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Shu-ha-ri - The Phases of Mastery in a Dojo and with a Pen

by John Donohue, Ph.D., September 19, 2011

It’s not unusual for martial artists to talk solemnly about “the Way” and how the life lessons that have been created through training spill over into the rest of our lives. These lessons are important ones yet, at the end of the day, they are not unexpected ones. Even the most elemental list, while unobjectionable, is also not terribly inspiring: things worth doing are worth doing well; the most rewarding things in life are often ones that require time and effort and delayed gratification; you can always do better; and no matter what your level of accomplishment, you should always stay humble.

Lessons Learned: Martial Arts and Writing

Good lessons. Important lessons. But so global in scope that it’s hard to see how exactly the application of them works.  So I’d like to explore a concrete example from my own life where the lessons and approaches I’ve gleaned from my lackluster martial arts history have helped me in an unexpected area of my life.

I do martial arts. I’ve been doing them for more than thirty years (as the various uniforms, colored belts, pads, armor and archaic weapons scattered around my house suggest). And I also write. At first it was the purely academic prose that my professional life as an academic entailed. But over the last decade or so, I’ve been writing fiction. And as I embarked on that new and different (and terribly fun) adventure, I’ve had to learn some things. I’ve had to practice. I’ve looked for writers to inspire me. I’ve had to get used to criticism from readers and rejections from more agents and publishers than I care to remember. I’ve had to think about what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it, and why.

Shu-ha-ri—Phases of Mastery

So—hope, effort, practice, discomfort, humiliation. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the process I would adopt as a writer seemed to have many parallels to my life in the dojo.

The most compact way to illustrate this is through the training adage common to traditional Japanese martial arts: shu-ha-ri. It’s a shorthand phrase designed to describe the phases of mastery.

Shu—To Obey

Shu is the first phase. The word itself means “to obey.” In the martial arts context, it obviously refers to the need to follow the instructions of your teacher. But in a larger sense, it also suggests the need to bend your will to the dictates of the system you study. Those of us who have spent any amount of time in the martial arts are familiar with the “dojo rangers” who travel from one school to another.

They claim they are there to learn new things, but often seem to spend a great deal of time pointing out that “so and so chambers the punch this way” or “my old teacher told us to lift the back heel in the front stance when punching” or a thousand other observations. They may be trying to impress us all with their vast knowledge and experience, but really, all they’re doing is wasting valuable training time. And, of course, missing out on whatever is being taught. One of Donohue’s basic dojo rules:  “you learn best when the eyes and ears are open and the mouth is shut.”

Shu, then, involves the capacity for humility, of admitting that someone may have something important to teach and (most importantly) that you need to be taught.

Writing, it seems to me is very much a “shu event.” Since we’re all pretty good at talking, and since it flows naturally and spontaneously, many writers I come across in my work as a teacher approach the written word as if they were talking. What they fail to notice is that the structure and conventions of writing are different from the spoken word. Writing is linked to speech in many ways, but its form and conventions are different.

And, most importantly, they must be obeyed if you are to develop as an effective writer. The writer’s world is a type of dojo: it’s devoted to an important human activity, it requires study and practice and conformity to the system. You are, of course, certainly free not to conform. But not here. A writer who fails to master the rudiments of the system is not a writer at all and has no place in this dojo.

Ha—The Break

Ha is the next phase. It means “break.” Here we find one of the more beautiful and frustrating aspects of the martial arts: the Zen-like celebration of conundrum. If we invest tremendous time and effort into the mastery of form and technique suggested by shu, what then are we to make of a subsequent phase that insists that we “break” something. Break the rules? I thought they were to be obeyed. And so they are. Unless, of course, you knowingly violate them for a greater purpose. In the martial arts context ha suggests not so much a violation (breaking the rules) as an event that leads you to a deeper understanding of what the ultimate purpose of your activity is.

A master craftsman stringing together a set of pearls must focus on each pearl as each are set on a string. Each is important, and care must be used in setting the individual pearl in its place on the necklace. But certainly this is not the point of the action. The point is to create a thing of beauty that is meant to be worn and viewed with appreciation.

So in the dojo, my mechanical focus on the niceties of stance in a kata may make my performance technically correct but may also make it seem stilted, robotic, without the flow that gives a truly great kata performance its beauty and emotional resonance. So, too, with writing.

We need to exhibit care in how we write, but sometimes the larger purpose may dictate that we focus more on the end point than on the rules. So in a piece of fiction, I may create a sentence fragment for purposes of impact or rhythm. It’s a violation of the technical rules or writing. It’s an error that is often found in hundreds of student essays. And it’s wrong. The difference between the student errors and my use is that I know I’m breaking the rule (having experienced shu) and am doing it for a reason, while the students in question are simply making an error in grammar.

Ri—Free Fighting

Ri refers to freedom. It forms part of the word randori in judo, the “free fighting” that forms such an integral part in training in that art. Ri is meant to suggest an elegant integration of skills, a smooth, seemingly effortless flow that is the hallmark of a master. The idea behind ri is that the individual internalizes the lessons of shu until they are second nature, then has the breakthrough moment of ha, and finally reaches a place where things simply flow. Watching a great martial arts master go through his paces, seeing the confident fluidity in the performance and noting as well how the master imparts a certain distinctive original flair is a “ri event.”

So too with great writers. They’ve internalized the conventions of their craft, they’ve learned to ply the various techniques to great effect and, in the end, they do it in original and distinctive ways. They’re playing by the rules of the craft at the same time that they’re pushing at the boundaries (or even breaking) the rules. These are also ri events. And it’s this quality that makes good writing memorable and makes us hunger for more. Ri is the concrete manifestation of our hope for transformation and our faith in the human capacity for something greater than the individual.

So when I think about writing, I think about it like a martial artist. I think about shu, ha, and ri. In my life, there’s a lot of shu. Occasional moments of ha.

Ri is another story. But I keep writing. I keep trying. Being an author, I find, is just like being a martial artist. I’m walking a path that has many goals but no end.

So. Back to the dojo.

John Donohue, Ph.D. is a nationally know expert on the culture and practice of the martial arts, John Donohue has been banging around dojo for more than 30 years.


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