I have written many times on the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, and I have done several podcasts on the concept as well. Here, I would like to offer an additional, perhaps more concise, article on the matter – on what I find most plaguing on the matter. I would like to commence then with correcting the common historical mistake that suggests that the concept was developed in Japan, or let alone within the field of Japanese martial arts, or even in the field of tea ceremony or Noh drama. In truth, the concept is much older and its origins can be found in the educational systems of what is now referred to as “ancient China.” To keep things simple, while here noting that this therefore is not exactly historically accurate, the concept and the problem it was meant to address can be traced back to the Ruist school (500 BCE) and on through history through the Confucian schools and the Buddhist schools, schools where the problem being addressed remained relevant to the technology of self being practiced therein. It is through these educational lineages that it made its way to other geographical areas, such as Japan, and into other fields of practice, such as tea, Noh, and Budo.
Aside from this historical fact, there is also a cultural fact that is at work, one that can only be seen through Braudel’s “longue durée.” For the same reason why accurately understanding the abovementioned history is important, it is also important to understand this cultural phenomenon if we today want to understand and apply Shu-Ha-Ri properly. This is because it is this cultural fact that amplifies the negative effect of the original problem being solved for through Shu-Ha-Ri, and it is this amplification that has again brought the concept to the forefront of martial art traditions such as Aikido. First then, let us identify the historical problem that Shu-Ha-Ri was meant to address. Again, for simplicity’s sake, that problem is this one: In a system of thought and practice that held that ideal ways of being are Nature-Accorded ways of being, it was noted that Man as an organism unique unto him/herself has the potential to be both inside and outside of what is the natural order of things. As such, Man requires training to more ensure that he/she is in alignment with the natural order of things. Such training, however, was observed to be an artificial imposition on a kind of “nature” that pre-existed such training. As such, training in and of itself can only, at best, lead to an artificiality, or a distance between education/information and an innate nature noting such education/information. The concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, and all its preceding and post renditions, is designed to address this final problem: There is a gap that is self-generated in training (of any kind) that leads to a kind of “unnaturalness,” making the goal of a trained innate naturalness impossible.
Looking at this problem historically, this is the problem that the Ruists, and later the Confucians, attempted to address through concepts like Shu-Ha-Ri when they noted that over time their rituals had within them the potential for masquerade, superficiality, and an apparent inability to transform the practitioner in the prescribed way at the level of depth or innate nature. This, it can be said, is what led to the formation of the Taoist school – which brings us to the second thing we must address: The cultural fact mentioned above, what is it?
As each system of thought and practice comes to establish itself culturally within the social systems wherein truth is produced and all forms of capital are exchanged, the aforementioned gap between training and the achieving of an innate naturalness that is aligned with such training, leads practitioners to prioritize and emphasize symbols for the sought-after innate naturalness over and above the innate naturalness itself. This in turn leads subsequent generations of practitioners further away from the means of producing an innate naturalness - whereby they become more motivated and interested in acquiring, for example, rank, title, and institutional power. It is this, as with the previously mentioned rise of the Taoists schools, that historically leads to a kind of staleness or transformative impotence within said schools that is then followed by a kind of “revival” movement. Other examples of this cultural phenomenon can be seen in the rise of the Chan/Zen school, Bruce Lee’s rise of Jeet Kune Do, the rise of modern MMA, and modern Aikidoka’s growing dissatisfaction with federations and its restricted training to and prioritization of Kihon Waza – and thus modern Aikidoka’s growing interest in Shu-Ha-Ri.
In each of these rival movements, because the problem is as much an innately human problem as it is a philosophical one, a social one, and a cultural one, you will see the revivalist schools not only re-concerning themselves with the original problem, but also separating themselves from the observably impotent and misguided institutions that come to be rightly identified as incapable of producing the desired-for innate naturalness due to their prioritized concerns with capital, institutional power, and symbolism. It is these reasons why said revivalisms always carry with them a kind of iconoclasm - for example, Lin Chi’s (Chan), "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." This trend is also visible today within our art.
As suggested above, clearly, we can see this cultural phenomenon at work within contemporary Aikido when we note what the Founder could do with his art and what most today can do with their art. There within the latter, we see an inability for Takemusu Aiki, an over-emphasis on form, and a prioritization on rank, title, institutional power, and an emphasis on symbols and on metaphorical thought, etc. As it has many times before in history, this degeneration has indeed led to a kind of revival movement within Aikido, wherein individual schools and practitioners work to reject or subvert such emphasized aspects, separating themselves politically from related institutions, and venturing into “blasphemous” practices such as competition, sparring, and cross-training. And, while this is indeed an interesting phenomenon, I would like to instead focus in on the original human problem and the original proposed solution in what follows:
There are two huge difficulties that current practitioners face when they look to understand the original solution proposed within Shu-Ha-Ri. It is important to note these difficulties because without noting them we cannot lead ourselves to a proper application of Shu-Ha-Ri, and as a result we are unable to take advantage of an established knowledge that previous generations already had in place to solve for the problem at hand. Instead, we are likely to make things up as we go along, and do so only by the highly inefficient method of random experimentation. An example of this that is commonly being seen amongst the revivalist schools today is the introduction of sparring in Aikido training. Clearly, this is no solution, as the common result is only the pitiful act of Aikidoka attempting to pull of Aikido Kihon Waza against a jab, or a kick, or a double leg takedown, etc. In such cases, success is few and far between, very much size and strength-related, and ultimately denotes an attachment to form and not the desired-for innate naturalness originally being sought: In such cases, where failure is manifested, there is no sign of any artistic training (accordance with the natural order of things), and we only observed a floundering survival technique by such Aikidoka. No amount of time sparring in and of itself, which the ancients already knew, is ever going to lead out of this attachment to form or to this absence of form.
