Nearly 60 years after his first brush with fame, the late Bruce Lee is known the world over, as much for being a fighter as for being a philosopher. The preternaturally charismatic Chinese American film star’s life was cut tragically short in 1973, but his impact is still felt decades later; his movies, like The Big Boss and the posthumously released Enter The Dragon, have played in home and public theaters alike. His teachings about mindfulness and empathy, which he imparted in interviews and casual conversation, also endure, thanks to the devoted efforts of his daughter, Shannon Lee.
Lee, a martial arts student and executive producer of film and TV, grew up surrounded by her father’s teachings, in a sense, but tells The A.V. Club that it wasn’t until the death of her brother, The Crow star Brandon Lee, that she sought them out in earnest. Thus began Lee’s work of compiling her father’s writings–which he’d jotted down on pieces of paper instead of journals—and sharing their wisdom in TED Talks and a podcast. As the chairperson of the Bruce Lee Foundation’s board of directors, Lee looks after her father’s legacy, but with Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings Of Bruce Lee, a new book of insights from a man who was stopped short of conquering Hollywood, she’s trying to make it more accessible than ever.
For the release of her book, The A.V. Club spoke to Shannon Lee about the lessons we can all take from Bruce Lee’s life, the importance of telling our own stories, and how working on Be Water, My Friend brought her closer to her father.
The A.V. Club: This is obviously a subject that you know intimately, but that just makes me wonder—where did your research start?
Shannon Lee: It’s funny, because I had done a lot of research already because I had been doing the Bruce Lee Podcast, which is an applied philosophy podcast. We would talk about my father’s philosophies and break them down, and I would do a lot of research to track each of those episodes. Now, they weren’t organized in the way this book is organized, and they were much more in short form in terms of content. We were kind of all over the place, and sometimes we would have guests on and that sort of thing. But I guess because of that, I did this very DIY lo-fi craft project of making photocopies of all the quotes, and cutting them into strips by topic, and then organizing them by topic. I have all of these manila folders that I filled with my father’s quotes. And those became a really great resource for the book because if I was writing on a particular thought, I could—not always easily but at least somewhat—turn to these manila folders with all of these quotes. I’m talking about scissors, tape and paper, not digital age stuff. [Laughs.] I am a child of the ’60s.
AVC: I think a lot of us have this image of a library or bookshelves when we think of “Bruce Lee’s teachings.” But it sounds like you had anything but that here.
SL: Yes, definitely. It’s still a work in progress, because my father did not write in journals, so it’s not like I have bound books of his writings. He wrote sometimes in a notebook, but mostly on loose pieces of paper. And he wrote on all manner of subjects. We have all this paper which is now many decades old. And so, the task of gathering it all together is a daunting one. Quite honestly, it’s one we’re still working on, also in terms of digitizing and properly storing in archival boxes and all that kind of stuff. There is no library, nicely organized with digitized materials quite yet to look through.
AVC: How old were you when you first really started digging into his writings?
SL: My father’s writings and things were always around our house when I was growing up. Tao Of Jeet Kune Do was published posthumously, and there was a lot of philosophy and some of his more technique-based writings about martial arts. They were always in the atmosphere. I definitely knew about them, but I was a kid so it wasn’t like I was sitting there reading through them. I didn’t really engage with them until after my brother [Brandon Lee] died, which was right before my 24th birthday. And it wasn’t even on purpose. It wasn’t like I was like, “Oh, I’m grieving. I need to turn to these writings.” It was more like I spent a lot of time being in a lot of personal internal pain. My mom was contemplating publishing some books of the writings and had pulled them out, and had given some to me to read. So it was very much by happenstance. I came across a quote that really spoke to me, and it just hit me square in the chest. I was just changed; suddenly, the power to heal myself was put into my hands.
AVC: You’re the chairperson of the board of directors for the Bruce Lee Foundation, in addition to kind of helping spread his philosophy through the podcast. Your role is more active than just an archivist. Do you view yourself as a steward for your father’s legacy?
SL: It’s a good question. I first stepped into this 20 years ago, and I’ve been in it to some degree my whole life. But when I actively stepped into the role of looking at all of the different business pieces that were happening, as well as projects and things like that, I didn’t really step into it because I wanted to have the title of steward. I really stepped into it because I felt very connected to it, I would say, and I think that the book illustrates this—that there is an intersection between my father and I that happens around the philosophy and the self-work, and trying to live our lives in a particular way that is very much him and also very much me. So, while on the one hand, I did see that his legacy needed some care, it needed some caretaking, and I was happy to do that. But I stepped into it because I also was motivated personally to do so, because it felt like a calling to me.
Now, I will say for the first many years, it was a lot of cleanup and reorganization and figuring things out and all of that kind of stuff that didn’t allow me to really be as creatively involved as I am now. But it was all in service to getting things in order so I could begin more of a collaboration with him than a stewardship, although we’re splitting hairs here, right? [Laughs.] There’s a part of this where I am definitely the steward and caretaking his legacy to a certain degree, but I am pleased to be able to bring myself to that at the same time.
AVC: In the book, there’s a line early on where you describe being deeply moved and healed by the practices yourself. It’s clear these are things that you apply in your own life first.
