Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shu, Ha, Ri and Ku

Traditionally, when a student is taught about the stages of development a martial artist goes through you will hear of Shu, Ha and Ri. These I will cover today along with a fourth stage not often mentioned or taught openly...and that is our friend Emptiness, or Ku. Ku, as you are aware by now, can be interchanged for Kara of Karate.

So, what are these stages and what relevance do they have for you as a martial artist? Shu, Ha and Ri are classically taught as a means to guide the student towards mastery. It is helpful for the teacher to be aware of what stage the student appears to be at. Each student advances through each stage as they practice and proceed at their own pace. You can't hurry the pace or try to get to the higher levels by practicing harder. They simply require Gyoji...daily practice with a dose of faith.

Also, dependent upon the teacher you have, you will get a slightly different interpretation of them, so please keep this in mind. Here is my interpretation of Shu, Ha and Ri....with Ku.

Shu (learning form): This is the stage at which the student learns the form of their art. For instance, in Zen Goshindo our principle Kata is Sanchin. During Shu, the student learns the physical aspects of the form. This includes the footwork, handwork, breathwork and mindwork. The training is focused on the physical and 'yang' aspects of self-defense and conditioning of the body. At Shu, the bunkai, or application of the kata is kept quite literal and true to form.

Ha (breaking form): At the second stage of training, the student learns to break from form and can see how a particular movement once described as a 'block' can now represent a myriad of possibilities. A block is now a punch, a turn is now a throw or a bow is now a wrist lock. Here the basics are mastered and can be applied in a variety of situations. Creativity with form begins to sprout as well as get a 'sense' of the inner movement of the form.

Ri (transcending form): Moving into the third stage of development the student begins to transcend form. The student is now released from the outer form and feels the inner essence of the form. No longer confined by the outer form the student is now moved by the internal movement of the kata or form. For instance, an internal movement of Sanchin will have me 'coil' and move in a manner or shape that does not even look like the traditional outer physical form of Sanchin...but it is just doesn't 'look' like Sanchin.

So, in a nutshell, these are the three developmental stages of a martial artist. Do a web search and learn other interpretations. Regardless of what interpretation makes more sense to you, Shu, Ha and Ri only come about through practice...then more practice. Reading about them and having an intellectual understanding about them is not really knowing them.

Ku (emptiness): This last stage is typically considered the highest of mastery and usually kept as a 'secret' or 'hidden' teaching until Ri was mastered. At Ku there is no trace of form or doer of form. The Martial Artist dances in total harmony and accordance with the presenting moment. No ego. No observer. Nothing observed. No form. No doer of form. Nothing to get rid of and nothing to attain. With nothing to release or attain, the Martial Artist is released from all suffering and fears, even the fear of death itself. You could say, at Ku, the Martial Artist is now invincible.

Thank You for reading.

Be Well,

Shinzen Sensei
(note I am now using my Dharma name of friend Dr. and Reverend Yozan Mosig, Zen Priest and Master of Zen Shuri-te Karate inspired me to begin using it more often)


  1. In To-Shin do, and using the go-dai element in ninjutsu, ku is also the final element of a training aspect. We learn how to defend against an attack first from Earth (stability, command), Water (strategic, intelligence), Fire (interceptive, connectedness) and Wind elements (effortless evasion). Now, of course all of these have a particular look and energy, but every person has their own 'version' once the element is internalized. Once you understand those concepts, we introduce ku, or void element, which is as you stated 'no form'. Having nothing, allows for anything to be created, and you are no longer stuck in a rote response, or having an expectation of how you should respond. You let the art take over, and for one sweet moment, you are -not-.
    Good seeing you again Sensei!

  2. Thanks for the comment Gary...and good seeing you again as well.

    Your go-dai element in ninjutsu corresponds also with Musashi's Five Rings or Scrolls...which are Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Emptiness. It's great to see corallaries amongst the different arts.