For a generation of Americans and Europeans, the 1984 movie "The Karate Kid" was an unexpected introduction to bonsai as a hobby and a mindfulness activity. Mr. Miyagi introduce Daniel to bonsai, first showing him a medium-size juniper* and tells him to close his eyes and think only of the tree. He further instructs him to picture the tree, then to open his eyes and make the actual bonsai in front of him look like the picture in his mind.
Daniel: "How do I know the picture in my mind is the right one?"
Mr. Miyagi: "If come from inside you, always right one"
After some work on the tree Daniel's mom enters and asks what he's up to, Daniel responds by saying I'm working on my "Baby Tree"
M: "Bonsai Tree"
D: "Banzai Tree"
In this one short scene (click on the image above to watch the clip), the default concept of bonsai was formed in the minds of millions of people. For an American production company working in Los Angeles in the 1980's we think they got a lot of great things right, starting the ball rolling for so many people. Here are four things we think they did well:
1. The plants are healthy and full of good looking growth - even though this is difficult to tell in the dark scene, just this simple idea that a plant should be healthy and growing well as a bonsai is helpful to people who have little other experience with the concept of bonsai.
2. Mr. Miyagi manages to quickly convey that bonsai is a process that a person thinks through and then executes physically, shaping the tree to the picture that they create in their mind. He hands Daniel a pair of scissors and leaves him to work on a plant. While many Americans still think of bonsai as a decorative object like a painting, this scene conveys this key conceptualization - it is a partnership between a plant and a person that makes a bonsai.
3. Bonsai are trained to be small. One of the very basics of bonsai is that they are not a type of plant, they are a method of training both the foliage and the roots.
4. Mindfulness is a part of bonsai practice - incorporating time to consider your actions, maintaining concentration on what you are doing, and enjoying the process of working on a tree through scents, textures, and sounds allows you to quiet your busy mind and contemplate. Although bonsai has conceptually been linked in popular culture to "Zen" and mindfulness, it is well incorporated in this scene.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness and bonsai, check out our Mindfulness Series, beginning with "Establishing a Mindful Bonsai Practice".
When was the last time you watched The Karate Kid? Have you binge-watched the new season of "Cobra Kai" on Netflix yet? Let us know if we missed anything else the movie got right about bonsai in the comments below!
*most likely a Juniperus procumens; learn why this is actually a mistake in last week's article, "3 Things The Karate Kid & Cobra Kai Got Wrong about Bonsai".