The concept of “Shu Ha Ri”

Quite a long time ago, I was affiliated with a school of karate which named itself “Shu Ha Ri Karate-do”. I owe that school and its members the basis of my training in martial arts so I thought I would talk a little about the concept it adopted as its namesake, “Shu Ha Ri”. I think I’m right in saying that the concept applies to more than just the martial arts and can be used in the context of learning in general, but since I’ve never been exposed to it in any other sense I’ll be speaking about it primarily with reference to the martial arts. I should also note that I’ve never studied the kanji for the term so my interpretation will likely lack a couple of nuanced elements through mistranslation and suchlike. If anyone has knowledge which can help fill in the gaps, please by all means go nuts.

So Shu Ha Ri as I understand it is a three part structure for how a student in training is meant to approach learning the martial arts.

Shu refers to learning by rote, learning by imitation, and learning by instruction. The rule of Shu is to adhere to form over everything else. Another way to describe it might be to say ‘having faith’. It’s a kind of absolute belief in your teacher, your school, your training partner and the form itself which leaves no room for doubt or deviation.

Ha can be said to be the opposite of Shu. Ha is to question the form, to question your teachers and your partners and your own technique and body. I think of Ha as an interrogation of everything that Shu teaches you to recite. Where Shu is the devout believer and the obedient child, Ha is the outspoken heretic, the petulant, objectionable teenager.

Ri differs from both of the above in that while Shu and Ha are both concerned with how the practitioner relates to the form (to comply, to diverge), Ri is all about how the practitioner can practice without reference to form at all. I have heard Ri described as a transcendent state and I think this suits it well. Shu obeys form, Ha interrogates form, Ri transcends it or rather reverses its order. In Shu and Ha, form always comes first and the practitioner’s action always follows after. I know the form, therefore I execute it (either to comply with it or refute it). In Ri, the practitioner acts and form emerges from that action. I move and my movement becomes form. It’s an elusive state which a lot of the time “just happens”. The difficulty is capturing it so it can be harnessed at the users beck and call.

When I was first introduced to the term, I was taught it as a sequence. Ri follows Ha follows Shu. I feel now that this is a severe misinterpretation of how Shu Ha Ri functions. Why is it I think so?

I do not believe that it is possible to progress through martial arts training  (or any other learning process for that matter) saying “I must complete Shu before I can begin Ha” owtte. I believe this because I do not think it is possible to ever “complete” Shu. If I pursue the path of Shu alone then I attempt to imitate my teacher and do nothing more. I adhere to his or her technique and nothing more.

Firstly, I’ll never be able to perfectly imitate my teacher’s technique. For one because I have a different body and a different mind and am a different person and for two because every teacher of martial arts I have had has explained to me in one way or another that their technique is not an absolute thing, it alters as they learn how other peoples’ bodies move and react to that technique. From the beginning technique is not so rigid that it can be memorised and repeated like a line from a textbook. Even if I could imitate a technique as closely as possible, it would never sit perfectly in my body (because if I perfectly imitate a technique executed by someone whose arms are three inches longer than mine then all my techniques will be three inches out of range and if I flawlessly reproduce a technique executed by someone who has naturally strong shoulders and try to use my weaker shoulders to do the same thing it just won’t work [overlooking the fact that you never just mash your way through technique with muscle in the martial arts]).

Secondly even if it was possible to turn technique into a rote-learning exercise, I would never finish rote-learning. If I attempted to describe and reproduce every technique in martial arts as a sequence of repeatable instructions for any possible situation in which the technique would be applicable I would need more time than I think I’d probably have in two or three average lifespans. So even if I met a teacher capable of performing techniques as a kind of recital, I’d be dead of old age four or five times over before I’d be able to recite them back pitch-perfect. Now, I’m not basing these time periods I’m coming up with on anything, I’m just suggesting that I believe it’d take more time than is sensibly possible to answer every single “what if” question in martial arts with a concrete answer and learn these responses all as repeatable positions executable as martial technique at the drop of a hat.

So that’s why I think you can’t go Shu to Ha to Ri in the sense of finishing one then starting the next.

