Shu Ha Ri


I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it.

By Leo F. Shortle

I would like to begin this paper by telling a true story about an enthusiastic student telling me about her love for karate.  Many years ago, a young enthusiastic student approached me and said, Sensei, I love karate so much that when I die, I wish to be buried in my gi.  She then asked, what color belt should I wear.  To which I replied, “White Belt!”  She then proclaimed “White Belt,” that would indicate that I’m just a beginner.  I then replied, “No young lady, not just any white belt, but the black belt that has been so worn and torn that only the white threads are showing through.”  That is the essence of Shu-Ha-Ri, the cyclical nature of karate and that is what this paper is about.

Shu-Ha-Ri represents a transformational process which entails: “physical discipline, self-defense, sport, artistic expression, meditation, philosophical/ethical development, and spiritual development.” (1)

Another rather loose interpretation of Shu-Ha-Ri came to me from a friend of mine (a fifth degree Black Belt) and fellow student of Sensei Dalke, whose name is John Rellias.  He told me it could also be interpreted (as I stated earlier) albeit somewhat loosely as Body-Mind-Spirit.  Although, I actually prefer the idea of follow (Shu), break (Ha) & Transcend (Ri) better. 

By definition, the term Shu-Ha-Ri is a term that comes from Aikido and is a way of thinking about how one learns a technique.  The idea that a person passes through three stages toward gaining knowledge:

Shu:  This is the beginning stage whereby the student follows the teachings of one master precisely.  He/She concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory.

Ha:  At this point, the student begins to branch out, he/she begins to detach and breaks free from certain traditions within the art itself.  With the basic practices working, he/she now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. 

Ri: This is the stage whereby the student isn’t learning from other people, per se, but from his/her own practices.  In reality, it is this stage that the student begins to go beyond or transcend.
I would like to quote Master Randall G. Hassell, “The cyclical nature of martial art training is called shu-ha-ri.  Shu (obedience) means learning from tradition; ha (divergence) means breaking the bonds of tradition; and ri (transcendence) means going beyond tradition to find something new.” (2)

(1) Philosophy and Mission Statement of the United States Karate League by Shihan Dean Pickard.

(2) Randall G. Hassell, Zen, Pen, & Sword:  The Karate ExperiencePg. 85


Historically, the Shu-Ha-Ri concept was first presented by a man named Fuhaku Kawakami (1716 – 1807) in Tao of Tea. Then, Zeami Motokiyo (a master of Noh theater) extended this concept for the performing arts, which then became a part of the philosophy of martial arts.

One must realize that the original concept of Shu-Ha-Ri is plagued in mysticism.  As Zeami Motokiyo was born in 1363 while Fuhaku Kawakami was born in 1716.  So, like so many parts of Martial Arts, its origins are not always “clear.”

What can be stated with some degree of clarity is that Shu-Ha-Ri is universal and can be applied to basically everything (especially teaching) once the basic theory behind it is understood.

Shuhari is also a Japanese learning system or the Japanese way to improve excellence.  This is, in effect, a structured and purposive way to lead students from novice to master.  Another way to look at this is where the student will advance from “Pupil” to “Journeyman” and finally to “Master” stage.  

In Japan, the common route to master goes through three stages, Shu-Ha-Ri.  This takes the individual from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary!

The “Shu” phase must lead the way to the “Ha” phase which must lead the way to the “Ri” phase.  Going from one phase to the next is not like turning on/off a light switch; rather it is a transformational process.

The Shu phase (obedience) which I stated above means learning from tradition.  For many, this phase is totally acceptable because it is in this phase where the student learns physical discipline and self-defense.  It is in this phase that the student learns offensive and defensive techniques.

In my studies, I came across an interesting story (whose author seems to be anonymous) but in my opinion bears repeating for I feel is apropos to the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri:  It is called “The Dissatisfied Stonecutter.

The Dissatisfied Stonecutter

There was once a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.
One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house.

Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stonecutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant. To his great surprise, by magic he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself.

Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession.

“How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!” Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around.

It was a hot summer day though, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence.
“How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the sun!”. Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers.

But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!” Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone.

Soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!”
Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. After a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock.

“How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock.”   Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought.

He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.

To me, that says it all!

When I trained under Sensei Dalke, we would sometimes spend the whole class working on these so-called simple techniques.  He would constantly tell us to take that reverse punch and “bury it to the elbow.”  We would practice the Kizami-tsuki from the hanmi position and then use hip rotation to perform the Gyaku-zuki.  The kizami-tsuki could act very much like the Jodan Age-Uke (rising block). The rotating of the hips is sometimes known as “winding the spring,” followed by the gyaku-zuki (reverse punch) which is basically “letting the spring unwind.”   After practicing these techniques in class for what seemed like hours, we would all go to the Makiwara boards and spend another hour or so hitting them.  This virtually guaranteed all of us the ability to punch with complete confidence.  Some would kick the boards as well.  All of this type of training is another example of the “Shu” stage.  We “followed” our sensei faithfully and we never questioned what was being said.  None of us at the time realized that this attitude was leading us into the next stage, which is the “Ha” stage, whereby, one no longer has to have the instructor bark out commands, rather he/she knows what to do, how to do it, and then does it.  Many of us became instructors because of this phase.  This then leads us to the final phase, which is the “Ri” phase.  This is the phase that I call the “Devine Inspiration phase.”  This is where one’s level of of confidence increases.  Again, (and worth repeating) this phase takes one from the “Ordinary” to the “Extra-Ordinary.”  In Shotokan, this is considered “Sen Sen No Sen.” This is the highest level in the classical martial arts scenario.  This is where an attack is initiated in anticipation of the opponents attack.     

