Shu Ha Ri is a classical principle that describes the process of learning and making a skill your own. The principle is attributed to the 17th century samurai Sekiun Harigaya Usai. Originally it related to the skills of the samurai, but today it is seeing as relevant to all traditional Japanese arts.
Shu Ha Ri does not sketch a linear development; rather, it points to a step-wise spiral pattern of growth. During his or her development, the student re-enconters Shu Ha Ri often, though each time at a different level.
The character "shu" can also be pronounced as "omamori". An omamori is an amulet made by a Shinto priest. It protects the bearer, or the space in which it is placed, against ailments and mishap.
In Japan omamoris are often seen on the dashboards of cars, or hanging from the interior mirror. Omamoris are found next to the shrine in many homes and dojos. Omamori literally means "protector".
Shu means both protection and obedience. A child obeys his or her parents and obeys them. Disobedient children cannot be protected. Shu represents the first phase of budo practice. The dojo is a place of protection where students of budo can practice, without exposure to external risks.
The dojo is laid out so as to give an immediate feeling of safety and serenity. Even without having trained, a visitor should gain an impression of stability and certainty. The teacher strengthens the feelings of stability and certainty through his experience and knowledge. Senior students also play an important role here.
At this stage, students should avoid forming their own opinions, but endeavour to imitate the teacher in even the smallest details. It can occur that the student performs exercises or tasks that have no clear relation to the martial art which the student wishes to learn.
The "shu" stage is similar to the old days in the West when craftsmen took on an apprentice. Initially, the apprentice was mainly occupied by cleaning the workplace. The first lessons seemed to have little to do with the art or craft. Unawares, however, the student is in this stage laying the foundations which will form the core of the art.
Shu includes protecting the material, the curriculum of techniques. In the shu stage, the student should not add to the exercises he learns, nor dismiss parts of the syllabus ("This doesn't work"; "I don't like this"; "This is too soft/hard"). Rather the student should leave the curriculum unperturbed and make the original form his or her own.
Everyone who advances along the path of budo encounters periods of frustration, feelings that nothing works or that everything has been done so many times and just stays the same. The budoka feels useless, and the certainty that initially seemed only to grow seems to have disappeared. In its place come feelings of rebelliousness, criticism and frustration. It is similar in a way to puberty. The youth still needs the parents in many vital ways, while in other ways he is becoming independent. It is a period of frustration for both the teacher and the student.
While the student is still far from proficient, and could benefit from - perhaps the last - instructions from the teacher, the student finds it difficult to listen. The instructions seem to contradict what he has earlier learnt. The student doubts the teacher and himself. It is not only a negative stage, however. "Ha" is also a stage in which the student begins to make the techniques his own, and no longer learns only from the teacher, but also from his own experience.
The teacher encourages him to gain experience elsewhere. In this way the student meets other practitioners who may have a different approach to the art. This can also be frustrating, but it adds to the student's experience, knowledge and self confidence. The student becomes more aware of how he helps beginners with their first steps on the way.
Breaking free, Letting go, leaving
The "Ri" stage is likened to the relationship between parent and grown-up son or daughter. The budoka has made the art his own. His way of moving often shows who his teacher is, but the movements are no longer being learned, but come of their own accord. Doubt is perhaps not permanently gone, but if it does appear it is no longer threatening or confusing. Rather, it becomes a moment from which the budoka learns and often precedes renewed insight and growth. The lessons of his teacher are no less useful in the practice of his art, but the teacher no longer needs to demonstrate the technique for him to practice. Respect for the teacher is greater than ever before, but the teacher's continual presence is no longer essential. The student has grown up, finds his own path and the teacher lets go.