Part one – to follow the rules. Part two – to vary the tradition. Part three – to become something new.
Shu. Ha. Ri. 守 破 離
People talk about them as if they are governed by
belts. As if you can be awarded the
state of Ha once you have mastered Shu.
The three terms are used to depict the changes that one goes
through. The first character, Shu, is to
obey or protect. We all come into our
tradition knowing that there are certain things we have to do. There is a way that we have to behave, there
are things/techniques that we have to learn.
The second character, Ha, is to digress or diverge. As we learn more about ourselves and our
tradition we discover that there are ways that we can make things work, even if
other people need to do them a little differently. Some people can do kumite like a steam train
with single-minded determination, others need to accomplish their ends with
subterfuge and speed. Same ends,
The mighty Ri is separation.
To Transcend. Wow. One day, eh?
In our tradition that teaches humility and respect it is strange that
anyone would ever consider themselves in the Ri stage, so is it just something to
You don’t leave Shu when you get your black belt.
You don’t leave Shu when you get your sandan… I have trained
with people wearing nanadan who haven’t left Shu.
You never leave Shu.
There is always going to be a part of your technique that
you are still following the rules on. There
is always a part of your tradition that you are going to be obeying. Protecting.
Even if your tradition is to take what works and discard what does not,
there is always going to be an element of protectionism towards your art. Should there be? Yes.
So stop pretending that we are ever going to walk away from the Shu
Ha joins it.
Divergence mixes in with the obeying.
You don’t stop obeying and start doing what you like. Unless you do, and then you might have missed
the whole point. Those guys who got
their black belt, didn’t like what their teacher was doing, and so went and set
up their own deal. Unless the teacher
really didn’t know what he was doing (and there are plenty of them about) then
it was the new black belt who didn’t get it yet.
Ha comes along in small ways. A bit of footwork. An extra breath. Not shortcuts and “changes”, but realisations
about our own body and our own journey.
Variations from our teachers’ path that have more to do with our
circumstance than whether we can chamber our knee differently for mawashigeri.
And Ri? Small
moments. Parts of the Shu, and the Ha
gives moments of Ri. You don’t jump ship
and announce your Transcendence. That
just points out how markedly far from transcendence you can possibly be. Separation from our teacher doesn’t stop them
from being our teacher except in the worst circumstances. The lessons imparted have made us what we are
and played a large part in forming our position on everything from how you tie
your belt to what your best bet is in a weapon wielding assault.
You can’t get a certificate in Ri. Not a genuine one.
Transcending the tradition that takes what works and gives
you plenty of tools for refining your technique and your character is simply
not possible. Change the name of what
you do, change your uniform and your syllabus.
Change what you do, and you are still part of the tradition. You might be exploring a different part of
it, but you haven’t transcended.
That’s why “styles” are only a tool. Set performances of kata are only a
tool. Sparring drills are only a
tool. Competition is a tool. Belts and grades and titles are only tools.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot --
Our searching takes place in the dojo. My class timetable can be seen at the www.KarateAcademy.co.uk site, for our Devon Karate classes.
Social media is a strange thing. On the one hand you have the very serious,
scholarly pages which serve a purpose, then we go through the spectrum of pages
like this one which ask some questions, give a few answers, but don’t take
themselves to be the ultimate resource for all martial artists. And then we get to things like the “Enter the
Dojo” show by Matt Page, where he really makes fun of the martial arts and
martial artists. Bizarrely, he has
people taking him seriously and challenging his assertions about how good the
When one of your “friends” puts up a post and asks for an
opinion about it, there are times when others say it all and you don’t need to
chip in. And there are times when you
might have a point to make that is additional to the conversation as it
develops. You don’t have to have
everyone believe it. You don’t have to
subscribe to my theory. You don’t have
to have everyone convert to your religion or change everything about themselves
and what they do. They don’t have to
announce that what you’re thinking is wrong.
