Shuhari – the stages of learning


Shuhari describes the three phases of learning experienced in the martial arts. It is not a common term, even in Japan, but many avid martial artists are already familiar with it. Shuhari is not exclusive to martial arts, originally being used to describe the pursuit within different Japanese cultural arts, such as the tea ceremony. Nowadays (or perhaps just in my circles), the term ‘shuhari’ appears most often in martial art conversations. 

Shuhari describes three broad categories of mastery. The concept is that all students will proceed through these stages in this order, but certainly not all students reach the second or third stages. In fact, it would be fair to say that a large proportion of martial artists never progress past the first stage. Certainly in most systems, a shodan (first degree) black belt would not be expected to have surpassed the first stage, and a black belt grading may actually require the practitioner to be in this stage of learning, as it shows a commitment to the basics and loyalty to the style.

 The three stages of learning each are represented by one Chinese character (kanji), as follows. Each character has at least two ways, of reading it, depending on the context.

  Shu (Mamoru)    Copy

Ha (Yaburu)        Individualise

Ri (Hanareu)      Enlighten

 The first character (shu)means to protect or obey. In this context, it refers to learning the basics exactly as taught, loyalty to the system, and protecting tradition. This stage of learning could be termed rote learning, the copy-cat stage. While this sounds negative, it is a necessary foundation to any form of learning. We can’t write a novel if we haven’t learned how to spell or string words together. Martial art instructors who teach exactly as their teachers taught them have remained in this stage of learning.

  (ha) refers to breaking traditions, researching, exploring, varying, improving on the basics. I think of this as the `Bruce Lee – Jun Fan` stage. Bruce Lee broke away from Wing Chun, but taught a variation of this art called Jun Fan Gong Fu. In this stage we adapt what we have learned to suit our own individual physiology, personality etc. This is the stage in which we objectively critique what we have learned. Poet Matsuo Basho advocates this stage of learning when he advised ‘not to follow the footsteps of past masters, but rather to seek for what they searched’.


  (ri) is the final stage identified in this progression, but it must be noted that the path is not a one-way street. It is common to take steps forward and backward. It is often said that once reaching `end` you will again find yourself at the beginning, only to know it for the first time. In this stage you will forget technique, and your body should move automatically according to the principles behind the techniques you have accumulated, creating new techniques as you move. Think of past masters Ueshiba Morihei, Kano Jigoro as examples of individuals who may have reached this level of transcendence. To use Bruce Lee again, he may have reached this phase when he created Jeet Kune Do.

Bruce Lee also spoke about this learning process when he said (to paraphrase), that at the beginning a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick. After studying for some time you realise that there are many ways to kick and punch, but finally you realise that a kick is just a kick and a punch is just a punch.

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2 Responses to Shuhari – the stages of learning

  1. Peter Hills says:

    Hey Chris, maybe my dictionary is a bit on the thin side, but I have Ri (haneru) as separate or divide and Gi or kei as enlighten/ment. Your use of enlighten as the translation has me puzzled.

  2. Pingback: Mastery | Sobukan

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