To prepare for the fourth season of Cobra Kai, I rewatched the whole series again and I have been thinking on the figure of the Sensei in this modern sequel to the 80s Karate Kid films.
The word sensei 先生 (せんせい) has been used to mean teacher. In fact, this word means “born before” so it is meant to refer to someone who was born before and therefore has the experience to impart knowledge and wisdom. Sensei, then, is not only a word reserved for schoolteachers, or karate masters, it’s also for someone who imparts knowledge and wisdom as a result of their experience and years. This is why in one of the most iconic Japanese novels of all time, Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Sōseki, the main character, a young man whom we just know as “I” refers to the older man he befriends and looks up to as “Sensei”.
(If you want more detailed information about the uses of the word sensei, read this wonderfully clear article https://www.tofugu.com/japanese/sensei/). (And I also recommend Sōseki’s Kokoro).
The word sensei connotes the image of a wise, elderly person who guides younger generations with his or her example and wise teachings and words. A lot of people know this word thanks to films such as Karate Kid since sensei is also used to refer to a martial arts instructor.
In the Karate Kid films and the series Cobra Kai, karate is more than a sport for the children as they take to heart the lessons their senseis teach them. The students of Cobra Kai, Eagle Fang and Miyagi-Do look at the lessons they learn from their senseis as roadmaps for how to live their lives and they look up to their senseis as role models.
This is why the students of Cobra Kai, following the teachings of John Kreese and (in the first two seasons of Cobra Kai) Johnny Lawrence whose motto is Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy, become bullies and badly hurt other students.
Whereas Mr Miyagi taught Daniel LaRusso that karate is for self-defense only and Daniel and his students use their karate skills to stand up to bullies.
However, the series Cobra Kai is not as black and white as its precursors since it´s not so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys as many of the characters are multi-layered and they make good as well as despicable and questionable decisions. Moreover, we get backstories that allow us to understand better why they act they way they do, making it hard to peg them as the bad guys who act like that just for evil’s sake. This is the case even for John Kreese. As we learn more about his past, we understand that as a war veteran from the Vietnam war he has a lot of trauma and struggles with his mental health as does Terry Silver.
The new students of Cobra Kai such as Robby Keene – Johnny Lawrence’s kid – as well as Tory also have personal problems regarding their family life which have created feelings of anger and resentment in them. However, the “good kids” like Miguel Diaz and Daniel’s own kids, Sam and Anthony LaRusso all make bad decisions and hurt other people along the way.
The series of Cobra Kai brilliantly dismantles the idea that there is such a thing as “the good guys” and “the bad guys”. In real life we all live within a grey area and we define ourselves with each new action we make, we play roles, sometimes we play the villain and sometimes the victim, but neither of these roles are who we really are. When thinking about good vs evil I think William Shakespeare (as usual) nailed it.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Nothing and no one is inherently good or bad, those are judgements each of us, our institutions or our respective deities, gods, goddesses add to people, events, things, etc. I can only hope that as we become more conscious we learn to shed these judgements for they help no one.
Another thing Cobra Kai does brilliantly is to emphasise the importance and influence a teacher can have on their students’ lives. Regardless of what you teach, whether it’s karate or math or swimming or crocheting or Spanish, a teacher will always be an “authority figure” and they will always have the power to influence their students, hopefully for the better.
I started teaching when I was 20 years old and at that moment I didn’t realise the responsibility I had with my students as a person more than just a teacher. It was really only when students started seeking me out after class to ask for advice, or wrote on the back of a homework that they were thinking about suicide, or asked me what I thought about feminism that I realised that students, no matter their age but especially young students do expect teachers, no matter their age, to have the answers.
I did too of many of my own teachers and sometimes I still do, or at least, I hope they have, if not the answers, some wisdom to give.
I sometimes wish I had my own Mr Miyagi in my life but alas, the only Mr Miyagis that I have found live within the pages of the books I’ve read, the books I turn to whenever I have a problem. Books have always been my teachers, my senseis and that has made me realise that one doesn’t need to be a teacher to teach something. We are always teaching something, consciously or unintentionally, with our example as we move through life we are always teaching our way to do things to others for better or worse.
No matter who you are or what your job is you will at some point or another influence someone in your life, whether you intend to or not. I believe the best teachers are not the ones that teach through words but the ones that teach by example. Your life and the way you live is your greatest teaching to the world, and you may be thinking that nobody is watching but at some point or another someone inevitably will.
In Cobra Kai, the students of Kreese, Silver, Daniel, and Johnny inevitably end up repeating history and thus they open the eyes of their senseis that things have got to change, starting with themselves.
Now in this world where we are all “connected” through social media all the time I think it’s especially important to be careful of what we teach, what we preach, what we say and do. Sometimes people are only looking for something or someone to “follow”, literally and metaphorically speaking. I think the best thing to do is look within at what we have learned, at what we need to unlearn, and to become more conscious of our actions, thoughts and words cause they all have power and that power goes out into the world. The state of the world is nothing but a reflection of our inner worlds, our collective unconsciousness and negativity can be seen in the pollution, chaos and illness that keep creating havoc in our worlds. Now it’s the time to wake up to the power we have to change that just by becoming more conscious, more awake, more aware.
We don’t need to go out there and save the world, it would be enough if each of us in our own homes started living in consciousness and at peace with what is. This is hard enough and yet I believe it’s all that we would need to move towards a better reality.
It’s time that we all become our own senseis and to make sure our teachings and what we leave behind will encourage rather than hinder, will heal rather than hurt, will elevate rather than degrade because our own life is our greatest teaching and our greatest message to the world so let’s make sure it’s a good one.