A More Accurate Understanding of Shu-Ha-Ri Part II

This is officially a Part II to the original blog entry titled, “A More Accurate Understanding of Shu-Ha-Ri.” I will therefore continue to speak on the matter without feeling the need to summarize or restate Part I. Here, instead, I would like to address particular readings and/or questions that arose from readers commenting on Part I. These questions and comments generally arose from camps within Aikido that support, as I do, the inclusion of sparring into one’s training. Before going on to address these comments and questions, however, I would like to address the other camp in Aikido (“Sparring is not needed nor wanted in Aikido”) by continuing some of the points made in Part I.

Ri, as the Reconciliation of Form and Non-Form, even as it is manifested in Takemusu Aiki, has long been and continues to be if not the sole goal of Budo (and thus Aikido), at least its North Star. As Ri is the manifestation of a particular body/mind, that particularity is itself what has been called throughout human history, Awakening, Purification, Enlightenment, Holiness, Grace, Communion with the Divine, Spiritual Maturity, Alignment with Nature, One with the Tao, One with the Universe, Oneness, Wu-Wei, Samadhi, Kensho, Satori, Bodhi, Wellness, Ego Reconciliation, etc. Toward this end, all such traditions oriented toward this North Star ALWAYS noted the problematic nature of using formal education, such as Aikido Kihon Waza, and always addressed that problematic nature with some sort of in-the-moment training and/or assessment environment. Sparring is one such environment. This is to say, your camp, with is sole emphasis on form or its overemphasis of form, is a corruption of the Path and has long been understood as such. And, philosophically and pedagogically, it has always been recognized as a corruption that can never lead to this metaphorical North Star. As much as you may not want live training environments to be a part of your Aikido training, because you argue that Aikido is a spiritual path and not a martial one, you rob from yourself the spiritual path you claim to be upon: You instead trap yourself in the problem of form, in the unreconciled ego, and you only bondage yourself with the fetishization of worldly things like rank, title, and social popularity.

To those in the sparring camp, in this Part II, I wish to first clarify my interest in Shu-Ha-Ri. I am not raising or re-raising the issue of Shu-Ha-Ri to gain some sort of argumentative authority for a particular position via historical or cultural reference. While there is much to gain from being historically and culturally accurate, my reason for speaking on Shu-Ha-Ri here (or anywhere else I have) is one of pure practicality. Meaning, Shu-Ha-Ri has accurately identified the problem and has rightly solved for its solution: “How does one move from a study of form to an application of form outside of ritualized learning environments?” If I address the historical or cultural accuracy of the concept, it is solely because common inaccurate understandings of the concept tend to only accurately identify the problem while inaccurately presenting the solution. This of course impedes upon the practicality of Shu-Ha-Ri, which is my sole interest.

The most commonly expressed but inaccurate presentation of the solution is that Shu-Ha-Ri denotes progressive types of training. For example, Shu is equated with Kihon Waza, Ha is equated with some sort of loosely defined training that for all intents and purposes can only be defined as “not Kihon Waza” (e.g. practicing personalized forms), and Ri is equated to sparring training. Here, what is historically and culturally important to point out is that Shu-Ha-Ri did not function via a post-Enlightenment separation of mind and body, and therefore was never reducible to a mere pedagogy aimed at the body or primarily at the body. Instead, working through a mind/body inseparability, Shu-Ha-Ri functions at the level of the subjective experience of the practitioner, and this in turn allows for, on the one hand, the possibility that live training environments such as sparring may still produce an attachment to form (Shu), and, on the other hand, that formal training environments such as Kihon Waza can be done from a Ri state of body/mind (as the Founder demonstrated).

Again, it is for practical reasons why this is deemed important to note: It is important to note this because it points out the empirically obvious that sparring training more often than not leads to either survival “tactics,” to the development of “favorite moves” or “games,” or to a milking or gaming of the rulesets – all of which are different from a Reconciliation of Form and Non-Form (Ri); All of which are but an Attachment to Form (Shu). Meaning, sparring is not innately Ri training nor Ri cultivating, and this is where the pedagogical or modern understanding of Shu-Ha-Ri falters at the level of solving for the problem of form. It is also practically important to note this because it additionally points out another empirically obvious fact: Neither “victory” nor “defeat” within such sparring environments is equivalent with Ri or with the absence of Ri: A practitioner can “win” in such environments from a Shu state and a practitioner can “lose” in such environments from a Ri state.

