Posted by: Eddie deGuzman | January 5, 2009

Shu Ha Ri 守破離

by Eddie deGuzman

In traditional Japanese arts there is a concept known as 守破離、shu, ha, ri.  守, as in the verb 守る/mamoru, means to obey.  破、as in the verb 破る/yaburu, means to smash or destroy. 離, as in the verb 離れる/hanareru, means to leave or be separated from.  The idea of shu ha ri is that as one studies an art form, one inevitably passes through three stages of development.  Some say that these are the three stages to mastery.

1. 守/shu- The first stage of study where one relentlessly studies the basics and absorbs everything the teacher has to offer.

2. 破/ha-  The second stage where the student has gained enough proficiency and knowledge to break free from established teachings.

3. 離/ri-  The third stage where the student has mastered the principles and separates from the teacher or teachings.

Crusing the internet, I found an interesting passage from a book discussing shu ha ri as it relates to 型/kata or forms.

There is a concept of “Shu (remain), Ha (break), Ri (free)”, which describes how an individual is involved in “forms” as one training develops. “Shu” is the process in which we follow the forms faithfully and try to master the basics of the art. It is the so-called stage of learning.
Since excellent predecessors who made every effort and fumbled around for a long time have built up the forms, it is natural to follow them. It it inevitable that we put ourselves into the finished forms, and we train within them.
Even if “the forms” are wonderful, it cannot be helped that there is something everyone does not feel suits them, because each form has been born from different persons who have different qualities, bodies, and basic experiences in life from oneself.
When deepening the learning of forms, naturally difficulties arise. At this point, we may have the desire to break “the forms”, destroying the forms we have mastered. This is the stage of “Ha”. However, “Ha” is not a long- standing situation, because this action is not supported by the creative spirit. The more the forms break, more we feel emptiness. We find ourselves caught up by “the forms”, while we are breaking “the forms”. And we want to free ourselves from such captivity, and wish to perform with a truly free mind. When this is achieved, we reach the stage of “Ri” .
Ri is the stage of creating new forms when “the time is ripe”. There, the trainee has already forgotten the forms, and performs that which is not in the forms.

(Minamoto Ryô-en, “Kata” , pp253-254, Sôbunsha, 1989)

I don’t know if I agree with this passage in it’s entirety, but the gist of it rings true. I see my own training in basically three stages up to this point.  My karate days and old aikido style the first twelve years are my first stage.  My coming to Japan and introduction to a different aikido style took me out of my comfort zone and out of the box and is definitely stage two of my training, re-learning new basics.  I’m in a different place now.  My stage three.  It might be stage two if you think of it as style-specific.  At any rate, I feel I’ve begun to understand many fundamental aikido concepts and have started experimenting and applying them in different ways.  At the moment I’m cross-pollinating my now aikido with my then karate to see if anything blooms.  I’m far from the final stage, ri.  I’m being introduced to things all the time that even if I do wrap my head around, it will take time to absorb them. The past couple of years have been a major accomplishment in terms of aikido understanding.  I look forward to what lies ahead this new year.

If you buy into the theory of shu ha ri, where do you see yourself in your training?  Granted, this is not a system to constantly check your progress, but more a natural phenomenon that happens whether you think about it or not.  Nonetheless, it’s good to take a look at where you are and what you’re doing, especially at the beginning of the new year.  Are you just learning the basics or beginning kata? Have you got a handle on the basics and moved on to more advanced concepts?  Or are you competent in all aspects of your art and ready to create something new and unique?  Whether shu, ha or ri, it doesn’t really matter since this is, after all, just a look at where we are standing on the path.  More important is the question of whether or not you are learning and improving.

Good training to you all and a Happy New Year!  頑張りましょう! Ganbarimashou!

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