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Layers Of Shu-Ha-Ri In the Practice Of Iaido

by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: This article is the second in a continuing series of articles on the Japanese art of drawing the sword, iaido. (1) While this article discusses the concept of shu-ha-ri in relation to iaido, the concept is equally applicable to the sudy of any martial art.

Shu-Ha-Ri sounds foreign and opaque; but for the most part, it's not. Most long-time martial arts practitioners actually know what Shu-Ha-Ri is, even without knowing the expression itself.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a concept that can be useful in analyzing a student's progress in martial arts practice. For example, in iaido, serious practitioners know that a shodan (first degree black belt) rank does not mean much. At our dojo, New York Budokai (NYB), shodan only suggests minimal technical understanding of the shoden (first level) forms. More importantly, it signals a student's intent to continue study. It is not a license to teach. At NYB, first to fourth dan rankings are spaced approximately two years apart, depending on the person and their attendance. However, after fourth dan, it takes 10 years to get to fifth, our minimum teaching rank. Few get there (approximately 20 years of commitment to anything seems too long to most people); but if we were to organize our ranking system differently, it would be a disservice, both to the curriculum, and to the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri.

Like many Japanese cultural concepts, Shu-Ha-Ri packs a lot into a short phrase. Even those familiar with the concept often have trouble articulating it, as it exists in many layers. Basically, Shu-Ha-Ri is a map that lays out the potential progress of an individual involved in learning a traditional skill, whether dance, calligraphy, pottery-making, or traditional martial arts, such as iaido. Shu-Ha-Ri is progress divided into three stages. Though the stages often overlap, for convenience we will address each aspect in turn.

"Shu suggests progressing to a good technical understanding..."

Shu, as shown here its contemporary form on the left, literally means to "obey." In a martial arts context, shu is often translated as either "obeying your teacher" or "imitation [of your teacher]." My teacher, Otani Yoshiteru, actually prefers its earlier incarnation on the right (below), and refers to Shu as "tradition." In Shu, one learns all the traditions of a given style of an art form. For example, in Muso Shinden Ryu iaido, Shu suggests progressing to a good technical understanding of all 48 of the solo kata (both the movement and the bunkai) and any other relevant techniques, along with understanding aspects of the history of the style, and some idea of its general characteristics, strengths and weaknesses relative to sword arts in general. "Tradition" does not simply include the kuden (curriculum) of MSR; Shu also includes learning the history, traditions and customs of the particular dojo. At New York Budokai, we have unique perspectives on how rank is conferred and considered. We also have a number of sword techniques that are only practiced in our dojo. If we were to draw a diagram of the Shu of NYB as a set of circles, the circle that is NYB would cover a large part of the circle that is MSR (though not all of it, as some techniques are no longer practiced). It would also have a large part on its own, as well as some small part to indicate other techniques that are not unique to NYB, but are also taught in the dojo.

People I know who study various traditional Japanese art forms say it takes ten years or longer to develop a technical understanding of technique. In our practice, after ten years a student might pass through Shu for the first form learned, but it may also take ten years to pass through Shu for the form you learned after your first ten years. Shu, therefore, can take a very long time. And remember: Shu is only the beginning.

Shu operates in layers. Become familiar with the first set of forms, and the second set makes you feel like a beginner all over again. For example, students who develop a pretty good sense of sayabiki (pulling the saya back as the sword is drawn and resheathed - a standard part of our style) while learning the shoden forms seem to forget all about it the moment they move on to the next set of kata. Eventually, as a student begins to learn the upper skill level of kata, she is constantly reminded of everything she doesn't know about basic techniques. If the basics are not solid, those kata are much more difficult to learn.

So, in some ways, one can remain ever "stuck in Shu." However the iaidoka may feel about this at least Shu is fairly easy to understand. He either knows the techniques, or he doesn't.

Ha is very difficult to explain, though that has not kept people from trying. Simply put, Ha means "break." Break what? Break (from) what? Martial arts practitioners have described Ha as everything from "breaking with tradition," (i.e. founding your own style) to, maybe worse, "breaking with your teacher." Others have interpreted it as "breaking down techniques" in order to understand them better. Still others have suggested a musha shugyo - taking a "break from the dojo" in order to explore other styles to enrich one's overall understanding of the art form. All of these interpretations are potentially legitimate.

"Ha suggests a 'break-through' in the understanding of technique..."

However, to me, Ha suggests a "break-through" in the understanding of technique. This is wonderful when it happens: I've performed a particular kata thousands of times, I've been through the technique, the bunkai (applications), trying my best to perform the kata the way I was taught, busily correcting bad habits when they're pointed out, when I have a moment of Ha.