But of course it makes just as little sense to try to start at any other point and travel sequentially. I can’t Ha then Ri then Shu or whatever. I don’t think that the concept is sequential at all. I believe it is simultaneous. From the moment you begin training in earnest all three should be in effect.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s imagine I’m being taught how to throw a punch. I think it’s fair to suggest that most martial arts at some point teach their practitioners how to hit someone. What happens when I learn to strike? Okay I copy the action of my teacher as well as I can. But that cannot be all I do, even on day one class one of training that can’t be it, otherwise I’m not learning anything at all. Shu and Ha must still operate both at once even if I know nothing about martial arts at all and this is the first time I step in the door. Why? Because even if I want to follow the form exactly I meet it with questions. If I’m told to punch the first question that arises is how I form a fist. How tightly is it comfortable for my fist to be clenched? Which knuckles make contact with which part of my enemy’s body? I meet the form with questions. This is Ha. But beginner as I am I’ve no ability to answer any question I have of the form. So I turn to my teachers and training partners and ask them instead. And that’s Shu again. From the beginning a quest for one leads into the other. And what of Ri? Ri is always there as a goal, a point to be aimed for, an ideal martial art form which all training must necessarily move towards which only emerges from the oscillation between Shu and Ha occasionally and elusively.

This process repeats itself no matter what stage of training I may be at. Let’s say I’m no longer a beginner. Let’s say I’ve trained a few years and I step into class again and having done it a thousand times before, I throw another punch. I am still concerned with the form but not in the same way that I was the first time I tried a punch. Perhaps I am now concerned with the alignment of my hips, the structure of my elbows, shoulders and spine. Perhaps I am working on my posture or the stance of the punch. Maybe a few years later I’ll be concerned with the form’s timing and precision or being able to strike while relaxed. Maybe even farther after that I’ll be concerned with cutting out preliminary movements which expose my intention and generating power with very little space for extension etc. etc. You get the gist.

Every time I encounter aspects of the form I must examine them. I must examine the form and how it works for my body and how my body works with a partner’s body and how the form emerges from the two. Shu is always confronted by Ha. Even after maybe thirty or forty years of training this way will I have completed the Shu of punching? Is the form now routine? Only if I have elected to stop learning. Only if I have decided to stop seeking Ri. As I have said Ri is a kind of reversal where the practitioner’s experience is such that movement comes to almost spontaneously correspond to form rather than form dictating movement. When I begin my training I’ve probably no idea what this is meant to be like as I’ve never experienced it before. So I begin by seeking it, a moment where a form emerges perfectly as if by accident from the routine oscillations between Shu and Ha. After experiencing it once I know what I’m aiming for. Now my training continues in pursuit of this kind of perfect form a second time. Then a third. Maybe after a year I’ll be trying to consistently perform this kind of technique one every hundred tries. Maybe after two years I’ll be trying to do it once every fifty attempts. And so on.

In the three part formula of Shu Ha Ri, Ri is always sought and never quite attained. Even if you can, by some miracle, pull off a ‘transcendent’ technique 100/100 times then your next step is to try to do it 1000/1000 times. Each attempt should bring your training back to Shu and Ha and the three can never be separate.

So that’s more or less how I’d explain the concept of Shu Ha Ri and how I think it is applied to martial arts. As I said earlier I believe the concept applies to fields other than the martial arts too and I hope you can see why and how that might work from my description. Once again I owe a lot to my old karate school so I hope I’ve not misrepresented this particular ideal which they aspired towards.

I think this version of Shu Ha Ri describes the way I approach my training (or at least the way I try to approach it) and if nothing else I hope it’s been an enjoyable look at how I try to work out learning in my head. I would say that trying to enact a simultaneous Shu Ha Ri makes the learning curve early on in the process very steep, which can be immensely frustrating not only for the student, but I’m sure also for the teacher and the student’s various training partners. Learning in this style can still be interpreted a few different ways which demand different things from students and teachers alike and should be taken into account by both parties hoping to teach and learn respectively. But that’s another discussion I think… Maybe next time?

Anyway, thankyou for reading. If you’ve had anything to do with martial arts before perhaps this has been a good read for you? If you’ve never done anything like that in your life then maybe you might consider it now?

‘Til next time!



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