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Teaching and Shu-Ha-Ri

by Yukiyoshi Takamura

Published Online

[Note: Takamura Sensei wrote this essay for inclusion in the Shindo Yoshin Kai instructors’ manual. Although specifically written for instructor-level members, I find so much value in this essay that I have decided to make it available to all members. I will include it in the next printing of the school’s student handbook. - Toby Threadgill.]

Yukiyoshi Takamura (1928-2000)

“Shu-ha-ri” literally means embracing the kata, diverging from the kata and discarding the kata. The pursuit of training in a classical Japanese endeavor almost always follows this educational process. This unique approach to learning has existed for centuries in Japan and has been instrumental in the survival of many older Japanese knowledge traditions. These include such diverse pursuits as martial arts, flower arranging, puppetry, theater, poetry, painting, sculpture and weaving. As successful as shu-ha-ri has been into the modern era, new approaches to teaching and learning are altering this traditional Japanese method of knowledge transmission. Whether traditional Japanese arts and endeavors are successfully passed to the next generation of practitioners is up to the sensei (teachers) of today and their wisdom in confronting the inherent strengths and pitfalls of shu-ha-ri. In this essay I will focus on shu-ha-ri and its unique application in the honorable martial discipline of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu jujutsu.

Shoden: The Beginning Level of Training

Shu (embracing the kata)

The kata or form is the educational core of all traditional Japanese knowledge schools. It is the most visible representation of a school’s knowledge packaged into one seemingly simple set of movements or concepts. Because the kata is so accessible it is often mistaken to be the most important aspect of determining a students ability or progress. In fact, properly taught, the kata does contain within it the ura or hidden level of information, but this information lies beneath the surface or omote of simple observation. Without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner, never able to progress towards the true depth of knowledge that rests hidden in the ura before him. To experience shu and embrace the kata, the student must first resign himself and his ego to a seemingly random series of repetitious exercises. Often these beginning or shoden level kata are by design intended to challenge the students concentration levels and devotion to learning. In some of the more rigorous traditions, kata are intended to create physical discomfort in addition to this exercise. Overcoming physical discomfort in this type of kata is just the first level of training the student to mentally focus exclusively on one task. As the student progresses through the various kata, different aspects of stress and distraction are encountered. As these challenges grow more intense the student’s mind learns to process information and stress in a much more efficient manner. In time different neuro-muscular processes become intuitively ingrained in such a way that they are no longer consciously realized by the student. Once this level of kata is absorbed and executed satisfactorily, the student has reached the first level of his or her training. Other more advanced kata will be presented throughout training which present greater and more diverse challenges, but the mental methodology for learning is now in place. The most basic reason for kata training has been achieved.

The pitfalls of teaching at the shoden level

At this level it is possible for kata to teach all by themselves. They are after all physical repetitions that challenge and instruct in an almost totally private experience. Although it might seem an exaggeration, anyone who knows the basic movements of a kata can take a student to this first level of training. It is even possible for some students to reach this level of training entirely by learning from a device like a book. However, this hands-off approach to learning by the sensei places the student in a perilous situation, especially in the teaching of paired kata. The most common downfall here is a sensei’s lack of diligent attention to physical form and proper timing. Simply stated, many low-level instructors teaching ability suffers due to their own mediocre instruction. Due to this they now instill poor habits into their students that must be unlearned at a later time. This is not only potentially dangerous, but can be quite frustrating to the student. This teaching flaw has resulted in many excellent prospective students becoming disenfranchised from their training experience and discontinuing their pursuit. Diligent instruction even at the most basic level of kata training is absolutely mandatory. Basics are at the core of any pursuits proper execution and should never be undervalued.

Chuden: The Intermediate Level of Training

“Shu” at the chuden level

At the chuden level kata study includes a new element. This element is the application or bunkai. The deeper reason for the kata and its construction is now presented to the student. The scenario in which the kata exists is also studied and evaluated. This study and evaluation is however strictly limited to the pure execution of the kata without variation. Only through this strict study can the kata accurately demonstrate its relevance to the student at a level he can comprehend. During this process the sensei helps the student begin to grasp the existence of the ura, those aspects that lie hidden beneath the surface of the physical form. For some students this realization is a revelation while to others it has been obvious for some time. Either way, the sensei must now accurately present basic concepts on a more abstract level than before. This paves the way for the second aspect of shu-ha-ri.

Ha (diverging from the kata)

In the traditional Japanese concept of shu-ha-ri, ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student. It is when the henka waza or variation is first experienced. It has been called the “divergent form existing within the form” or the “orthodox variation that co-exists within the confines of the strictly defined greater kata.” This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to a failure within the pure kata. Extremely attentive instruction is required by the sensei at this juncture because too much deviation will lead to sloppiness or bastardization of technique, while too much restraint can cripple any underlying intuitive talent. Encouraging intuitive creative talent is the purpose here but this creative experience must be diligently tempered by the confines of the greater kata. The kata must remain recognizable as the kata. If the kata diverges too far from the norm, it is no longer related to the original kata and becomes an altogether different expression of technique. It is imperative that such a deviation be avoided at this level of learning.

Ha, at the chuden level

Once the student discovers the boundaries of his training within the greater kata he will find the possibilities of learning almost endless. Progress comes now in leaps of ability not experienced in the past. Most excellent students first demonstrate their real potential during this stage of their study. The concepts and forms of the ryu integrate in a manner that intellectually stimulates the student’s mind. He now more fully appreciates the kata and recognizes the technical wisdom that exists within it. Consequently, many sensei find this time the most rewarding in a student’s progress. The fruits of a sensei’s labor manifest themselves powerfully during this period.

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