Shu, Ha, Ri

Shu, Ha, Ri

After leaving England I was relocated to Japan for my job. The job location was on Hokkaido the northern most island in Japan.  I was excited to go back to Asia because I knew that I would likely be close to a qualified instructor and hopefully be able to attend a class nearby.  Also since I had been learning and practicing Buddhism for some time I knew it would be easier there since Japan is predominantly a Buddhist country.  Soon after arriving and finding a house I was talking to one of my neighbors who spoke a little English.  Moving to this neighborhood turned out to be a stroke of luck because as it turns out in this area it was rare to find anyone who spoke even a little English.  I told him of my interest in martial arts and asked him if he knew of any dojo’s in the area.  He asked me if I knew anything about Shorinji-Kempo?  I told him that I had never heard of it.  He went on to explain that there was a Shorin-ji Kempo school nearby so I decided to go and watch.  When the class started I was taken instantly by their uniform.  It was a white Gi somewhat similar to that used in judo, although a thinner material, and not unlike a Karate Gi except the sleeves only came down about half way on the forearms.  The most interesting feature though was that each person had the image of a Swastika (Manji in Japanese) sewn  over the left side of their chest. ***For an explanation of the meaning of the Manji see my other blog “The Swastika and the Chocolate box” ***  Different people had different color Manji’s such as green, black, red, and the one who appeared to be the instructor was gold.  I later found out that the color was also related to the each person’s rank. The instructor’s son saw me and came over to say hello.  It turns out that he lived in New York for a number of years and could speak English well (good luck struck again!). 

He explained that Shorin was the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese Kanji for “Shaolin”.  Ji is the Japanese name for a “temple”.  The kanji for Kem when used on its own was pronounced Ken (the fact that pronunciations change like this in Japanese is very confusing at first) which means “fist”.  The kanji for Po on its own is pronounced “Do” and of course Do means “way” as in Judo or Kyudo.  So literally it means “Shaolin Temple Fist Way” or translated as “Way of the Shaolin Fist”. 


Takeda Sokaku

Shorin-ji Kempo was founded by a man named Doshin-So shortly after WWII.  Doshin-So had trained in Japan under Takeda Sokaku inDaito-ryu Jujutsu.  Takada Sensei also had two other very famous students, Morihei Ueshiba founder of Aikido, and Choi Yong-sool  the founder of Hapkido, which I had studied in Korea.  It is amazing that all three of these incredible martial artist all had the same teacher.  Just imagine what that has to say about their teacher’s abilities.  Doshin-So’s grandfather lived in China and Doshin-So used to go stay there when he was younger.  With his martial abilities and his fluency in Chinese language the Japanese recruited him as secret agent and sent him to China in the beginning of WWII.  While there his cover was as a Zen monk at a Chinese temple.  It was during this time that Doshin-So learned many Chinese fighting techniques as well as Chan (Zen) Buddhism. He learned Bailian Quan which means  “White Lotus Fist” from Chen Lian , a Taoist priest.  He also studied Yihe Quan which means “Righteous Harmony Fist” with Master Wen Taizong.  When he returned to Japan after the war he founded Shorinji-Kempo on the island of Shikoku.  He blended all the Martial Arts that he had previously learned together and added to it a religious training based on Zen Buddhism which he called Kongo-Zen.  Shorin-ji Kempo is registered and recognized as both a Martial Art and a religion by the Japanese government.



Shorin-ji is both a synthesis of several martial arts and a Japanese expression of a collection of Chinese styles.  It is made up of “Hard” techniques called Go-Ho and “Soft” techniques called Ju-Jo.  The hard techniques are similar to a Kung-fu striking style and the soft techniques are similar (with some important differences in the way techniques are applied) to Aikido.  Doshin-So said that there is an old Chinese saying that many of you will recognize; “Softness overcomes Hardness”.  But he went on to say that many people do not know that there was a second part to that saying which is; “Hardness crushes Softness”.  So for him in order to have a complete martial art you had to have both.  When you start out, like it was when I learned Hapkido, you learn and practice the Go-Ho and Ju-Ho separately.  As you move up in level you begin to combine the two until you can move effortlessly between the two.  A fairly unique thing about Shorin-ji Kempo is that when you take your tests for the belts it is both the physical demonstration of the techniques for that level and a written exam covering the philosophy of the martial art and the religious teachings.

One of the early lessons is something called Shu, Ha, Ri (Follow, Adapt, and Master):

Shu refers to when first learning the techniques you should copy the movements exactly as the teacher does them.  This way you can learn not only the correct technique but the principals behind them that make them work.

Ha  refers to the stage after you have learned the techniques properly you can make changes to suit your own physical and mental makeup as long as the changes follow the principles that you have learned.

Ri refers to the stage where you have mastered the techniques and principals and can now create your own techniques and sequences based on the principles you now understand.

This concept really struck me as something special.  I had never heard any other martial art express this attitude.  As I found out later Shorin-ji Kempo is a very principle based style.  It does not stress just collecting a bunch of techniques, one for each situation that may arise, but instead it stresses understanding the principles that make the techniques work.  If you have a complete understanding of what makes the techniques work you can react and quickly modify them so that they apply to any new situation as it happens.  This I felt was a new and novel approach that I had not seen in the other styles I had trained in.  Later, after I went on to train in Kali and Chinese Kuntao,  I started teaching a combination of these two arts plus Shorin-ji Kempo.  I do not think of it as a new style but as a concept of learning which I call Shu-Ha-Ri.  This concept originated from Shorin-ji’s focus on understanding the principles that underlie all the various techniques that we do in the martial arts.  When learning the other styles I was able to approach them in the same way.  I am not inventing anything, it is just a different approach to learning and teaching styles and techniques that already exist.

The practice of sets (Kata, Forms, Juru) is called Hokei, which means “Principles that have taken shape”.  The word Kata originally referred to an earthen mold that you poured metal into.  So there is an idea behind the name that it is a fixed set of movements which should be learned exactly as the teacher performs them and can’t be changed.  Hokei on the other hand are a sequence of movements that are initially learned exactly as the teacher shows them.  But once again the idea behind it is to learn the principles that make the sequence work.  Another unique feature is you can split the Hokei in half and have one person perform the first half of the movements and the other person perform the second half.  The two half’s fit together because the second half is the defense to the first half’s attack.  So what begins as a solo practice becomes a pair form.

Regardless of which style of martial art you study the concept of Shu, Ha, Ri can be a very valuable addition to how you learn and practice.  Instead of learning the movements in a rote mechanical way take the time to notice the details of what you are doing.  This refers to the stance, the hand positions, the body movement, the order of sequence, and how your weight is distributed.  If you do this you can move beyond that specific set of movements and start to develop something I call the flow.  The flow is smooth movement from one technique to another in real time as the events are happening.

I will cover some examples of different principles in the next blog!

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