The difficulties in question are these: We sit on the other side of an epistemic rift from the cultures that developed Shu-Ha-Ri. We therefore need to note that the episteme that gave rise to the solution of Shu-Ha-Ri is one of concentric thought (not scientific thought), and that therein body and mind are concentrically linked and held to be inseparable. Shu-Ha-Ri is therefore NOT a linear progression through different ways of practicing the art (e.g. forms training following by sparring, etc.), but rather they are immediate and eternal experiences of the art at the level of a particular body/mind relationship. As such, Shu-Ha-Ri simultaneously and equally refers to, for lack of better words, states of mind and their corresponding states of practice or experiencing the art. Using my own translation for Shu-Ha-Ri, which is in alignment with the long history of the multiple schools and cultures that identified the problem and proposed the solution, namely, “Form/Non-Form/The Reconciliation of Form and Non-Form, what one has to recognize is that “Form” is an experience of the art brought about by the Form Mind-Aspect within us, Non-Form is an experience of the art brought about by the Non-Form Mind-Aspect within us; and, The Reconciliation of Form and Non-Form is an experience of the art brought about by a seamless integration of the aforementioned two mind aspects.
Expanding upon this, and simply put, the practitioner who is stuck in form, or stuck by form, the practitioner that shows an inability to fight with the art within live ever-changing and rapidly evolving environments, is really demonstrating an inability to tap into his/her Non-Form Mind-Aspect. The practitioner whom within fighting or sparring, within live ever-changing rapidly evolving environments, but whom shows no recognizable elements of the art, floundering instead with what can only be called survival tactics, tactics that had preexisted all training in the art, tactics that show no wisdom recognized by the art, is really demonstrating an inability to integrate his/her Form Mind-Aspect and his/her Non-Form Mind Aspect. As such, form and non-form remain unreconciled, remain antagonistic to each other, and the problem of cultivating an innate naturalness of art has not been solved for. This is how Shu-Ha-Ri was understood for centuries before we began to dabble in it.
For those Aikido revivalists venturing into Shu-Ha-Ri’s conceptual use but who do not have themselves a long martial arts career involving sparring and training within live training environments, it is important to know that other arts having long sparring traditions are no better off that Aikido in terms of demonstrating the sought-after innate naturalness of technique (i.e. the Reconciliation of Form and Non-Form). This is true amongst both the traditional arts, such as Karate, and even amongst the combat sport arts, such as MMA, BJJ, and Judo. Contrary to popular belief within Aikido circles, it is a relatively few practitioners in these arts that can go on to show technical prowess under live conditions. Instead, such arts have an overwhelming majority of practitioners that demonstrate either or both the inability to tap into their Non-Form Mind-Aspect or an inability to integrate their Form Mind-Aspect with their Non-Form Mind-Aspect. For the combat sport arts, this remains true even with their externally reduced environments and their lending toward the use of setups and tactical dilemmas – it is still relatively few that can move beyond such setups, tactical dilemmas, and “games,” which are all attachments to form, to the innate naturalness the ancients saw and appreciated.
In short, while you cannot solve for an innate naturalness of the art by fetishizing form above everything else, you also cannot solve for this innate naturalness of the art by simply adding sparring to forms training or by simply replacing forms training with sparring. These types of pseudo-solutions do not address the heart of the problem because the heart of the problem is not a body problem and nor is it a mind problem. Instead, since modern Aikido training is in essence a domination of the Form Mind-Aspect above the Non-Form Mind-Aspect (like all of Modernity) and thus a deprioritization of the integration of the two mind aspects, what one must do is reintegrate practices that give the practitioner skill in accessing the Non-Form Mind-Aspect, reintegrate practices that give the practitioner skill in releasing him/herself from the Form Mind-Aspect, and reintegrate practices that give the practitioner skill in integrating the Form Mind-Aspect with the Non-Form Mind-Aspect. While said reintegration may involve some technological modifications meant to address the aforementioned epistemic rift, there is absolutely no reasons or benefit to attempting to invent something new or to reinvent something old.