Unless their opinion is actually going to add to the conversation, too.
Now, before this turns into the grounds for a war, please
understand that I believe you have a right to your opinions. Everyone else has
a right to their opinions too.
Let’s take a strange topic.
One school owner is asks openly whether others think it okay
to have a student’s name on a coloured belt.
Is it okay?
What’s the belt for?
In some schools the name of a student is written in felt-tip
on their gi.
Is it just a bit of fun to have your name embroidered on
Is it okay for a Black Belt to do it? And if it is, then why not a coloured belt?
The students will pay that bit extra for their personalised
belt, won’t they?
It all depends on how you look at it.
Is the uniform there to look good? Or is it a function piece of clothing to stop
your t-shirts from getting ripped to shreds in training?
The reason for a uniform, in my opinion, is so that students
look the same. No-one is flashier or
wealthier in the dojo unless by merit. The
grade system should see to that. The
students get new belts on their merit. They can look flashier if they are more
able. They look flashier on their merits
rather than on their wallets.
The belt exists to remind the teacher what the student should
know. Certainly it serves as reward and recognition
for time served and merit earned. It
lets the students know that the person has been recognised. That’s important if, for instance, you are
not the biggest, strongest person in the dojo.
You are due respect for your dedication and for what you know, but there’s
always going to be someone who is a lower grade who can still “score one” on
you. That’s good because it helps to
keep you humble. The belt is good
because even if that lower grade can score on you, they must still acknowledge your
position in the dojo. The grade is both
reward and a standard to keep up to.
If the coloured belts can have a flashier belt because they
pay for a flashier belt that says something about the climate in your dojo.
How long were you intending to wear that colour for
anyway? 3 months? 6 months?
If you’re in an early kyu grade for longer than 6 months then maybe
something was lacking in your training…
Later on, maybe it gets to be longer in each grade…
If a Black Belt has their name embroidered, well, by the
time they are a Black Belt they all know each other, anyway, don’t they? The Black Belts don’t change the colour of
their belt every few months. Once you
join the ranks of the yudansha there isn’t any need for one-upmanship anymore,
The legend goes: shodan, a simple cotton black belt; nidan,
maybe your club or style; sandan, you earn your name.
Each club is different.
You will still do things in your club the way they are usually
done. At my club, if a shodan is given a
present by his family of an embroidered belt then of course he should wear
it. There is no problem. We all know why he’s got it and what rank he
is. We don’t need Dan bars on our belts
because we all know who the gaffer is.
Anyone who joins us as a black belt had better have the humility to
stand at the lower end of the black belts in line, anyway. We’ll work out where they really stand as the
weeks go by. If they come in and take a
“senior” position then they have to better than everyone to their left. If they are then there is no problem.
If these views are archaic, then I’ll take that criticism. I’ll go on with training that involves
hardship and testing and confronting the demons within rather than be part of
the reward=payment brigade. I still
think there must be financial consideration for tuition as there are bills to
pay, but, in my dojo at least, you cannot buy your grade.
There are lots of other people like me. There are lots of others who are not like me
at all. We can talk to each other
Details of my Karate Academy classes can be found at www.KarateAcademy.co.uk – visitors to
my dojo who want to train are welcome, regardless of style, rank, affiliation, or whether their belt is
Karate-do is the Way of the Empty Hand. 空手道
Translated from the Japanese that is the usual and simplest way of putting
it. What you have are three kanji kara 空, te 手
and do道. Unlike the western alphabets which contain
symbols that we call letters, where each letter is a sound, and combined the
sounds will sometimes change, kanji are pictograms. They are stylised drawings of things and
ideas, representations that are layered and change their meaning and pronunciation
based on many things, not least which other kanji they are joined to.
Before we get too far into it I must be very clear. This is my understanding of the subject and
is not the be-all and end-all. I am not
Japanese. I am not fluent in their
language, though I have studied it and perhaps that helps. Because it is not my native language I might
be a little more objective about it.