"(Ha) usually ... applies to a flash of insight regarding some small detail."

Ha, at least for me, doesn't relate to a major part of the kata; usually it applies to a flash of insight regarding some small (but never insignificant) detail. For instance, in the chuden kata Ukigumo, one is required to step over and turn the outside of the left ankle and place it on the floor as the sword is drawn and placed on the opponent's chest (he is to your right).

Next, with ankle still in place, the iaidoka reaches across her body with her left hand and places it on the back of the blade. In the next moment, she pushes down the opponent as she steps back with the right foot, correcting the position of the left foot so it is flat on the floor. A difficult, and seemingly meaningless detail. I used to badger dojo mates who simply skipped it. For 10 years or more, I performed this kata with no idea what that foot position was for. Suddenly, one day, it hit me: turning the foot, then correcting its position, added power to the act of pushing the opponent. Ingenious.

I tried to explain my new insight to the kohai (junior students) to whom I was showing the form. Not only did no one really understand me, they had no idea why I was ridiculously excited about what everyone thinks of as an awkward part of the kata.

After 10-12 years of practice I went through a series of insightful Ha moments. It was extremely pleasant, but the flashes of insight have given way to what might be a deeper perception of the style. In some ways, it is not nearly as much fun.

Ha can be frustrating too. Just because I have an insight about one form doesn't mean I've achieved satori (enlightenment). The deeper meanings of other kata may remain hidden away for a long, long time. And just in case I think my perceptions are valuable, it's good to remember that while beginners may appreciate the complexity of iaido kata, they are not likely to understand it. Like my teachers before me, I have learned to stifle any fabulous insights I think I may have, and say "Just do it like this" - that's if I feel like talking at all. In truth, you can't just give someone insight. This is why Ha is so difficult to understand. Everyone has his own.

The other, sneaky thing about Ha is that a moment of perceived insight may be all wrong. This has happened to me: a senpai (senior student) by now, teaching beginners from time to time, with something all figured out, and the daisen'pai (top student) or sensei comes in and says "What are you doing?" Crash.

Ha is a dangerous time in training. It's not by accident that people sometimes describe it as "break with your teacher." Sometimes students are so convinced of the importance of their insights they do break with their teachers, or they do found their own styles. I am sure there are times when this could be a good thing, but in the case of iaido, there is so much to learn after and through Ha, I'd have to say it's better to stick it out.

"Ri also has multiple interpretations, but my favorite one ... is 'freedom'."

The last phase in the triumvirate is Ri. Like the others, Ri also has multiple interpretations, but my favorite one, once again from Otani sensei, is "freedom." Even though I can't say I've experienced Ri, I know it when I see it.

Some time ago I saw an old film of Nakayama Hakudo, the man who brought the Muso Shinden Ryu style of iaido into the 20th century and preserved it though the martial arts ban after World War II. The film was shot in the 1950's and later (much later) transferred to video tape. The 20-minute, scratchy black and white film showed an 80-year-old man, his back ramrod straight, going through a series of forms from the MSR kuden. But there was more to it than that. After performing some kata as we would recognize them, Hakudo then performed a fascinating variation on each. He was playing with or improvising on the forms, but with the same level of integrity of technique he used in the originals. I realized, ironically, that these variations would not have won any kendo federation ranking, but they were wonderful: beautiful and functional all at once.

"... A perfect example of Ri, (is) when the practice and the practitioner blend together into a kind of breathtaking harmony."

That little 20-minute fragment is a perfect example of Ri, when the practice and the practitioner blend together into a kind of breathtaking harmony. This can happen in performing arts, when the artist and audience are transported by means of the performance medium to some other level of consciousness. When the performance ends, they are brought back to earth, as it were, but both parties feel somehow transformed by the experience.

It goes without saying that not many people get to Ri. Some practice their whole lives and may perhaps succeed in attaining a high level of Shu, enhanced by moments of Ha. But the longer you practice, the better the odds. Just the possibility of a flash of Ri is enough to keep me trying to find the path up the mountain.


This article is in part based on conversations with Otani Yoshiteru, founder of New York Budokai, and I dedicate it to him with gratitude, respect and affection. I would like to also thank him for the kanji characters he contributed for this article.


(1) Iaido is the modern discipline or way of drawing the sword that was popularized in the 1930's. It is derived from iaijutsu, a sub-specialization of kenjutsu (sword arts) that was practiced by professional (samurai) warriors and involved methods of drawing the sword and cutting as a single motion.

© 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman

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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Iaido, shu-ha-ri, iaijitsu, martial arts, katana, budo

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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