Shu Ha Ri

by Ron Fox, from THE IAIDO NEWSLETTER Volume 7 number 2 #54 FEB 1995

Shu Ha Ri are three kanji which describe the cycle of training, or perhaps more properly the cycle of progress of a student in a martial art under, I would add, idealized circumstances. The application of Shu Ha Ri is not confined to the study of a martial art or way, but can also serve as a model of any sort of learning.

Shu, or Mamoru means to keep, protect, keep or maintain [1]. During the Shu phase, the student builds the technical foundation of the art. Shu also implies a loyalty or persistence in a single Ryu or, in the modern interpretation, a single instructor [2]. In Shu, the student should be working to copy the techniques as taught without modification and without yet attempting to make any effort to understand the rationale of the techniques of the school/teacher [3]. In this way, a lasting technical foundation is built on which the deeper understanding of the art can be based.

The point of Shu, is that a sound technical foundation can be built most efficiently by following only a single route to that goal. Mixing in other schools, prior to an understanding of what you're really up to is an invitation to go down a wrong path. A path where the techniques developed will not have sound theoretical or practical value. In the traditional interpretation of the Shu stage, it is the instructor that decides when the student moves on from Shu to Ha, not the student. It's up to the student to follow the instructor's teaching as an empty vessel to be filled up [1].

Ha, is the second stage of the process. Ha means to detach and means that the student breaks free from the traditions of the Ryu to some extent [2]. In the Ha stage, the student must reflect on the meaning and purpose of everything that s/he has learned and thus come to a deeper understanding of the art than pure repetitive practice can allow. At this stage, since each technique is thoroughly learned and absorbed into the muscle memory, the student is prepared to reason about the background behind these techniques [3]. In academics, the Ha stage can be likened to the stage where enough basic information is available to the student that research papers of a survey nature could be expected.

Ri means to go beyond or transcend. In this stage, the student is no longer a student in the normal sense, but a practitioner. The practitioner must think originally and develop from background knowledge original thoughts about the art and test them against the reality of his or her background knowledge and conclusions as well as the demands of everyday life. In the Ri stage, the art truly becomes the practitioner's own and to some extent his or her own creation. This stage is similar in academia to the Ph.D. or beyond stage.

Now I'd like to give a few of my own thoughts about Shu Ha Ri. In particular the role of Shu Ha Ri in a learning environment which is less than ideal. Since circumstances differ from person to person, and since the availability of instructors in some of the rarer martial arts will also differ, I make no attempt to claim that anything I say is universally applicable. However there are some ideas which I think can be helpful to students practicing in circumstances in which they are isolated from qualified instructors by large distances.

I have applied these conclusions to my own practice of Kendo in Michigan where I am 4-5 hours drive from the nearest instructors (Toronto or Chicago). I believe that the methods I have applied are most applicable to arts that have a competitive side as I will explain later.

There are three things which the 'lonely' student needs to address. These are:

1. How to manage the Shu stage (or as we shall see stages), lacking qualified instructors to copy.

2. How to handle the progression from Shu to Ha to Ri without the guidance of an instructor.

3. How to judge your progress and the correctness of your practice.

The key to handling the Shu phase is to locate a good instructor and to visit them as often as possible. From them you have to build, as rapidly as possible, a mental picture of each technique you're trying to learn. Throughout your own practice you must continually and honestly compare your own actions against your mental model. There won't be a Sensei handy to tell you what you're doing incorrectly so you need to be your own instructor here and go slowly and carefully.

Each time you visit your distant instructor, examine your mental model once more against what your instructor and what members of his dojos are doing. Bit by bit refine your mental model, and use that to refine what you yourself are doing. Recognize that you will progress slowly, but self examination and careful observation are the only tools you have at this stage.

As you visit your distant instructor, listen to *everything* s/he has to say. Don't assume that corrections s/he may give to others do not apply to you or will not apply to you later. Examine your own motions for the problems the instructor points out and work to eradicate them if you find them.

