Levels of Studying in Kempo: Shu Ha Ri

Vancouver Karate Kobudo Kitsilano Shu Ha Ri
Shu Ha Ri

These words name the stages of learning to master an art. “Shu” is the reading of the character which means “protecting” or “keeping” as in “keep a promise”. The character for “ha” means “breaking” or “accomplishing”. The character for “ri” signifies “lining up side by side” or “separating”. In English we use the words “follow”, “adapt” and “master”. In any discipline, artistic, academic or physical, the stages of learning follow the same  order.

Learning begins by copying and repeating something until it comes natural. All of the higher skills including even the walking we think of as natural are learned through copying and repetition. Understanding and training in accordance with the concept of shu, ha, ri will help one recognize the level at which one should be training and avoid the pitfalls of over-reaching or under-reaching.

In kempo, the levels are as follows:

1. Shu refers to the stage of copying the techniques and learning to do them exactly the way a teacher has taught.

2. Ha refers to the stage of making changes (changes which follow the teacher’s theory) to suite one’s needs and physical characteristics.

3. Ri is the stage when one has mastered the art and many refers to one’s own understanding for guidance in technique and teaching.

For a tall building, make a strong foundation

The explanations above point out the differences between different levels of learning, and you will have to decide when you are ready to move up. The first transition, between shu and ha, requires a student to have thoroughly learned a technique in the form revealed by a teacher. When one can perform it freely, then one may add something to oneself of the techniques.

In ri one goes beyond the level of being a teacher’s student. It requires one to have understood the principles behind the techniques, and to be thoroughly capable of moving in accordance with them. Ri is the level of freedom to move naturally–because it has become natural to move by the principles.

Shortcuts make you lose the way

Following the principles is necessary at all three levels. The principles which underlie the techniques of one at the level of shu are no different than the principles of the techniques of a master at the level of ri. If one does not learn the fundamental principles at the level of shu, one will not know where the techniques do and do not permit change, and will never master the discipline. Mastering the forms and understanding the principles behind them are absolutely essential first stages in the path to mastery.

They way to know if one is following the principles is to know the aim of each technique. Ask yourself whether you own method achieves this aim without strain or wasteful motion. Proper form will reveal itself by the effective and balanced nature of your motions.

Different people do the same technique in different ways

Techniques performed by different people will vary slightly. While one teacher does a technique this way, another will perform it that way. It is all too easy to get confused wondering which way is the right way to follow. However, worrying about every single difference will be a waste of time.

Study differences to learn how techniques are the same The basic features of a face – two eyes, one nose, one mouth, etc. – are all the same, but there are minor differences. The same is true for techniques. While there are individual differences based on a person’s build, competence, or approach, the basic conditions and principles of any given technique remain the same. To ask everyone to execute techniques exactly alike would be like asking everyone to have identical faces. Instead, focus on the common aspects of the techniques, and learn the principles from the different examples you find.

Originally Published in Shorinji Kempo Fukudoku-hon pg. 20-21 (1991)