Jesus, Lao Tzu, and Bruce Lee: “Be Water, My Friend”

Jesus, Lao Tzu, and Bruce Lee: “Be Water, My Friend” May 24, 2024

Are you involved in sports, business, or other forms of competition? Jesus and Lao Tzu show how you can win by non-competition.

Jesus, Lao Tzu, and Bruce Lee
Image generated by Gregory T. Smith on Limewire

 The famous martial artist Bruce Lee, actor onscreen and instructor offscreen, knew something about winning. He did so with ease, but not by forcing his way like an iron weapon. Instead, he encouraged people to become like water. “Empty your mind,” he said. “Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” Lee got this idea from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. The eighth verse of the Tao Te Ching explores this non-competition of water.


Tao Te Ching, Verse 8, J.H. McDonald Translation

The supreme good is like water,

which benefits all of creation

without trying to compete with it.

It gathers in unpopular places.

Thus it is like the Tao.


The location makes the dwelling good.

Depth of understanding makes the mind good.

A kind heart makes the giving good.

Integrity makes the government good.

Accomplishment makes your labors good.

Proper timing makes a decision good.


Only when there is no competition

will we all live in peace.



The Tao as Water in the Bible

The beginning and ending of the Bible both portray the Tao as water. The book of Genesis begins with the waters of chaos covering everything. Once the waters and land separate and the Garden forms, we hear the trickling of water running through Eden, dividing into four branches. These waters give life to the garden.

The book of Revelation ends with a river of life, gushing from beneath the throne of God, enlivening the new heavens and new earth. This life-giving flow renews the vitality lost by this once-despoiled garden. The Supreme Good cascades down its watercourse, touching everything in need of refreshing streams.

Quintessential Yin shows itself as the procreative waters of Genesis—dark, pregnant, and brooding.  The regenerative rivers of Revelation depict the archetype of Yang, flowing and purposeful. Both are creative but in different ways.  The Genesis waters teem with the germ of creation, reaching back to primordial time and bringing to life that which has never existed.  The Revelation waters nourish and heal that which already is, and that which endures to the end.  These swirling Yin-Yang waters represent the supreme element of all creation.  They are the Tao.


The Tao in Unpopular Places

Lao Tzu states that the Tao benefits all creation. Just as Jesus says that God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the wicked alike, the Tao does not discriminate. It nourishes all life—predators and prey, strong and weak, helpful and helpless. This Tao gathers in the unpopular, lowly places—locales that might surprise religious people. Jesus demonstrates this by his frequent appearance in the homes of outcasts, sinners, and lepers. Water flows downhill to the lowest places. So, the Tao blesses the great and lowly alike, without competition.


Winning Through Non-Competition

In Kung Fu, “being water” means slipping into the places your opponent leaves open. It means flowing around the other person, swirling like an eddy and still maintaining balance. Lao Tzu inspired Bruce Lee’s statement about water. Taoism continues to influence martial arts with Lao Tzu’s words, “The location makes the dwelling good. Depth of understanding makes the mind good. A kind heart makes the giving good. Integrity makes the government good. Accomplishment makes your labors good. Proper timing makes a decision good.” This applies to martial arts in its encouragement of non-competition.

Dwellings are only good when there is no competition between neighbors. Set up your home next to someone contentious and the result is bound to be strife. The mind is only good when there is depth of understanding. Rivalry always obscures achievement. Giving is beneficial only when done with the right motives, with nothing to prove. Government is good only when integrity (not disintegration) is the primary motivator. Labor is only good when workers strive for mutual accomplishment instead of one-upmanship. Decisions are only good when they are made in the proper timing—unhurried by competition.

Each of these examples depicts a winning dwelling, mind, generosity, government, labor, and decision. They do not achieve by competing with others. They achieve by being at the right place at the right time. Like water, they slip into openings and fill empty spaces. The right thought at the right time, the right generous act at the right time, the right work at the right time—this, and not competition, is what brings about success.

Noble Eight-Fold Path

Here, we might borrow from the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. This is unlike the Ten Commandments, eight out of ten of which are instructions of what not to do. Instead, the Noble Eightfold Path suggests the best eight things to do, if you want to walk the Middle Way of moderation. Sojourners on this path must practice:

  1. Right view
  2. Right resolve
  3. Right speech
  4. Right conduct or action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration


Rather than focusing on the negative, Jesus walked a Middle Way of righteousness. His Way wasn’t based on abstention from breaking the Ten Commandments. Instead, Jesus’s Way focused on loving God and loving others. By doing this, he fulfilled the whole law. Jesus’s right view, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration separated him from the religious teachers of his day. He “won,” you might say, not because of his forcefulness but because, like water, he simply flowed. Jesus “won” because he refused to compete.


Peace Through Non-Competition

Bruce Lee “won” at his discipline because he refused to compete. He became famous not because he was a competitor, but because he performed well and instructed others. In the same way, you can “win” by refusing to compete. You can be like Jesus, the Living Water, by seeking the lowest level, being found in humble places, and flowing in the Tao.

Lao Tzu says, “Only when there is no competition will we all live in peace.” Competition is contrary to the Way of Christ. The Tao, like water, is the great leveler. Jesus’s brother James says, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Wisdom flows from God, generously and ungrudgingly to all. There is no competition in the way that Wisdom makes itself available to everyone. There is only unity in all things. The world says that peace comes when one dominates so much that the other surrenders. The Tao of Love says that peace can only come by becoming like water and refusing to compete.


Something to Practice…

Whether Buddhist, Christian, Taoist or anything else, you can apply the Noble Eightfold Path to your life. In everything you do, ask yourself whether you are practicing the right view, resolve, speech, conduct/action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Instead of blazing your life’s trail by competing with others, concentrate on becoming the best you you can be. Rather than dominating others, learn to flow. Learn to adapt. In this way, you can “win” through non-competition. Be water, my friend.


For related reading, check out my other articles:

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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