Shu – Ha – Ri: The Approach to Progressive Training
Like many Japanese cultural concepts, Shu-ha-ri packs a lot into a short phrase. Even those familiar with the concept often have trouble articulating it, as it exists in many layers. Basically, Shu-ha-ri is a map that lays out the potential progress of an individual involved in learning any traditional skill, whether dance, calligraphy, pottery-making, or traditional martial arts.
Shu-ha-ri which can be used to describe the levels through which a Martial Arts student could possibly progress. This can be a lifetime’s journey, from complete beginner to a stage where they can be considered to have mastered the techniques and principles of a given system.
Shu-ha-ri is a continuous process with no set timescales or limitations on an individual’s transition from one level to the next, ‘a student progresses when a student has progressed.’
Only a few practitioners of the Martial arts will ever transcend to the ‘Ri’ level, it is the journey itself that is of importance not the destination.
Given the limitations of the above, the levels of Shu-ha-ri can roughly be described in the following manner.
Shu: to abide by, to defend.
In martial arts terms this would mean to defend the traditions and abide by the rules of the Ryu. This is a time of learning, from beginner into the lower Dan grade levels, where the individual gains their grounding in the core principles and teaching of the system. In Ju Jutsu terms it is at this level that the student will be introduced to and become familiar with the core Waza of the art and the principles that underpin them.
Gichin Funakoshi the founder of Shotokan karate wrote –
“You may train for a long, long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning to dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter”
And so it is with any martial art, unless you understand the principles behind the techniques you are practicing you are just going through the motions. How many karate students would be able to hold their own in Randori against a Judoka with a similar number of years training?
As stated above, there can be no set indicators as to when a person will progress from this level to the next. In fact many students, even those with many years of experience and excellent basic techniques may never progress beyond the Shu level, without the correct mental attitude.
To paraphrase what an instructor of mine once said –
“There are many high grade instructors who believe they have 30 years of training experience behind them, when in fact they have merely repeated one year thirty times”
Ha: to break, to detach.
This is generally taken as meaning the stage at which an individual begins to break away or detach themselves from the limitation of a traditional system. By this I do not mean that they should discard previously learnt traditions or methodologies, but rather they should use these to help develop a more individual style of their own. Karate contains a myriad of techniques each of which will be more suited to a given body type than it will be to others. Given this it would be unreasonable to expect every student to perform a given technique in exactly the same manner.
Hironori Otsuka, the founder of the Wado ryu style of Karate, wrote the following on the subject of Kata, but I believe the same sentiments apply for all Martial arts techniques.
“Martial arts must never become as ‘igata*’ It is always Kata. Kata is to express; as a mirror does, it changes with every action and situation. A mirror figure changes just as its reflection does. This essentially, is the Kata of Martial arts”.
* An ‘igata’ is a mould that is used in Japan to make clay pots.
What, in my opinion, Otsuka is saying is that a teacher should not try to mould their student’s techniques to be mere copies of their own, but rather they should encourage individuality so that they may breathe their own life and spirit into the art.
So it is at this level that an individual style should begin to evolve based firmly on the core principles of the base style. Of course this cannot be expected to occur if too tight a reign is enforced. As in any other educational systems, martial arts or otherwise, a method of differentiation must be employed during training sessions in order that the full potential of a student be allowed to develop.
Ri: to Leave, to depart
Again this is generally taken to mean at a point when a practitioner has reached a level where they have transcended or gained a freedom from traditional teachings, a stage at which they and their technique will appear to be at one, in harmony.
I prefer to believe that we all have moments of Ri within us, when body and technique become one. How many times have you experienced a moment of oneness where a technique you have executed a thousand times before just seems to happen without physical or mental effort, or when a flash of inspiration makes you alter your body position or timing minutely but with devastating effect?
It is this feeling that we all strive for, and that hopefully we will all at least some day experience.
This is the path of the Warrior.