Most English people can’t tell you what a “Richard” is. You’d have to look it up to be able to
tell. A lot of Japanese people don’t
recognise the origins of the terms they use, either, and sometimes that means
that a westerner might read more into it than they do.
Take “ki” for instance.
氣 or 気 Mumbled about it many martial
arts clubs as the energy that is all about us and can be channelled for greater
effect in our techniques, leasing to parallels for my generation with “The
Force” from Star Wars. To the Japanese
we’re just talking about “an atmosphere”.
In the same way as we might say “the air was so thick you could cut it
with a knife”, the Japanese might talk about the ki in the room. It’s not mystical. It’s not The Force. Do you want to use the word Intention
The kanji for ki is made up of something looking like a pot,
with the lid rising and steam escaping.
There is rice beneath. For the
rice to be generating steam there must be heat, but the heat is not drawn.
Ki is mentioned in Karate training as part of kime, kiai,
etc. Focus and Spirit Yell. We’ll talk about them some more later.
So what about The Way of the Empty Hand?
Kara/sora/ku is empty, and is the same kanji you will see
for the “air” in airport. Sky. Void.
Te/ti/di/shu is hand.
Also used to denote a skill when used as a suffix in Okinawa, birthplace
Do is The Way. Path. A practice that is more than just repetition;
a mindful thing performed with purpose.
Some people will make much of the difference between Do 道and Jutsu術. Do is for sport, they say, with some
compunction. Jutsu is the real
skill. What about if I have a Do of
Jutsu? With Do representing The Way of
life, and Jutsu representing efficacy, why can I not have a structured art that
represents real ability and is still practiced with a moral understanding and
personal growth as the aims?
Call upon my lack of understanding of the language and my
limited experience of the martial arts (I started in 1981) and my sparse time
in Japan and I shall have to point out that there are people who have lived in
Japan their whole lives who have no idea about these terms. They just sound odd because a westerner is
saying them. When someone from Japan
points out the same thing it will all be absolutely obvious.
You can understand why someone would view Do as a
sport. Most of the martial arts today
are called something or other and then “Do” (Judo, Aikido, Karate-do,
Taekwondo) and, yes, the older styles might have the suffix “jutsu”
(Ju-jutsu). The modern practice methods
mean that plenty of people take part for sporting reasons, but those arts did
not, in the main, come about because of sport.
Cleaned up for acceptability, yes.
Sport, no. Kano sensei did not
devise Judo as a sport. He campaigned
for its inclusion in the Olympics, but it was not its reason for being. Ueshiba sensei did not make Aikido to be a
sport. Funakoshi sensei did not
formulate the modern version of Karate for the sake of sport. The very idea of testing out techniques on
another human being was anathema in the days following World War 2. Was that because of the occupation of Japan by
the Americans and the rule of General Macarthur? Probably.
Was it more barbaric and tested on human beings before that point? Yes, but it wasn’t what we today would call
So what makes Karate into real Karate?
That’s going to depend upon who you talk to. At one and the same time the diversity of
Karate styles, clubs, and teachers is both the art’s strength and its weakness.
Way of Life?
Philosophy of being?
Outlet for violent tendencies? Stress reliever?
Ancient warrior art encoded for secrecy and sanctity?
White gi? No gi?
Hard or soft?
Use of Japanese terminology?
A certain presence of mind while training?
If you mention efficacy then to what end?
And worst of all: On Whose Say-So?
You see, there is not one single authority to whom we Karate
practitioners can look and we can all agree that person has absolute authority,
and neither should we. Because if this
Way of Life is to teach us anything then it must be that we stand or fall on
our own efforts, and that the opinions of others can be accepted or rejected
without our essence being affected.
Anyone who's interested is welcome to attend my classes which my team and I take in Devon, UK. My books, DVDs, and Downloads on Karate Kata Bunkai are available here