“The Art of Dying”: a valuable message from Bruce Lee about our ego.

In his constant search for self-knowledge, Bruce Lee produced a lot of valuable messages that apply not only to martial arts, but to life as a whole.

Nicolas Rufino dos Santos
8 min readFeb 12, 2019

In February 1971, a series called “Longstreet” was transmitted on ABC. Starring James Franciscus, the story accompanied Michael Longstreet, an investigator who recovered from an explosion that blinded him and eventually killed his wife. Longstreet then searches for the criminals who did this.

Bruce Lee appeared in four episodes of Longstreet. His role, whose character was named Li Tsung, was an instructor for Mike Longstreet (James Franciscus), and was meant to teach him a number of martial arts techniques for self-defense.

In one of the scenes, in addition to saying the well-known phrase “Be Water, My Friend”, Lee’s character asks Michael Longstreet when it will be his next fight. After discovering it that would be tomorrow, he tells to Longstreet:

James Franciscus and Bruce Lee on the “Longstreet” (1971)

“Like everyone else, you want to learn the way to win, but never to accept the way to lose, to accept defeat, to learn to die is to be liberated from it. So when tomorrow comes, you must free your ambitious mind, and learn The Art of Dying.” — Bruce Lee

But what did Bruce Lee mean by that?

From the term “The Art of Dying”, I will talk about 3 points to deepen the meaning of the phrase by explaining the philosophical views of Bruce Lee and his relationship with other philosophical authors who speak on this same topic, some of them being philosophers who influenced him during his life.

In his posthumous book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, published in 1975, Lee stated that his style of fighting, called Jeet Kune Do, sought to involve both the study of a set of martial arts techniques and the development of spirituality:

“The spirit is undoubtedly the controlling agent of our existence. This invisible center controls all movements in any external situation that appears.” — Bruce Lee.

“The Art of Dying”, featured in the series Longstreet (1971), is not a literal idea. It is not a matter of dying physically, but of a metaphor whose central idea is to let our ego die.

Theo Fischer in “Wu Wei: The Art of Living the Tao”, says that the ego is the whole set of experiences, accumulations, analyzes, and memories that make up our view of ourselves. This ego carries all our prejudices, distortions and is formed by a limited and partial thought of reality, which prevents us from seeing it as it really is.

Fischer also said it:

For the sages death is not primarily the disintegration of the body. Death means the end of the ego, a process that the Tao person tries to accomplish even in life. When this artificial formation of the “I” disappears from our existence, we can live beyond our “I”, that is, the true life, because it results from a dimension that no longer depends on time.” — Theo Fischer.

Fischer claims that the ego is harmful in our daily lives, as it pressures us to want to be something and make connections with expectations for the future. The death of the ego implies both being open to criticism and incorporating constant process of learning in order to develop our abilities and to let go of any nostalgic ideas about the past and ambitious about the future.

“It is the ego that stiffens against outside influences, and it is this” rigidity of the ego “that makes it impossible for us to accept everything that confronts us.”

Lee applied these Zen ideas to martial arts. From the study of his book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, we can divide this idea of The Art of Dying into three points:

1. Die for the Ambition of Victory

Bruce Lee constantly asserted that one of the biggest mistakes a fighter can make is to anticipate the outcome of the fight:

“Do not think about winning or losing, do not think about pride and pain. (…) The biggest mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the fight. You should not think about whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course, and your weapons will be used at the right time.“ — Bruce Lee.

Lee emphasized that in a fight, it is necessary to abandon any expectations regarding its results. A fighter should be devoid of anxiety about the results, but at the same time he can not afford to use enough intelligence and training to constantly improve himself. To let the ego die means to act like a “wooden puppet: he has no ego, he thinks of nothing, he is not greedy or attached to anything or anyone.”

“Do not establish anything in relation to yourself. Pass quickly, as something that does not exist, and be as quiet as purity. Those who win lose. Do not anticipate others, always follow them.“ — Bruce Lee.

Consequently, we must rid ourselves of our ambitious minds in order to enjoy our daily struggles in our daily lives without worrying about thinking in terms of victory or defeat, after all, “the fight against and favor is the worst disturbance of the mind,” Lee said. In that sense, letting the ego die means letting go of the protagonism of our own actions and focusing on “the act of realizing, not realizations”, after all, “there is no actor, but action. There is no experimenter, but the experiment“, he said.