It turns out that Sensei Dalke was teaching us so much more than simply punching, blocking & kicking.  He was in fact, teaching us about ourselves, about how much further we could go if we simply put our minds to it.  He was helping us attain a rank far above what we all thought we could ever accomplish on our own.  He was (without ever saying so) introducing us to Shu-Ha-Ri.      

Sensei Ty Aponte would tell us that some times our Kizami-tsuki could be used as “cutting the tool” (again using the winding of the spring analogy) whereby one is preventing the attack to our face by using that jab to “block” the attack at the same time stepping into one’s space or zone and then with the hips flip the person over while executing the Gyaku-zuki or “finishing blow.”

Above, one will see examples of the Kizami-tsuki (Jab) and then followed by the Gyaku-zuki (Reverse Punch).

One thing I learned from another great sensei (Sensei Frank Smith) was that no technique is only that technique.  An example is the Age-uke (rising block) is never just a block.  He would often say, “Our blocks are the type of blocks that break bones.”  All our defense techniques can be offensive, and all our offensive techniques can be defensive.
What I have described above represent only a few of the techniques in the art of Karate-Do.  Karate has evolved and will continue to do so since Master Funakoshi changed the written characters for karate from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand.”  He did this to emphasize karate’s identity as a traditional Japanese martial art.  I have covered the physical aspect of karate, which is the “Shu” phase in some detail and this is where I must express that if one were to stop here, it would be very sad as the student is missing out on the real understanding of karate.  Therefore, I say that the real tragedy and greatest danger for most students is not that their aim is too high and they miss it, but that their aim is too low and they reach it.  I remember going out with a friend of mine and fellow U.S.K.L. instructor (Sensei Dave Turney) and he asked me: “Why do I want to be a Yondan?”  A reasonable enough question to which I replied:  “I want to be a better instructor!”  A reasonable answer to that question, I thought.  However, after doing the required amount of study, research and training for this level, I have come to the conclusion that Yondan is so much more than simply being a better instructor.  It is in fact a way of life.  One must “attempt” to follow the Dojo Kun and put it into practice in everyday life:

To seek perfection of character

To be sincere, honest and respect others

To refrain from violent behavior

To show strong spirit and endeavor to excel

Once again, I would like to quote Master Randall G. Hassell: “As physical conditioning, karate is unsurpassed in the development of coordination, agility, endurance and strength.  The training can be adapted to every individual, regardless of age, sex, or physique.  Basically, anyone who can participate in regular, moderate physical activity can learn karate.” (3)  Many people take karate for this reason alone.  The physical conditioning is excellent; however, as I stated above, if one stops at only this level then they are missing out on the true nature of karate.  I must caution people, however, is that if one simply trains karate without doing any necessary research and adherence to the Dojo Kun then as Funakoshi stated,   “…learning karate is not very different from learning a dance.  You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of karate-do.” (4)

The next phases “Ha” and “Ri” is where martial arts goes into a higher form, with the highest phase being the “Ri” phase.  This phase becomes a more spiritual and intellectual form.  It is this phase that all “true” martial artist strive to achieve.  In this stage the martial artist learns to live in the “now,”  basically, emptying his/her mind of all preconceived notions, emotions, aimless thoughts, fear, doubt, guilt and hatred.  This is known as “Mushin.”  When one “travels’ through the advanced stages of karate-do, that is, from the “Shu” phase, then the “Ha” phase and ultimately to the “Ri” phase, the mind and body will respond as one unit.  There will not be the slightest pause between the perception of an attack and the proper response, again sen-no-sen.  This phase leads to a more fulfilling life.  One’s quality of life increases, relationships become richer and peace of mind occurs.    So the question frequently asked is “How does mushin work or what actually takes place to reach the mushin phase.”  Well, that is actually a very good question and one that is quite difficult to answer.  Mushin is in fact a mental state.  The term is shortened from mushin no shin and is a zen expression meaning mind without mind or “no-mindness.”  The mind is not fixed or occupied by thoughts or emotions and thus open to everything.  It is somewhat analogous to the flow experienced by artists deeply in a creative process.  I’m sure that great artists experience this when they draw a painting.  The best way to describe mushin is a complete balance and harmony which is attained in one's life through mental discipline. It is claimed that the great swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, alluded to these mental states briefly in his Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho).

3) Ibid, Pg. 55

4) Funakoshi, Karate-do: My Way of Life pp. 105-106


After writing this paper, I have decided that basics (fundamentals) are great, but it is not enough.  I have decided to incorporate techniques in my teaching so students have a better understanding of the concepts of expansion/contraction, the body connection techniques such as body vibration, hip rotation and a true understanding of where and how power is generated.  I also wish to point out what Sensei Mike Whiteside is always telling us, the four pillars for effective karate performance is:  Posture, Stance, Hip vibration/rotation and Pull-Back.  I have become very cognizant of these and to help my posture, I have elected to take palates as a way to improve my posture and develop a better and stronger core. 

There are many styles of martial arts, I would not be so presumptuous to assume that one style is any better or worse than any other style.  I happen to prefer Shotokan to any other style.  I felt this way since I was a student attending Cal Poly University in the 1970’s and watched an instructor teaching karate in the gymnasium. After watching his classes, I knew right then and there that that style (Shotokan) was the style for me.  That particular instructor, whose name is Sensei Ray Dalke, had an impact on my life.  I remember going up to him one day and saying, Sensei, I want to learn everything about karate, I know it will be difficult but I’m in it for life.  He then replied, “I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it.”