SL: Yes, very much so. It would have been a very different book if 15, 20 years ago someone said, “We’d really like you to write a book about your father’s philosophy.” I would have been like, “Okay.” You kind of know what it is, but I wasn’t as deeply immersed, I wasn’t as mature as I am now. I don’t just mean I’m older, but I’m more grounded and more present and more proactive in my own life. And I have healed a lot, especially from things like my father and my brother’s deaths. I needed time to do all of that work and really sit with the writings and work in the legacy in order to have the time to process a lot of this for myself.
AVC: You wrote this really lovely column for ESPN when the Be Water documentary was released. You discuss how you have very few of your own memories of your father because of how young you were when he passed away. In going through his writings and teachings, does it feel like you are getting closer to him? That you’re getting the lessons that you might’ve gotten if he were still around?
SL: Yes, definitely. I say this all the time. I feel like my father is still raising me in a way. He has been one of my greatest teachers through his writings, probably more than he might’ve been in person, because when we’re in person, we’re just having conversations, we’re not actively teaching necessarily, right? I now have access to his words and his thoughts and the things that were meaningful to him, in a very intentional way. They are written down and thought about and processed. They’re not just having a casual conversation and one small idea pops through. That has been very meaningful and informative and helpful to me. And again, it does bring me closer to him. I think it makes me realize how similar we are in a lot of ways as well.
AVC: Have you found anything that surprised you?
SL: When I really started to sit with the writings that start with Jeet Kune Do, I think I was very surprised by, first of all, the sheer volume of writings. And I continue to be surprised at how relevant, meaningful, and how much clarity they can bring to me, even now. Even writings that I’ve read before, because the simple truths within them are so meaningful and they resonate with me depending on where I am in my life and what’s going on and what level of understanding I’ve attained. In the process of writing this book, I feel like I grew because I had to really sit with these ideas and thoughts, and really hone in on how was I going to try to express these in a way that was that’s clear, that was based off my understanding, but not in an overly intellectualized or overly aggrandized way. I didn’t want to have a lot of words just to sound smart, I wanted to have fewer words that were as meaningful as they could be to get the point across.
AVC: Is there a principle or a quote that you found particularly challenging, or one that you’ve just returned to the most frequently?
SL: The first quote that I came across that really sort of smacked me in the chest was, “The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailments 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 the candle, I am my own fuel.” I think that that one comes back to me again and again and again, because it speaks to this notion of having to remain vigilant and proactive for whatever I’m struggling with. That the cure for that is within myself. It’s mostly just about creating a perspective shift or learning something that I didn’t fully understand previously. I do think this notion of self-actualization, which was key to my father’s life and art, is one that is a lifelong task and keeps changing all the time. Because what is the self? It’s almost like the deeper you get into the self and what the self is and what you believe the self to be, the more amorphous it sort of becomes. So, there’s a lot to unpack.
AVC: You’ve spoken up about depictions of your father in pop culture, including in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, not because you feel he was perfect, but because they don’t reflect the truth—that he really had to work three times as hard as his contemporaries just to be in contention for roles.
SL: I deal with them in the best way that I can, which is to speak my truth about it, and then I let it go. Because look, yes, there have been times when I’ve taken more action than that if I felt it was warranted. But at the end of the day, I feel very confident about who my father was and who I am, and that, on the whole, his presence on this planet has been extremely positive and had a great impact on a lot of people. So when people want to characterize him as an asshole or characterize him as, “Well, he wasn’t really all that,” that’s their opinion. They’re coming at it from that angle for some unknown purpose, but I’m aware that is theirs and has nothing to do with me. I feel like I’m doing my work to put out a portrait of the person I know.
And by the way, I don’t even have to do anything. He already did it—I’m just shining a light on it. I’m going like, “Hey, guess what, this guy that you think was a bully and arrogant and blah, blah—he believed all of these things, and lived and practiced all of these things. And guess what, he was a human being. We all get angry sometimes, we all have bad days. But on the whole, this is what he was trying to do.” I just put my efforts there. Does it feel good when I watch the way he was portrayed in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood? No, I think it was inaccurate. I think he was treated in that movie the way he was treated by white Hollywood. But I’m not going to waste too much of my time and energy, unless I feel like it’s really warranted. My energy is better spent someplace else.
AVC: It really just underscores something that your father did early on, which was to try to take control of the narrative—you know, “stories for us, by us.” You carry that on today through a show like Warrior, which is really unlike anything else that’s out there right now.
SL: A friend once said to me, “There are as many realities as there are people.” Because we all have our own experience. We all experience our lives uniquely to us. And as much as we want to have empathy, as much as we want to say we understand or believe we can understand, we don’t have the experience of what it is to be another person. So, in order for us to create bonds of connection, but also bridges of compassion, we really need to allow people to be represented and have a voice and be seen. Nobody can tell your story better than you can. My father saw in Hollywood and/or just film and TV globally as the way that people encounter stories and humanity. So the decision makers should try to do a little bit better job of covering the gamut of those experiences.
AVC: The opening to the quote that lends the book its title is actually “empty your mind.” There is so much going on in the world right now that requires people to take action, but this feels like a reminder to take a beat in between.
SL: Yeah, definitely. I mean, life ebbs and flows, right? We’re all facing obstacles in these uncommon times. The thing is that you need to tune in with yourselves and look deeply inside. It doesn’t all have to be serious work. Joy and rest and calm all play really important roles in nourishing our own souls. One of the things about being a fighter is that when you have to fight, when you’re called upon to fight, you know how and why. This is another window into that. You take that joy and peacefulness with you into the fights that you’re going to have to wage.