Lee has classified six diseases that a fighter can have, and the first one is precisely this:

The six diseases:
1. The desire for victory;
2. The desire to resort to cunning techniques;
3. The desire to display all that has been learned;
4. The desire to terrify the enemy;
5. The desire to be passive;
6. The desire to get rid of any evil that can affect you.

In fact, not only is the desire for victory is a disease, according to Lee, but the desire itself is already a problem:

“Desiring is a bond. “Desiring not to desire” is also a bond. To be detached, then, means to be free, at the same time, of both, positive and negative. That is to be simultaneously “yes” and “no,” which is intellectually absurd. But not in Zen.” — Bruce Lee.

2. Dying for the Techniques and Knowledge

The clarification of martial arts, for Bruce Lee, means forgetting about all that is known by knowledge. Knowledge is created from the past and the forgetting of knowledge implies in the fighter to reach a state of freedom in order to flow solely in the present moment, without any limitations:

“The skill and knowledge attained must be” forgotten “so that you can float comfortably in the void without blockages. Learning is important, but do not let yourself be enslaved. (…) Any technique, however valuable and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind becomes obsessed with it”. — Bruce Lee.

There is a vast literature in Taoist philosophy that describe the importance of developing our ability to sense and deal with the unconscious through intuition to solve a number of problems in our daily lives, and in Jeet Kune Do is no different. Lee, while spoke the importance of the technique, emphasized that the fighter should not submit to or limit himself to it:

“In Jeet Kune Do, all techniques must be forgotten and the unconscious must be in charge of dealing with the situation. The technique will be displayed automatically or spontaneously. To move with totality, not to have technique, is to have all the techniques.” — Bruce Lee.

Die, in this point, is more connected with the idea of the constant search for the student’s improvement from the forgetfulness of previous experiences and the development of the ability to empty the mind so that there is a new consciousness. Lao Zi said that “to be battered is to be renewed” and the Art of Dying is a form of rupture.

3. Dying to the Past and the Future

A person with an ego is attached to his distorted image, to the past and to the future. In this point, letting the ego die requires us to discard any memories and future expectations so that we can flow freely in the present, the here and now.

Past and future are ideas coming from thought, therefore, artificial. The past is a set of memories from memory and the future is a thought formed from our anxiety and expectation. The present is the only physical-temporal space in which we can act. Breaking the past that limits us and the future that awaits us results in consciousness only from this moment, after all, all time is concentrated in the now.

Lee tells the character of James Franciscus that he “must free his ambitious mind.” Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the references in the life of Bruce Lee, says:

Ambition in any form — by group, individual salvation or spiritual achievement — is a deferred action. Desire is always of the future; the desire to become something is the inaction of the present. Now is more important than tomorrow. All time is the now, and to understand the now is to be free of time. Becoming is the continuation of time, of pain. Becoming contains no being. Being is always in the present and being is the highest form of transformation. Becoming is only modified continuity and there is only radical transformation in the present, in being.“ — Jiddu Krishnamurti.

“Jeet Kune Do teaches us not to look back after the course has been decided. He treats life and death indiscriminately. “ (…) To express yourself freely, you must forget yesterday. From the “old” you get security. “New”, you gain fluidity.” — Bruce Lee.

These are just a few philosophical ideas that Bruce Lee expressed in his films, books and other television appearances, but that went unnoticed by many people.

Bruce Lee studied Philosophy at the University of Washington in the 1960s. One of his undeniable merits was to reveal to the West a series of teachings built from Eastern philosophy — mainly Taoist and Buddhist — and incorporate them into the martial arts.

Martial arts and sport are a great metaphor for our lives, and if we develop the ability to analyze them with care and attention, it will be possible to extract valuable lessons into our daily lives to deal with a series of daily problems.



Nicolas Rufino dos Santos

PhD student in Administration - Ethics, Virtues and Moral Dilemmas in Administration. Florianópolis, SC, Brasil. Contact: nicolasrufino4@gmail.com