Natural devotion through karate

What would you think of a friend of yours that likes karate, but goes around in karate outfit all day, screams samurai’s kiai battle cry at every innocent passer-by, and perhaps twirls his nunchaku at the bus station, when in the line to pick-up movie tickets and in doctor’s waiting room?

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Oftentimes I’ve been asked to describe what a natural devotion is compared to practice found in institutionalised forms of Chaitanya Vaishnavism and their branches. Many things are in common between the two philosophies of life, and yet, they are so much different. It seems it’s hard to put all in words because we lack a reference point, or a tangible mirror of allegory already familiar to people. In other words, I needed a good story people can imagine, take the role and identify with.

A week ago my son asked me to join him watch the movie he adores, and I happily sat next to him, drinking my tea. The movie was Karate Kid, the first one of three. Young lad Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) moves with his mother from New Jersey to California and is confronted with a culture he doesn’t fit into. After being beaten up several times by students from a local karate school, Daniel finds a mentor, and a future friend Mr. Miyagi (played by Pat Morita), the humble maintenance man for Daniel’s apartment building. Miyagi agrees to help Daniel and teach him karate, although his methods are unconventional. Or many were thought so. However, they’re quite unlike those practiced by boys from the karate club.

As a film critic says, it’s a rare movie that manages to be both entertaining and enlightening. Daniel learns about Miyagi’s painful past and his deep generosity, lessons that are as valuable to him as how to avoid and block punches. Young Daniel learns about the many different kinds of balance that it takes to become a man and practice what you love unpretentiously, without showing off. The audience learns along with him and it’s all done with a light, sincere touch. No preachy speeches but a gentle unfolding of experience and understanding, coming from Mr Miyagi who lives a simple life and true spirit of karate.

As I was watching it, I’ve realised I finally got my reference point. Let me share it with you. I’ll transcribe some short and memorable excerpts from the movie and reflect upon.

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    Miyagi: First, wash all car. Then wax. Wax on…
    Daniel: Hey, why do I have to…?
    Miyagi: Ah ah! Remember deal! No questions!
    Daniel: Yeah, but…
    Miyagi: Hai!
    [makes circular gestures with each hand]
    Miyagi: Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.
    [walks away, still making circular motions with hands]
    Miyagi: Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off.

Mr Miyagi’s methods of teaching karate are quite different. He asks Daniel to paint his house, fence, sand the floor in the backyard, wax the cars. Daniel is confused, of course, because he was expecting a formal training wearing karate outfit, in the dojo (temple) before an almighty sensei (guru). However, he was given everyday tasks by a humble, simple man in maintenance clothes. However, through those simple exercises and housework he indeed practiced and thought karate, without realising it in the beginning. Mr Miyagi taught him how to weave karate (in our case devotional) practices and thinking into everyday duties and lifestyle, without breaking a sweat in the karate dojo (temple).

This episode alone is a shining example of the core differences between the natural Radha-Krishna devotion and the formalised, institutionalised devotion. The latter puts so much emphasis on life in and around the temples, neglecting everybody and everything else for the sake of devotion that leads to salvation, suitable robes and appearance (Indian dhotis, saris, sticks, etc.), hard training, breaking serious sweat to please a guru and earn some mercy. However, there’s much more I’d like to share.

    Miyagi: Karate come from China, 16th century, called te, “hand.” Hundred year later, Miyagi ancestor bring to Okinawa, call kara-te, “empty hand.”
    Daniel: I thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that.
    Miyagi: You, too much TV.

Quite funnily, this is so similar to what all involved with Chaitanyaism learn after some time. People believe that devotion as taught in temples of the institutions and their branches is all what’s there to know about devotion to Radha-Krishna. But what they were taught is not true, of course, and is much more like a TV commercial. Many don’t know that there is a non-institutionalised, non-formalised but rather spontaneous and naturally expressed form of devotion followed by simple family men and women generation after generation, long before institutions came and set the new stage. Similarly to residents of Okinawa, as we learn from the movie, where the knowledge and philosophy of karate was passed down from father to son.

Institution has its own mind, identity and a holy reason to live. Often is that reason in contradiction with people’s interest and uses all force and influence available — fear especially — to keep the flock from running and to express its own worldviews. We notice that nicely from the following scene in the movie:

    [just before Johnny fights Daniel in the tournament]
    Sensei Kreese: Sweep the leg.
    [Johnny stares at him in shock]
    Sensei Kreese: Do you have a problem with that?
    Johnny Lawrence: No, Sensei.
    Sensei Kreese: No mercy.

