Shu- Ha-Ri (learn, Master, Forget)
Mustard Sensei speaks of it often…
(The traditional Japanese method of knowledge transmission.)
By Yukio Takamura, edited by Nanette Okura
“Shu-ha-ri” literally means embracing the kata, diverging from the kata and discarding the kata. The pursuit of training in a classical Japanese endeavor almost always follows this educational process. This unique approach to learning has existed for centuries in Japan and has been instrumental in the survival of many older Japanese knowledge traditions. These include such diverse pursuits as martial arts, flower arranging, puppetry, theater, poetry, painting, sculpture and weaving. As successful as Shu-ha-ri has been into the modern era, new approaches to teaching and learning are altering this traditional Japanese method of knowledge transmission. Whether traditional Japanese arts and endeavors are successfully passed to the next generation of practitioners is up to the sensei (teachers) of today and their wisdom in confronting the inherent strengths and pitfalls of Shu-ha-ri. In this essay I will focus on Shu-ha-ri and its unique application in the honorable martial discipline of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu jujutsu.
Shoden/ The beginning level of training
Shu (Embracing the kata)
The kata or form is the educational core of all traditional Japanese knowledge schools. It is the most visible representation of a schools knowledge packaged into one seemingly simple set of movements or concepts. Because the kata is so accessible it is often mistaken to be the most important aspect of determining a students ability or progress. In fact, properly taught the kata does contain within it the ura or hidden level of information, but this information lies beneath the surface or omote of simple observation. Without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner, never able to progress towards the true depth of knowledge that rests hidden in the ura before him. To experience shu and embrace the kata, the student must first resign himself and his ego to a seemingly random series of repetitious exercises. Often these beginning or shoden level kata are by design intended to challenge the students concentration levels and devotion to learning. In some of the more rigorous traditions, kata are intended to create physical discomfort in addition to this exercise. Overcoming physical discomfort in this type of kata is just the first level of training the student to mentally focus exclusively on one task. As the student progresses thru the various kata, different aspects of stress and distraction are encountered. As these challenges grow more intense the student’s mind learns to process information and stress in a much more efficient manner. In time different neuro-muscular processes become intuitively ingrained in such a way that they are no longer consciously realized by the student. Once this level of kata is absorbed and executed satisfactorily, the student has reached the first level of his or her training. Other more advanced kata will be presented throughout training which present greater and more diverse challenges but the mental methodology for learning is now in place. The most basic reason for kata training has been achieved.
The pitfalls of teaching at the shoden level
At this level it is possible for kata to teach all by themselves. They are after all physical repetitions which challenge and instruct in an almost totally private experience. Although it might seem an exaggeration, anyone who knows the basic movements of a kata can take a student to this first level of training. It is even possible for some students to reach this level of training entirely by learning from a device like a book. However, this hands off approach to learning by the sensei places the student in a perilous situation, especially in the teaching of paired kata. The most common downfall here is a sensei’s lack of diligent attention to physical form and proper timing. Simply stated, many low level instructors teaching ability suffers due to their own mediocre instruction. Due to this they now instill poor habits into their students which must be unlearned at a later time. This is not only potentially dangerous but can be quite frustrating to the student. This teaching flaw has resulted in many excellent prospective students becoming disenfranchised with their training experience and discontinuing their pursuit. Diligent instruction even at the most basic level of kata training is absolutely mandatory. Basics are at the core of any pursuits proper execution and should never be undervalued.
Chuden / The intermediate level of training
Shu, at the chuden level
At the chuden level kata study includes a new element. This element is the application or bunkai. The deeper reason for the kata and its construction is now presented to the student. The scenario in which the kata exists is also studied and evaluated. This study and evaluation is however strictly limited to the pure execution of the kata without variation. Only thru this strict study can the kata accurately demonstrate its relevance to the student at a level he can comprehend. During this process the sensei helps the student begin to grasp the existence of the ura, those aspects that lie hidden beneath the surface of the physical form. For some students this realization is a revelation while to others it has been obvious for some time. Either way, the sensei must now accurately present basic concepts on a more abstract level than before. This paves the way for the second aspect of Shu-ha-ri.
