51. Shu, ha, ri: The markers along the Path

Iaijutsu, a classical martial art style that uses the shu, ha, ri learning pedagogy.

(A shout-out to Chuck Clark for suggesting this subject.)

Sooner or later, the practitioner of nearly any kind of Japanese budo (martial Ways) will hear the term “shu, ha, ri.” It is a way to describe the learning process of a traditional art or craft.

The concept, on one level, is really quite simple. On another level, it can be very deep. I had been taught and read about “shu, ha, ri” by the time I was studying under the late Ohmori Masao, my Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai sensei, in Kyoto. I was about to return to my native Hawaii after an extended stay in Japan. He was teaching me a new kata, explained its technical theories, and then told me that I should understand what “shu, ha, ri” was all about. He started to explain the meaning. Then he stopped.

“For the rest,” he smiled, “jibun de kenkyuu shinasai. You need to study the implications on your own.”

That, by itself, was an example of “shu, ha, ri.”

So what does it all mean?

Shu, ha, ri is a description of the way one should learn a traditional art, be it tea ceremony, origami (paper folding) or budo. Literally translated, the characters mean: protect, separate and understand. In other words, first protect and treasure what you have learned from your teacher, then separate yourself from your teacher’s instructions, and thereby, finally, reach your own understanding of the concepts.

Some people adopt a superficial understanding of the “ha” to mean a complete break with one’s teacher or training, and thus too many people with too little talent point to this concept as a reason why they come out with their “own” style of martial arts, the better to market their own unique punch-kick exercise system after two years’ worth of studying at a strip mall dojo. On the other hand, too many students never go beyond maintaining what they learned from their teacher even after their teacher’s retirement or passing, and are stuck in the “shu” level of simply maintaining, not excelling or attempting to go beyond what they learned from their teacher. They become stunted in their growth.

Shu, ha, ri, attempts to describe a traditional learning process, in which the end result is a new generation of “masters,” steeped in the tradition, but able to think and teach on his/her own, bringing new insight to the art. It is not really meant to justify new “styles” by people with minimum talents but maximum egos, nor is it meant to cast a teacher’s instructions in concrete, never to be violated by future changes.

Shu: Protect and treasure

The shu level describes how you should learn your craft. The character for shu also can be pronounced “mamoru,” which means to “protect, defend, safeguard.” In concrete terms, say you are taught a new kata. You try to imitate your teacher’s moves as closely as possibly. Your teacher not only demonstrates, but explains his/her understanding of the technique. You strive to make the moves, the timing, the distancing and “flavor” of his technique a part of your body. You repeat and repeat, trying to draw close to that example of perfection. Most students stay at this level; that of rote repetition.

Indeed, if you look at a traditional craft like woodworking, it’s hard enough for most apprentices to reach a basic level of competence compared to their master’s own superlative abilities. It calls for learning all aspects of woodworking, from how the master hones his own blades, how he drives a nail into wood with a hammer, how he sets his legs to pull a Japanese saw, and so on. In woodworking, this takes years of direct contact with one’s master, shaping one’s body, mind and spirit into the likeness of the master carpenter. This is no different from the way traditional crafts were learned even in the West. You worked at it; body, mind and spirit. You didn’t go into a large lecture hall filled with 100 students and sat as a teacher stood in front, lecturing on how you pounded a nail using a hammer, and then you “got it.” No, you had to be side by side with the teacher, working on the same project, eating the same food, enduring the same weather come winter snows or summer heats.

As one saying goes, you had to be so close to your teacher’s side that your spirit would become “dyed” with his own spiritual color.

(That elicits a warning. Abusive and immoral instructors are the dirty open secret of martial arts schools. Students who continue to stay with such teachers try to brainwash themselves and make excuses to others with such arguments as, “Well, he may be a sadist/molester/serial two-timer on his wife, but he’s the best (insert whatever martial art you want to insert here) teacher I’ve seen, technically speaking, and I can separate his techniques from his abusive behavior.”  No, you can’t. Stick around with an abuser long enough and you will eventually help enable his abuse, and in worse cases, become an abuser yourself.)

