Most people taking a Kendo 3rd or 4th dan examination, where a written test is required, have been given this instruction. Most know that the answer is along the lines of “Shu is following one teacher” “Ha is breaking away to learn from others” and “Ri is establishing your own technique”. OK so given that our exam papers got marked, we would all pass, but I for one, do not really understand the idea in practical terms.
There are a wide range of interpretations of this concept. “Shu” is pretty standard throughout them all. “Ha” varies in peoples understanding from seeking occasional help from other sensei, to leaving because you have outgrown your teacher. “Ri” is where the going gets tough …. With explanations ranging from developing your own technique, to achieving “mu shin” or “no mind”, to starting your own school.
It is interesting to see, that with some other martial arts, there is indeed a tendency for exponents to start their own schools. I have been suitably impressed by folk in their twenties and thirties who have achieved the rank of tenth or twelfth dan, but this happens very rarely in Kendo. So clearly, few of us feel that we have reached the state of independence described by the the more extreme meaning of “Ri”.
As with most things in life, reality is less cut and dried than the theory. When you move on to “Ha” depends on your own level and that of your instructor and the depth of your relationship. Most people spread their wings gently, getting exposure to other teachers and new ideas at seminars and dojo visits. Those with aspirations to be strong shiai players, usually get to attend national squad training and learn from coaches who can take them in that direction. I have heard of a few dojo leaders who expect their students to cut themselves off from other influences, but this is more often than not due to their own insecurity. Once a kendoka has started to put his or her basics in place, I believe that he or she should try to learn as much as they can from as many people as possible. Having said that, it is good to have one special sensei or sempai, who’s kendo you admire; who can give you advice based on deep knowledge of your kendo.
Overall the process of improving in Kendo is one of interdependance. We learn from our seniors, our peers and our juniors and if we are lucky enough we should be able to do all three. In Europe it does become more difficult to practice with seniors once you achieve the rank of 6th or 7th dan, but it is essential for ones development, so the onus is on us to attend seminars, to make trips to practice with strong sensei and to ensure that our own kendo continues to grow.
As for “Ri”, ask me again if I make hachidan.
Photograph courtesy of George McCall.