of the other aspects and just focus on the application.  However, the problem with how many traditional martial arts are practiced is that they don’t let go of the formal technique when practicing applying it.  They hang on to the form and try to apply it precisely the same way as they train it in basic form.  This why we get the criticism mentioned earlier.

Choki Motobu, (1870 – 1944) one of the most feared fighters on Okinawa

“One must learn how to apply the principles of the kata and how to bend with the winds of adversity”.

Note, he says apply the principles of the kata, not the techniques of the kata.  By bending with the winds of adversity, he clearly means breaking from strict form (less the form -formless) and adapting to whatever attack is thrown at you.

Gichin Funakoshi, (1868 – 1957) who first introduced Karate to Japan

“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another”.

Again, he is telling us not to try to fight with the same exact form that we practice kata with.  And again, I don’t have dates for when these quotes were actually made, but you can see from the years that they lived, they were saying this long before Bruce Lee come on the scene.

Hironori Otsuka (1892 – 1982), founder of Wado Ryu Karate

“It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be ‘stuck’ in them.  One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless.  It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training”.

Hironori Otsuka
Hironori Otsuka (1892 – 1982)

Where Otsuka says “must not be ‘stuck’ in them” [kata], he clearly means that we should not limit ourselves rigidly to the forms of the techniques within the kata.  His phraseology is different from Bruce Lee where he talks of“forms with no limits” and “countless other forms” whereas Bruce Lee talks of being “formless”.  However, they are both clearly talking about the same thing.  They both refer to not being limited (stuck) by the basic form of the techniques within the kata.


With all due respect to Bruce Lee who was a great martial artist, clearly the idea of being formless and being like water was not his original idea.  This philosophy had been around for a very long time.  However, many traditional Oriental martial arts have been dumbed down along the way and much of Bruce Lee’s criticisms of them would have been valid at the time.  In fact, the criticisms are still valid for much of the traditional martial arts world today.

That said, it was not how these arts were originally designed to be and there are many people reinventing them and taking them back to what they should be.  It was part of the reason that I set up the BunkaiJutsu website in the first place.

There are many people in the modern reality based martial arts world who criticise traditional martial arts.  This criticism is valid in many cases.  As more and more we re-examine the teachings of old masters as well as embracing the reality based teachings of the modern masters (which are very close to each other); then we have a very complete, functional and at times, very dangerous martial arts.

I personally like the fact that we put a lot of emphasis on the detail of techniques.  They really deeply ingrain the principles that we are supposed to learn from them.  It’s like digging a deep foundation from which we can build a very big and powerful defensive set of skills on top of.  I personally feel that some of the more modern styles go more directly for the defensive skills without building a deep foundation first, which in my humble opinion is limiting.

However, don’t fall into the trap of just digging the foundations and not building the defensive skills on top of it.  Digging down a massive foundation is no good if you don’t build up from it!


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  1. Hi Dag
    Thank you for the feedback. I read that book years ago and I’ll be honest, I’d forgotten that quote by Miyamoto Musashi. I knew that the idea of being like water was an old one and I believe it’s part of Buddhist philosophy too (though more to do with dealing with life’s ups and downs than for combat).
    But it’s really nice to get a quote going to the 16th century, so thank you very much.

  2. Hi! I just started to read The Book of five Rings, translated by Don Roley.

    The originial author, samurai Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645) is quoted saying:
    “With water as the basis, the spirit becomes like water. Water adopts the shape of its receptacle, it is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea.”

    I guess water has been, and continues to be, and inspiration and instil calmness in the mind before raging into a waterfall.

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