Finally, don't be in a hurry. You will progress at a less rapid rate than You might like, but don't hurry the process. In a competitive art, do not jump into competition too quickly. Don't jump into free practice too quickly, spend your time on the basics and the techniques and on making your movements match the model you've drawn from your instructor.

The transition from Shu to Ha and to Ri is extremely difficult without almost daily contact with an instructor. In the classical model of Shu Ha Ri, we have seen that this transition is managed and timed by the instructor. The instructor knows properly at what time the student is ready to move from phase to phase due to his or her greater experience in both the art and in the progression of students through their training. The 'lonely' student does not have the benefit of this advice however and must manage the timing of this transition on their own.

This fact has led me to a rather more cyclical view of Shu Ha Ri than the classical, linear progression. As You learn a technique, and as it asymptotically approaches your mental model of the technique as You see others practicing it, You can begin to reason about the technique. It seems the important questions to ask are:

1. How does this technique work?

2. Why does this technique work?

3. How is this technique related to other techniques that I am practicing?

4. What are the necessary preconditions and postconditions to effectively apply this technique in the combative situation?

It is not enough to simply accept your own answers to these questions. You must test the correctness of your conclusions using whatever means your art has at its disposal. If your art includes the concept of free practice, then You must seek out chances to try your conclusions in free practice with other practitioners. If your art supports competition, then You must also treat them as tests of your facility and comprehension.

As You develop a reasonable repertoire of techniques that You can perform correctly, You will need to expose yourself to as broad a range of practitioners as possible. As You watch others, You need to ask and answer at least three questions:

1. Which other practitioners do I respect and admire?

2. How is what they do different from what I do?

3. How can I change my practice (both mental model and attempts to correspond to it) to incorporate the differences that I think are most important?

This phase is a combination of the ideals of Ha and Ri. Your constant questioning, testing and incorporation of the results of your conclusions will bit by bit lead to both a deeper understanding of your art as well. The three latter questions to some extent embody the closing of the cycle. The first two questions are definitely in the province of Ha. The last one requires You to modify your training beyond that which You have received from your instructors and is part of the concept of Ri, however in application, the answer includes elements of Shu as well since You will have to go back to the beginning once You begin to attempt to change your practice.

The 'lonely' student has several methods that can be used to judge progress. In arts with competitive application, how You perform in competition is one indication. However, do not be seduced by using the *results* of your competitive efforts. These are as much influenced by who You compete against as your own abilities. This is especially true in the early stages. Instead, the questions You need to ask yourself about a competition in your post mortems are:

1. Were You able to control the pace and actions of your opponents.

2. Were You able to keep calm and make your techniques effectively with an unhurried frame of mind.

3. Does your competition look like those of the practitioners You admire.

Free practice with others is another way to test your conclusions. There's less pressure there and the point of free practice is to try out different methods and techniques and to test your ideas about how to practice the art effectively.

Throughout all of this, You must honestly evaluate the results of each 'test'. Cycle back to Shu through Ha and then Ri as You go down dead end paths.

In conclusion:

Shu Ha Ri in classical interpretation is a linear sequence which leads the student with minimal deviations down a path of learning. The student progresses from imitation, to reasoning to creating. When applied to the instructor-less student, Shu Ha Ri becomes a four stage cycle of imitate, reason, create, and test, cycling back to imitation again.

Shu Ha Ri developed in response to a need to build a learning method in martial arts where the only testing was actual combat. In these circumstances, cycles could not be tolerated since a failed test would leave the student maimed or dead. In the modern practice of the martial arts, where qualified instructors are not always available, competition, free practice and other forms of nonfatal testing are possible. This leads to a more cyclical piecemeal application of Shu Ha Ri as a tool for the 'lonely' artist.


1. Kuroda, Ichitaro "Shu-Ha-Ri" Sempo Spring 1994 pp 9-10

2. McCarthy, Patrick "The World Within Karate & Kinjo Hiroshi" Journal of Asian Martial Arts. V. 3 No. 2 1994

3. Private conversations with Nakamura, L. Sensei Toronto, Spring 1994.