Bonsai treeIn one of the most profound scenes in The Karate Kid—a movie that fortunately has had no sequels or modern remakes, la la la la I can’t hear you—Daniel LaRusso comes upon Mr. Miyagi pruning his bonsai trees. Are those real trees? Daniel asks. How’d they get so small? Where’d you learn how to do that? In response, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to try it himself, but Daniel worries about making a mess of the bonsai tree. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to think only of a tree, then hands Daniel a pair of shears.

Mr. Miyagi had other options. He could have given Daniel a bonsai tree, just as he gave one of his trees to Daniel’s mother. He could have asked someone else to prune a bonsai tree for Daniel. He could have guided Daniel’s hands with his own so that Daniel would prune the tree in precisely the right places, or he could have enrolled Daniel in a lengthy apprenticeship so that Daniel would know exactly where to cut. He could have tested Daniel’s idea of a tree to make sure he wasn’t burdened by misconceptions about trees. But this time, Mr. Miyagi didn’t do any of those things. He just handed the shears to Daniel and told him to think of a tree.

Was Daniel’s bonsai tree inspired by Mr. Miyagi? Did the bonsai tree he formed have Mr. Miyagi’s approval? These questions largely miss the point. My. Miyagi handed the shears to Daniel and entrusted the pruning to him. The goal seems to have been precisely not to operate Daniel’s hands for him, but to leave the pruning up to Daniel’s best judgment of what a tree is. Could someone else have pruned it better? Not this tree, because Mr. Miyagi only authorized Daniel to prune it.

Was Daniel an infallible bonsai pruner? Did he make a mistake in pruning the tree? These questions again miss the point. Daniel’s bonsai tree is neither right nor wrong as measured against some external standard; it simply is, the result of Daniel’s fulfilling to his best ability the command from Mr. Miyagi to prune the bonsai tree. Daniel was told to prune the bonsai tree, and he pruned it.

* * *

Daniel would like to give you his bonsai tree. You might not like how Daniel pruned the bonsai tree, you might even be appalled by his concept of the ideal tree, but it’s the only bonsai tree on offer right now. If you don’t like how the branches have been shaped, you will have to decide whether to accept the gift of a bonsai tree from Daniel, or do without entirely. Those are the only two options.

* * *

In the meantime, you are surrounded by lumps of clay, sheets of paper, unformed blocks of marble, and blank canvases. You have been asked to make something out of those materials. It’s not impossible that Michelangelo will rise up and tell you exactly where to chisel, or that Leonardo will descend from above to direct your hands. But it’s highly unlikely. Barring some miraculous intervention, it’s up to you to sculpt, sketch, paint, or carve. You don’t have nearly enough guidance as you would like, and your training and relevant experience are laughably inadequate. But you, and only you, have been entrusted with this clay, paper, stone, and canvas. As you set to work and consider your results, you may find yourself with more sympathy for Daniel and his bonsai tree.

17 comments for “Bonsai

  1. Just one request: everyone who reads this has to pronounce “bonsai” right. It shouldn’t sound like “banzai,” which is something altogether different. It’s “bon” as in the English “bone” and “sai” as in “saw-ee.” Or you could make that second part sound like “sigh,” except the Japanese abhor a diphthong.

    And now back to the post itself. Terrific!

  2. Not sure I understand the metaphor. Who is “David” and why does his fallibility or infallibility have anything to do with Daniel’s bonsai? I’m guessing neither David nor Daniel has made any representations about Daniel’s bonsai having been pruned in accordance with the mind and will of Mr. Miyagi.

    Clue me in, if you feel like it. Rename David as Daniel if you feel like it. Neither, if you don’t feel like it.

    Thanks for the story in any event. I might have to watch The Karate Kid now.

  3. (Not related to the post, but that David/Daniel confusion is responsible for uncountable genealogical errors, because it’s so easy to read a handwritten “David” as “Daniel,” and vice versa. For decades my inherited pedigree charts carried a “David or Daniel Washburn,” until images became easily available and I could scrutinize original handwriting.)

  4. I think this is a nice metaphor for something, but not for what it intends. There’s more at stake than a bonsai tree. Mr. Miyagi had plenty of those and could spare one for Daniel to mess up. Sure it was his responsibility, but it’s not like much was at stake except for Daniel. The tree on the other hand, had lots at stake. Sorry, this one just doesn’t mesh. A nice idea, but a failed application.

    The emotional pull you have created is strong. But you’ve pushed the boundaries in the middle section and it falls apart. Without that, I would be fine, I think. But you’ve moved beyond an accurate metaphor there.

  5. Just to clarify that I’m not just being a crank: I have strong sympathy for what you’ve created; I sincerely admire the impulse for what you are trying to accomplish; and I admire the effort and execution deeply.

  6. Mark, thanks for pointing out the proper pronunciation. Mr. Miyagi was way ahead of you, though. See 3:50 in the linked video clip.

    Ardis, I seem to be a failed master of metaphor. Alas.

  7. Sequel?: The Karate Kid Part II (1986) — Daniel accompanies his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, to Miyagi’s childhood home in Okinawa. Miyagi visits his dying father and confronts his old rival, while Daniel falls in love and inadvertently makes a new rival of his own.

  8. Just to clarify, I’m not being a crank. I deeply appreciate the post, whether I understand or accept the metaphor or not. I’m particularly taken with the following dialogue (and thinking about how to make a metaphor out of that in conjunction with Numbers 11:29, Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:17, etc.):

    Mr. Miyagi: Just-a trust the picture.
    Daniel: How do I know if my picture’s the right one.
    Mr. Miyagi: If come from inside you, always right one.

    Perhaps almost anyone could make such a metaphor better than I.

  9. Thanks for pointing me to the link, Jonathan. I hadn’t watched it before. But you can’t be too careful! (For example, it sounds as if Daniel is calling him Mr. Miyaji, rather than Miyagi.)

  10. I thought it was a great analogy. And no, not every analogy fits in a perfect 1:1 ratio with real world applications, but if their primary point is clear and have some supporting secondary points, they’re good enough.

    For example, this Sunday I was at an area conference where President Ballard spoke. In talking about testimonies, he likened them to a sequoia grove on BYU’s campus. One of the trees had recently died, and a study found that its roots were no longer gaining sufficient water from the aquifers because a new building to the east had stopped the flow of water through the soil. President Ballard likened that to the Saints who have good gospel roots and ought to be paragons of strength, but cut themselves off from Christ’s living water, as represented by the ground water stopped by the spacious building.

    The only flaw I see in the analogy is that the tree had done nothing to cause its source of groundwater to dry up, while we can and do lose access to Christ’s living water through our own poor choices or neglect. But the analogy still makes some good point worth considering.

  11. “Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish, just like grape. Here karate, same thing. Either you karate do, yes, or karate do, no. You karate do, guess so, [makes squish gesture] just like grape.”

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