This is where I believe I raised issue with the Aikido sparring camp, in that I am holding that sparring is not innately a cure-all for the problem of form, and therefore that the solution for the problem of form is not merely one of curriculum (Just add sparring to Kihon Waza training.). Referencing Shu-Ha-Ri, but using more modern terms, I posited that the problem of form was a problem of mind, and that therefore the solution to the problem of form was also one of the mind – not curriculum nor the gaining of victory within live training environments. Using my own discourse, but noting that the discourse of Zen, Jung, or Ian McGilchrist, etc., can also be used, I will restate my position here again: Shu is the practicing of technique from and with the First Mind aspect, or what I have also called elsewhere The Ego-Tripartite. Ha is the practicing of technique from and with the Second Mind aspect, or what I have also apophatically called the Cessation of the Ego-Tripartite. Ri is the mutual integration and inter-functioning of the First and Second Mind aspects. With this more accurate understanding of Shu-Ha-Ri, we have unslaved ourselves from the First Mind aspect bondage that had us seeing victory as equivalent to Ri. We are also now in a position to both better develop curriculums beyond “just add sparring” and to better assess for and thus cultivate Ri past whatever possible overlap it may have had (or not had) with victory or defeat.

In this again we are aided by more properly understanding Shu-Ha-Ri historically and culturally. When we do look at the concept historically at the level of practice, we will see that Shu-Ha-Ri training included both technical training and non-technical training. We will also see that non-technical training made up the majority (in terms of time management) of the overall practice. Also, the bulk of the overall practice was aimed at the Cessation of the Ego-Tripartite, the gaining of access to the Second Mind Aspect (Ha), and then less so to the utilization of the First Mind aspect (Shu), and lastly, and even more less so, to the integration of the First and Second Mind aspects (Ri). The determinant for the exact breakdowns was the deshi him/herself. The assessment tool determining the viability of each breakdown as decided upon was the Accomplished Master him/herself. (“Accomplished Master” references a person skilled in integrating his/her First and Second Mind aspects.) As one can deduce here already, we are far from such training when it comes to modern Aikido, and it is this reason why we do not see our so-called “masters” do anything but reproduce forms contrarily to the art’s tenets and only within controlled environments. Gone are such levels of personal tutelage; gone is the master/disciple relationship; gone is the accomplished master, and, gone are the majority of practices that are non-technical in nature. To return to my compatriots in the Aikido sparring camp, if we truly want to solve for the problem of form, all of these things must be reincluded into our training – not just sparring. This is how Shu-Ha-Ri is utilized, and this is how the solution to the problem of form is gained.

As one possible roadmap, starting with an accomplished master, our dojo uses the following general curriculum when it comes to non-technical and technical training meant to solve for the problem of form:

Non-Technical Training (24-Hours per day):

- A Life of Service

- The Four Disciplines (Food Governance, Sleep Governance, Body Governance, Right Worldview)

- Prayer

- Contemplation

- Zazen

- Dojo Etiquette

- Master/Disciple Relationship

- Senpai/Kohai Relationship

Technical Training (7 Days per Week, 4-6 Hours per Day):

- Kihon Waza

- Micro Drilling

- Intensified Kihon Waza

- Play

- Jiyu Waza (e.g. Sparring)

Please see the following videos for more context and information:

On integrating Non-technical and Technical Training and on “Intensified Kihon Waza.” (Note: There is a demonstration of the practice after the initial discussion explaining its context.):


On “games” being First Mind aspect experiences (Shu) and nothing but an attachment to Form – not at all a solution to the problem of form – see 3:49:


More on “games” as First Mind aspect (Shu) and not a solution to the problem of form, AND this video is also on the need for personalized training and the use of the Accomplished Master as THE assessment tool for Ri (Note: I do not agree with the final proposed solution presented by the author of the video.):