Ha: Separation

For some, the “separation” is an excuse to break from one’s teacher and establish one’s own “style” after only a few years’ worth of training, before they actually reach any deep understanding of the base techniques or higher concepts of the system. You see these kinds of self-minted 15th degree black belt 20-year-olds all over YouTube, spinning their toy swords around.

Ha, in Japanese, means a “separation, a distancing.” Others use a different character for ha that means literally to “tear apart.” In either case, it was a problematic concept for me at first, because I had spent so much time trying to learn techniques in the proper manner, and still not quite got it right, that I didn’t know if I could ever separate myself from what my teachers had taught me.

Then I realized that the concept didn’t literally mean a complete break with one’s previous teachers and teachings. Ohmori sensei had given me a gift, not just by describing the rudiments of the “shu, ha, ri” concept, but by forcing me to think about and research it on my own.  “Thinking for yourself” was the true meaning of ha.

The “ha” part of shu, ha, ri means, to my current, benighted understanding, is that after you have succeeded in replicating your teacher’s methods and style, you need to separate yourself from your teacher and go from rote imitation to a deeper personal and individual understanding.

So your teacher might have held the jo (four-foot staff) at a particular level, for example, when holding it straight up against his body. You imitate him. Then, after you reach a certain level of mastery, you need to think independently about WHY your teacher did it that way. Is it part of the form of the kata, or is the height of the top of the jo at his chin because your teacher was barely five feet tall? If so, is it right if you are six feet tall to hold the jo up to your chin level, too? Or is the position of the base of the jo more important than the height because of the proceeding technique? What does that kamae really mean?

Also, when you do the kata, are you merely imitating, or are you truly blending what you have learned with your own unique body style and personality? One of my fellow jujutsu friends weighs well over 200 pounds, while I tip the scales at about 175 pounds. We have the same jujutsu teacher and we learn the same kata from him, the same way. He made a comment the other night about how we express kata differently that has bearing on the “ha” part of this progression. He noted how some of our students seemed perplexed that, outwardly, when we were both trying to teach the same kata, it looked to them that our take on the techniques were very different.

“They only see the differences in flavor, not the underlying basic concepts,” he said. “You’re more otonashii (subtle, quiet) than me, because that’s in your nature, I think. But I’m a lot heavier than you so I can use my center of gravity more and can shorten this movement and that because of it. But we’re doing the same thing, we’re just applying the kime (focus) according to our body and personality types. But maybe the students don’t see the basics so they only see the differences.”

What my friend was saying was that quite possibly, the students were getting confused because when I did the kata and when my friend performed the kata, it looked different because of our different body morphologies, which led to slightly different expressions of up-down and push-pull actions. But they didn’t see that, when you went past such adjustments, what we were doing was the same.

For many budo that have a “free sparring” component, this understanding may be obvious. You can’t do a judo harai goshi the same way as your huge teacher does it if you’re shorter in stature. And you can’t do it if your opponent is 300 pounds versus an opponent who’s 125 pounds. You change your angle, distance, and timing, but if it’s done right, it’s still a harai goshi and not a tomoe nage.

Ri: understanding

In order to truly inculcate the form into your mind and body, however, you have to reach an understanding of the foundation of that kata. That naturally leads to ri: “understanding, concept, theory, basis.”

You are no longer just imitating by rote. You are no longer even struggling to modify the kata to fit your body and personality. The kata IS you, and you are the kata, because your body and mind understand it and can express it naturally.

In truth, the shu, ha, ri process goes on all the time even in one training session. You observe the teacher, conceptualize the movements in your head, try to do the kata without stumbling over your own feet. The teacher corrects and guides you to a better understanding. You repeat. Eventually, you reach a mental conceptualization of your own and internalized the movement. At the next practice, you work on improving your understanding and so you go through shu, ha, ri at a higher, more refined level. You repeat. After years of such training, your greater understanding of the entire corpus of knowledge also grows, and the entire ouvre of skills also go through the shu, ha, ri process.

