The Japanese use the concept of Shu, ha, ri to indicate progress in development/growth. Straight from its WikiPedia page, Aikido shihan Endou Seishirou said:

It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forbearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

The question I ask is: as a teacher, how do you recognize that a student of yours has finally passed from 'ha' to 'ri' ?

  • 1
    Although I've provided my best answer, I'm increasingly skeptical that this question has an answer. I think it provokes interesting discussion, but the question may involve too many abstractions and subjective elements to permit an objective, empirical answer.
    – MCW
    Aug 21, 2012 at 10:33

2 Answers 2


I think that setting any sort of standard or criteria by which to judge attainment of the ri stage is misguided.

Like enlightenment or "mastery", we bandy these terms about as if they had specific and concrete meanings. They do not. They are more meant as a finger pointing at the moon, as ways for us to guide our own practice. (Or to gently explain to white belts why they should shut up and do the technique the way they were taught.)

The shu-ha-ri concept is a philosophical division of form. It simply delineates the plain fact that the form is the proper way of doing things, whereas other times the form will hold us back. We don't literally "graduate" from one stage to the next across all our techniques, or even permanently. We might get it on one day and lose it the next. The three concepts are just putting a name to that phenomena.

This is well-recognized in other fields where different levels of competence or knowledge integration are used. Wikipedia uses the shu-ha-ri concept to explain the familiarization process with editing Wikipedia:

In the martial arts there is a concept of the road to mastery called shu ha ri that could be explained as:

  • He/She who is a beginner, plays within the boundaries;
  • He/She who is proficient, explores the boundaries;
  • He/She who is an expert, creates the boundaries—or ignores them altogether.

While editing Wikipedia: beginners don't know (or are only starting to learn) the rules; intermediate users learn the rules; advanced users learn the spirit of the rules; finally, once users understand the spirit of the rules and principles, they can ignore them.

Further, the four stages of competence are recognized across many disciplines. I see a direct parallel to the shu-ha-ri concept, with the first stage of competence simply placed before even shu.

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence (akin to shu)
  • Conscious competence (akin to ha)
  • Unconscious competence (akin to ri)

To me, comparing the Japanese concept of form with Burch's model of competence stages plainly shows that these are not discrete states, and further that determining the state one is in requires knowledge of internal mental processes, making it difficult to say for sure which stage someone else is operating in. This would be the simplest way to tell if someone is operating at a high level: are they reacting naturally, casually, without thought or effort? Or are they executing techniques expertly and effectively, but with mental effort, consciously? We can't say with any certainty, but observing the smoothness and speed of their action can give hints.

(It is also important to remind ourselves that we move into and out of these stages fluidly: I go through months where I start hitting kouchigari without conscious thought, before losing it for another span of several months. I am forcibly reverted to conscious action.)

  • Enlightenment has a fairly specific and concrete meaning. It has however been very diluted by people who DO bandy about the word without knowing that meaning. "Mastery" can also be defined. One does not "graduate from one stage to the next across all our techniques", because the point of 'ri' is to "lose" technique. Everything becomes just a manifestation of principles. This seems like it could be a good question: "Does shu-ha-ri really exist across the board?" Or .. Well, I'm not sure how to word it.
    – Anon
    Aug 20, 2012 at 19:57
  • @Trevoke Could you point me to an authoritative reference that defines enlightenment specifically and concretely? Perhaps we are not meeting minds about the meaning of the term "concrete". Same with mastery--we can point to Marcelo Garcia and say he's mastered the rear naked choke, but there's a problem (which you might recognize from the "heap" in comp sci): at what date and time did he go from not having mastery to having mastery? Aug 20, 2012 at 20:06
  • I see our problem. We're not talking about the same thing. The states of mastery and enlightenment are definable, but they're not the same as the transition. I am asking about the transition, and you're talking about the state. For better or for worse, you could go for interactivebuddha.com/mctb.shtml which describes, step by step, the levels of enlightenment, and how to get there. If we agree that Mareclo Garcia is a master (which is not what you said, I am aware), then we must be able to define, however elusively, his state.
    – Anon
    Aug 20, 2012 at 23:06
  • And my question isn't about the transition (though that's FASCINATING! And I wish I'd asked it), but about the state.
    – Anon
    Aug 20, 2012 at 23:07
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    @Trevoke You literally just said in your first comment that the Q is about the transition, then in your next comment that it's about the state. But that's irrelevant, because my point is that the definition of mastery/enlightenment/*ri*, being innately amorphous, is prey to the sorites paradox. Aug 21, 2012 at 2:18

I'll start with the caveat. Since I don't have a menkyo kaiden, and quite frankly don't expect to achieve one in my lifetime, my answer should be viewed with a grain (or two) of salt. Interpreted strictly, there are very few people who are qualified to answer this question. (in point of fact it may be advisable to edit the question so that it can be answered more objectively, rather than discussed).

I do have a menkyo kaiden in arrogance, so I'll provide my best advice despite the caveat. I believe in every context where I've heard this discussed, time served is a criteria. I dislike that criteria for various andragogical reasons, and there are students in my dojo who are junior to me but whom I recognize as significantly superior in skill. But time served does serve as a yardstick to reduce rank inflation. The standards for how much time served vary from art to art. - see the caveat above about multiple variables.

I believe within most of the martial arts there are also measures that are useful. Within Tomiki aikido we have randori and competitions. Within Taiji we have push-hands. Other martial arts have sparring. Most martial arts have the notion of henka waza or jiyu waza. Does the student's performance within these exercises conform to the body of material already taught, or is the student able to improvise? In static exercise we tend to control for and decrease variability. In dynamic exercises like sparring or randori there are more variables. Is the student handicapped when presented with a new attack, or can the student adapt elements of known techniques? (You could argue that these are test for the boundary between Shu and Ha; I wouldn't disagree completely).

Most schools have assumptions about attacks. - for example, most aikido schools don't practice extensively against kicks. (I acknowledge that Stokman's Keri-Waza is the exception that proves the rule.) Aikido tends to practice against knife thrusts and stylized attacks, but not against the kind of knife fighting I'd find on a DC street which aims to bleed the attacker. How does the student react to attacks outside the assumptions of the art? That would be evidence that the student has progressed to Ha.

Wish I could provide a truly objective answer, but I don't think the question permits it.

  • +1, not least for the use of the word "andragogical". Aug 20, 2012 at 18:58
  • So, if I read you correctly, you are arguing that examining a student's performance/progress during a particular drill could be a good indicator of progression from 'ha' to 'ri' ?
    – Anon
    Aug 20, 2012 at 19:58
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    Loosely, yes. I wouldn't use the term "particular drill". I suspect that the student's performance during sparring would reveal whether the student had progressed from limited improvisation to a deeper understanding of the fundamentals.
    – MCW
    Aug 21, 2012 at 10:28

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