Many of us remember the nostalgia of seeing that famous Cobra logo and remembering 'Daniel-san', Mr. Miyagi, "wax on wax off", and the hallmarks of an era that was defined by popularizing martial arts (as well as pointing out some of its potential flaws).
Now we have a television show set decades later focused on the "dojo", if you can even call it that, teaching 'the way of the fist' to a new generation under our old antagonist; but what's the real lesson to be learned from his experience?
At every turn, we see this "sensei" presented with repeat opportunities to either:
1) be a good role model and thus, experience positive change/balance in his own life OR
2) figure out how to force his 'COBRA KAI' ideals into the modern world
Of course, he continues not to learn the lesson of choosing the more nuanced, challenging road that ultimately brings about balance, harmony, and tranquility.
In fact, he takes opportunities to prove that brute force, including its use on students, is the way to prove his efficacy to the world and right the wrongs of the past. He's trapped in the mindset of what's 'cool', flashy, and does damage, rather than what a traditional martial arts teacher's responsibility truly is:
The Teacher's Responsibility: Create an environment where students are challenged where injury is minimized and joy is maximized.
Characterized by the original 'sensei' of Cobra Kai and whose legacy is embedded in our new 'unfortunate sensei' is the idea that winning is all that matters. The clear and repeated physical and emotional abuse he visits on his 'students' (I would go so far as to call them victims), is something portrayed well by the actors. Their common sense of morality is continuously challenged in the wrong way, causing uncomfortable and disgusted feelings.
As commonly happens, many students find themselves seeking real-world advice from their martial arts teachers. When your spirit is in-line with such abusive behavior, of course you will undoubtedly visit this negative and destructive spirit on your students outside the dojo. As a result, his advice achieves the same 'dominate or be dominated' outcome that, while sometimes creating a 'desired effect' in the short term, ultimately destroys our relationships with others and our own morality in the process.
This is my favorite aspect of this television program. Its obviousness as a 'gimmick' for Daniel-san's automotive business, belies its subtle imagery that ties the entire show together.
At one point he explains that the bonsai is a reflection of ourselves - something that at first is chaotic and seemingly unmanageable. However, through relaxed awareness (zanshin or rigpa), consistent practice and visualization, you can learn to flow with this chaos and guide it to a beautiful outcome.
The greatest impact of the Bonsai is what it implies about Daniel-san, beyond his honoring of Mr. Miyagi and his formative years' experiences. It implies that Daniel-san, with every bonsai, is giving himself away to his customers (the world). Like a true teacher should, he continues to prune, clean, and perfect himself through regular training and the seeking of balance in his life. The result is something that he shares with the world in joy because he truly believes that its impact is positive. In the face of even his wife, who jokes with him that the Bonsai are a gimmick, he understands the deeper truth:
Those in the west who find a dojo and a sensei who understand and live this 'bonsai message', will truly share in a balanced and beautiful world.
See you on the mat,
P.S. As always, if you find something in these writings that speaks to you, please, feel free to use it in your training and/or daily life. If you don't - feel free to discard and know that I love you all and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.
P.P.S. If you are a parent, young adult (or whoever!) who wants to explore Aikido, but there is something limiting you from starting (finances, distance, prioritizing time, etc...) - know that like me, all senseis (teachers) "worth their salt" will go to whatever lengths necessary to share the gift of Aikido with you. Consider this the first hand reaching out to you - take the next step and reach back.