One of the most problematic situations I face now is that, after several years, a number of the few students I have still act, in class, too dependent on me for my tastes. You would think that I would like it, because the stereotyped image of Japanese training methods has an all-knowing sensei barking out orders at the head of the dojo. That’s a strange stereotype, if you ask me. In the koryu schools I’ve trained in, my teachers and senior students all expected me to be responsible for a lot of my own education. And as soon as I learned a thing or two, they encouraged me to help give tips and to work with students who were newer to the system than me. Nearly any one of the senior students in the groups could lead a class were the main teachers to be absent. The seniors had internalized the training system and much of the teacher’s techniques and personality, and were well on their way to internalizing and gaining a gut-level understanding of the system even after a few years’ worth of training.

With my own American students, I sometimes get a feeling that our lecture-style educational system, while it may be great for general academic learning (well, studies have shown that it may not be an entirely wonderful panacea for learning), may not be optimum for process-based or kinesthetic learning. You can’t expect to “get it” if you just put your brain on cruise control and let the teacher do all the heavy mental lifting, as he tries to teach you the kata.  You, as a student, have to be actively engaged. If you keep stumbling over a particular kata or concept, you have to have enough initiative to keep working at it on your own without the instructor always having to guide you.

Shu, ha, ri means that in your education, you as a student have to work at it. In a physical, kinesthetic system like the budo, that’s even more the case. Shu, ha, ri, therefore isn’t a reason to dig out on your sensei’s teachings. It is a method of learning, conceptualizing, mental and physical thought processing, and eventual deep understanding of the foundations of your system. And to reach that level, you have to constantly keep learning, reevaluating what you learned, and think for yourself, and then repeat the process all over again.

Or, as my teacher said, “Think for yourself. Kenkyuu shinasai.”


14 thoughts on “51. Shu, ha, ri: The markers along the Path

  1. Great blog post.

    From my experience the process of moving through the steps is often liquid. The ancient Maya did not see time as linear but instead it is cyclical. Similarly the walk down the path of budo for my own shu ha ri process has often been two steps forward, one step back, two to the side and I am back at the beginning.

    For the kanji students I believe it is 守破離

    Like many concepts in budo I believe this one comes from the tea masters.


  2. Well done Wayne. I remember a quote from Pascal Krieger’s book “Jodo – the way of the stick” with regard to shu, ha, ri and forging a pure spirit or Seishin tanren… “In Budo, it takes one thousand days to learn (the technique), ten thousand days to polish it; and the difference between victory and defeat is a matter of fractions of a second.”

    We often add more time to this approximation of thirty years or so to do it “right” by going off on tangents or deluding ourselves that we’re on a place along that timeline that we’re not.

    Nishioka, Tsuneo Sensei told me in 1995 that the proverbial “empty cup” is impossible for us… what we really need is, in his words, an “expandable cup.” We must test everything… because, if we haven’t been there before it is very, very difficult to recognize that often fleeting evidence showing us that we’re on the right track. Shu, Ha, Ri, in my experience, is the way to understand the mechanics of that “fraction of a second” that the old Japanese saying mentioned above.

    Thanks for your efforts in this blog space to share your experience and knowledge and give others a space for sharing ours.

    Best regards and a head scratch and smile for Maxine,

    – Chuck

  3. Thanks, all, for comments long and short. The back-and-forth, even if disagreeing with some of my ideas, really, really add to the discussion and shared knowledge. Nishioka sensei’s metaphor is a good one, indeed!

  4. Beth, powerful post in just a few words… that is THE point. Unless it can be demonstrated in different ways that are the same, through action, metaphorically in words, poetry, graphic arts, other performance arts, etc. then it isn’t the point.

    1. Right, Chuck. Hence my attempt to capture some of this in visual art. It’s a way for me to explore the concepts in a way that’s not constrained by the words of a single language.


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