Ha (diverging from the kata)
In the traditional Japanese concept of Shu-ha-ri, ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student. It is when the henka waza or variation is first experienced. It has been called the “divergent form existing within the form” or the “orthodox variation that co-exists within the confines of the strictly defined greater kata” . This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to a failure within the pure kata. Extremely attentive instruction is required by the sensei at this juncture because too much deviation will lead to sloppiness or bastardization of technique, while too much restraint can cripple any underlying intuitive talent. Encouraging intuitive creative talent is the purpose here but this creative experience must be diligently tempered by the confines of the greater kata. The kata must remain recognizable as the kata. If the kata diverges too far from the norm, it is no longer related to the original kata and becomes an altogether different expression of technique. It is imperative that such a deviation be avoided at this level of learning.
Ha, at the chuden level
Once the student discovers the boundaries of his training within the greater kata he will find the possibilities of learning almost endless. Progress comes now in leaps of ability not experienced in the past. Most excellent students first demonstrate their real potential during this stage of their study. The concepts and forms of the ryu integrate in a manner that intellectually stimulates the students mind. He now more fully appreciates the kata and recognizes the technical wisdom that exists within it. Consequently, many sensei find this time the most rewarding in a students progress. The fruits of a sensei”s labor demonstrates itself powerfully during this period.
The pitfalls of teaching at the chuden level.
Strict adherence to the core concepts of the particular tradition must be adhered to at this time. To deviate from the core concepts that define the ryu will allow the student to proceed in a direction not intended by the Ryuso (founder). The boundaries of the kata must be adhered to for the ryu to maintain its identity and focus. Stepping beyond the confines of the kata at this point can be disastrous and a student”s ultimate potential compromised. Sensei often fall into the trap of becoming too unstructured in their teaching at this level of training. They misread the students progress and take him too far beyond his level of comprehension. The students mind and technique must be constantly challenged during this intermediate stage of learning but occasionally an overzealous student will attempt to move too far too fast. This tendency must be avoided or it will compromise further progress and learning.
Joden / The advanced level of training
Ri ( discarding the kata)
Some practitioners of modern martial traditions dismiss kata and Shu-ha-ri as being too confining or old fashioned. In truth, this position is flawed because the purpose of kata is misinterpreted by them. Like so many arm chair experts, they have not been properly trained beyond the shoden level in kata and are commenting on a subject they simply are unqualified and therefore unable to comprehend. Like most observers outside the experience of deep study they see the kata as the art itself instead of a sophisticated teaching tool that is only a surface reflection of an arts core concepts. The kata, in their flawed interpretation “is” the art. This is like the flaw of assuming a dictionary to be a complete representation of language. Unfortunately numerous older martial traditions in Japan unintentionally reinforce this misinterpretation by overemphasizing the kata. Often with these schools significant core elements and knowledge have been lost to antiquity so that all that remains is the omote or outer shell of the kata. With nothing left but the kata to embrace, these schools often reinterpret their mokuroku (technical syllabus), making the kata the primary driving force of the ryu. When this happens the ryu inevitably degenerates into a simplistic dance where the ura and applications of the kata becomes of secondary focus. These traditions are effectively dead. They are like skeletons attempting to represent a total person.
Ri, What is it?