Like young Johnny Lawrence, many devotees involved with institutions have gone through similar painful experiences. The unquestionable authority of the guru (sensei Kreese here played by Martin Kove) was so overwhelming that it demanded ultimate obedience, often crushing boundaries of morality, freedom of choice and humanity. Even though every cell inside their bodies was screaming that what guru says was profoundly wrong, they followed it because of the immense fear — that they would be otherwise rejected and devoid of God’s mercy, without any hope for salvation. If God sees you’re not obeying your guru, you’re doomed.

In Caitanyism this is particularly sad but true. Institutions were always in war with everyone else. To quote Sensei Kreese from the beginning of the movie, ‘Here in the street, in competition, a man confronts you, he is the enemy, and enemy deserves no mercy‘. Although it sounds a bit off balance and exaggerated for a comparison, the consequences of any unbalanced and exaggerated behaviour are similar. In India the institution was in war with family men and women and almost everyone else representing the tradition of spontaneous devotion, as opposed to priestly caste of renunciates inside the institution who proclaimed a war against the material nature. In the west we had the same, and more: institutions of Chaitanyism transplanted in the west considered western society and its people to represent a lowly culture of cats and dogs. The whole society needs to be evangelised, changed and live up to ancient Indian standards or purity, caste system and cultural views which were considered to be the best and desirable.

Again we are faced with the mentality of “us and them”, no much different from one illustrated through the demonstration and understanding of karate of the Kobra Kai dojo, and the overall philosophy of life they represent in this movie.

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    [some drunks were drinking and setting their beer bottles on Mr. Miyagi’s truck]
    Miyagi: Excuse me, please. Boy cold. Must leave. Kindly remove bottles.
    Yahoo at beach: Kindly do it yourself, Mr. Moto.
    [Miyagi karate-chops the tops off three beer bottles]
    Daniel: How did you do that? How did you do that?
    Miyagi: Don’t know. First time.

This one is another gem. My Miyagi chops the tops of beer bottles to scare away some troublemakers, and yet it was the first time he’s done such a thing. This is the dynamics of living the faith. He was able to utilise his skills, quick thinking and experience into a new expression of the moment and elegantly solved a problem. Quite unlike formal forms of devotion, where every action and thought must be justified, prescribed and adjusted to fit within the official set of rules of the scripture written long time ago. No fluidity, or freedom to experience and bring new insights and new solutions into the philosophy, new circumstances and life.

In the world of karate, that would mean walking around with a secret manual of moves and defences prescribed long ago in some province where your sensei lived. If someone attacks you, you should follow the steps and procedures described in the manual exactly, or otherwise you’re not allowed to proceed. Even if the new solution can come to you in the form of instant new inspiration and can be quite ingenious, you must first confirm it within the manual and then apply. Otherwise, you cannot. Of course, all this would mean you’re dead already.

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Karate Kid scene

    Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
    Miyagi: Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?
    Daniel: [laughs] No, I meant…
    Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.
    [laughs; then, seriously]
    Miyagi: Daniel-san…
    Daniel: What? [comes closer]
    Miyagi: [taps his head] Karate .. here.
    Miyagi: [taps his heart] Karate .. here.
    Miyagi: [points to his belt] Karate never here. Understand?
    Daniel: [after a short pause] I think so …
    Miyagi: Good night Daniel-san [nods humbly]

What would you think of a friend of yours that likes karate, but goes around in karate outfit all day, screams samurai’s kiai battle cry at every innocent passer-by, and perhaps twirls his nunchaku at the bus station, when in the line to pick-up movie tickets and in doctor’s waiting room?

Similarly, what would you think of a friend who constantly walks around in saffron robes and touts you about rules and regulations that lead to salvation from this world, all through the steps and stages that resemble walking through the legendary chambers of challenges of Shaolin, that you need to live a life of deep austerity, earn God’s mercy, that constantly notices, counts and points out mistakes you’ve just done (i.e. held a spoon or scratched your back with a wrong hand, uttered a mantra in a wrong way, that you’ve just yawned, looked the wrong way, contemplated a meal or going to a concert, asked a wrong question, offered your opinion, etc.) and anything that happened to you for that person had a higher meaning which (always) points out your bad karma and need for repentance?

Natural devotion is an antithesis of all that. Being devotional has nothing to do with robes, sticks, leading life of penance and the levels of spiritual achievement measured with an imaginary yardstick of detachment from the material world. Natural devotion only has to do with our inner vision, inspiration that helps us transcend all those traps of formalism and makes us loving friends with all creature and God-dess Radha-Krishna.

— Zvonimir Tosic


One Response to “Natural devotion through karate”

  1. My son, who is now grown, and I are also fans of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel. This piece perfectly complements the piece I just posted. Lalita Prasad Thakur was like Mr. Miyagi, and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was like Sensei Kreese.