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Shu Ha Ri - A budo way of learning

Recently, I joined a Master Class with Robert Mustard Shihan, hosted by Aikido Yoshinkai Burnaby Canada, with many participants from the international Shobukai and Yoshinkan Aikido Communities and practitioners of other forms of Aikido or other martial arts. One of the questions that generated a very interesting dialogue was on the concept of Shu Ha Ri 守 破 離 . This made me think about how Shu Ha Ri relates to my learning and teaching.

It is a concept that is often analysed within martial arts circles. Shu Ha Ri in its simplest form is used to describe the progression of one’s learning from a beginner to proficient practitioner and ultimately to reaching the stage of a master practitioner.

If you research Shu Ha Ri online, you will find it is sometimes translated to "to keep, to fall, to break away", but if you look deeper there is a much deeper meaning.

· shu (守) "protect", "obey"—traditional wisdom—learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs

· ha (破) "detach", "digress"—breaking with tradition—detachment from the illusions of self

· ri (離) "leave", "separate"—transcendence —there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical.

The discussion gave me pause for thought on how I understood the concept, these are my musings. I am still on my learning journey and a long way off Ri, but I wanted to share them, as it may stimulate some thinking on the topic.

Shu or ‘the keep part’ can be seen as learning the basics, that is following the script, practicing what we are been taught, repeating over and over until we start to absorb the form, so that our movements become more natural, more comfortable and can be performed to a consistent level again and again.

But it is worth, at this juncture reminding our self, that the right practice is required. To quote Mustard Sensei, ‘practice does not make you perfect, only perfect practice can do so’ and that is frankly really very hard to constantly do, but it is what you have to do.

Often when we learn, we want to push boundaries, question what we are being taught, question the logic, ask the why. All of which are very important element of the learning process, but we must also remember that first we must master the basic. Ops! I should also add that within each level there are further levels (but that is a topic for another day).

Once we reach the level of Shu, the basics have become somewhat second nature to us, maybe they are not perfect and they still need work, but we are making progress on our journey. It is then we start to see the next level in sight, and we enter a period of training where can we start to test our understanding, ask those why questions but with the benefit of knowledge and experience. We can ask the right question in the right way. And through our continued training we can start to understand what the basics were trying to teach us. We may not yet understand why they work.

This allows us to develop a deeper understanding, ultimately leading to better more effectively and efficient performance. We start to see how all the dots can be joined up. We start to see how techniques are all connected, all related, why things work or are a particular way. We begin to see how we can develop our own style that reflects our own character.

This to me is the Ha ‘the fall’. In one respect, I think a very apt description for many peoples training experience maybe not what the original concept meant; this is when many people give up. They can do the basics reasonably well, so they think that they are at the end of their journey. How many people have reached black belt Shodan level and stop training because they are a black belt and have no more to learn? Or where we see teachers who no longer seek guidance or training with seniors.

In a professional sense, any good employer will push employees to constantly improve and keep their skillset up to date and relevant via continued professional development training programmes. The same is relevant to any form of martial art or any skill training. If you do not keep training you will not keep improving and if you stop trying to improve, why train. But again a topic for another day.

But I digress, this is not quite Ha ‘the fall’ in the concept of Shu Ha Ri. 守 破 離, this is the next part of our journey where we continue to train, to study and seek the council of those who have gone before in their journey, a Sensei which literally translates as "one who comes before".

This is the period in our training where we need now to ask the why but often it is to ask ourselves the why, questions like; why does this work and not that, why does this work with this uke but not that uke, why do we do a technique in a certain way, what is the rationale behind the technique.

It is a time of frustration for all martial artist, a time where we need to practice correct technique but strive to always train mindfully, rather than trying to force a technique to work always go back to basics and see where the technique will take us. It is a very challenging time as it is the period where we must constantly train and overcome our own ego, to be completely receptive to the training, to avoid the use of force or strength. We then start to see the deeper meaning and begin to understand what the form was teaching us; we regularly start to feel our techniques working without the obvious outward looking form.

We are on our way to Ri or ‘to break away’. For me this is to reach the level of mastery, the goal that we should all strive for. It is where the master has absorbed the form, the technique, so when they practice, it is effortless, it looks sublime and it looks like they were born with that skill.

In fact it often looks like magic, like the master is doing something that should be impossible. It is those few great Martial Artist, sport people, musicians, artists, writer, creative people who seem to have transcended their peers when performing their art or skill. Very few reach this level and even in this level there are further levels, even in this elite group there are even fewer great masters.

But because there are few true masters is no reason not to continue your Shu Ha Ri. 守 破 離journey. Shu Ha Ri. 守 破 離 to me is to always aspiring to be the best you can be, to train to be better than you were yesterday. It is your journey.


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