“Ri” is difficult to explain as it is not so much taught as it is arrived at. It is a state of execution that simply occurs after shu and ha have been internalized. It is the absorption of the kata to such an advanced level that the outer shell of the kata ceases to exist. Only the underlying truth of the kata remains. It is form without being conscious of form. It is intuitive expression of technique that is as efficient as the prearranged form but utterly spontaneous. Technique unbridled by the restriction of conscious thought processes result in an application of waza that is truly a moving meditation. For one who has achieved ri, observation becomes its own expression of reality. The mind is now free to operate on a distinctly higher level than previously possible. To the casual observer it appears that the exponent has become almost psychic, able to recognize an occurrence or threat before it actually exists. In truth the observer is just fooled by his own minds mental inertia. With ri, the lag time between observation and cognitive response is reduced to almost imperceptible levels. It is “ki”. It is “mushin”. It is “ju”. It is all these things in combination. It is the manifestation of the highest level of martial ability. It is what we refer to in the Takamura ryuha as “wa”.
The level of technical execution associated with ri is realistically beyond the ability of many practitioners. Most people are simply incapable of reaching this, the most advanced level of expression of a ryu’s potential. Frequently however, practitioners who never reach this level of technical execution make excellent sensei, able to take a student to the edge of mastery even though they themselves are incapable of making the jump to the intuitive execution that is ri. Some observers try to dismiss this recognition of limitation as elitist. I find this thinking odd. I would like to remind these observers that not all human beings are innately capable of mastery in all pursuits. As individuals we are endowed with certain talents and deficiencies. It is these individual talents and deficiencies that make us humans the diverse and unique species we are. To try to deny this truth is to deny what makes up our individuality. With this in mind it is imperative to remember that the humble individual realizes that mastery in one pursuit does not guaranty even average talent in another. Likewise, technical expertise does not necessarily guaranty teaching expertise.
Pitfalls of teaching at and beyond the joden level
Once a student has reached the level of realizing ri on a regular basis he has essentially achieved all the technical ability a sensei can strictly teach him. The process of instruction and teaching must now evolve. The relationship between teacher and student must be allowed by the sensei to evolve as well. At this point the student is charged by the traditions of his ryu and the vows of his keppan to maintain control of his ego and recognize that without the sensei and the ryu he would never have achieved his ultimate potential as a student. He must acknowledge that he owes all that he has learned to his sensei’s devotion to teaching and his sensei’s sensei. His behavior must reflect that he is forever in debt to the ryu and that he is compelled to be humbled in his teachers presence. Likewise the sensei must now allow autonomy and self expression by the student in a way never previously permitted. More a leader and pointer of the way, the sensei should proudly stand beside his student with a glad heart. He is likewise humbly compelled and called by his responsibility to the ryu to continue to live up to the principles and standards he impressed upon his student. His task of teaching is over. He is now a grandfather instead of a father.
Unfortunately it is at this time, the time of a sensei’s highest calling to the ryu that many fail. Instead of demonstrating confidence in themselves and pride in their students accomplishments they fall prey to vanity and insecurities of the spirit. The failing of a sensei now is usually associated with a perceived end of respect from the student, an end of respect that doesn’t actually exist. Frequently this problem manifests itself when the sensei attempts to reintroduce a strict student-teacher relationship that prevents the student from realizing his mature position of authority within the ryu. At this time some sensei perceive deviation from their own path as a students rejection of their teachings. In truth some of a sensei’s teachings must be denied for a student to reach the highest levels of self expression within the ryu. Some sensei are also unwilling to recognize that a deviation from their own teaching at this level is actually a manifestation of the students individuality and mature confidence. This confidence it must be remembered was imparted by the sensei’s own teachings as part of the bargain between student and teacher. The sensei must remember his duty and charge as simply a member within the ryu. He must humble his heart and reacquaint himself with his own past as a student. This he must do to remain an effective leader of “the way”.
Conclusion / White, becomes black, becomes white again.
It is the calling of every member of the kai to acknowledge his charge and regularly peer into the kamidana’s mirror, the mirror that reflects undistorted truth. And to humbly ask the kami to assist him in viewing his own heart and motivations with a critical eye, to scrutinize that small voice that is the harbinger of vanity and rationalization. Only thru the expression of truth can the process of Shu-ha-ri successfully embrace student and teacher in the charge of passing the knowledge and wisdom of our kai’s ancestors forward responsibly.
– Y. Takamura , 1986