Archive for the ‘Shu-ha-ri’ Category

Kendo has a repertoire of set techniques and there is a very strong ethos that students should learn each correctly before they move on to the next. Correct distance, timing, posture, foot placement, size and angle of cut, hasuji and zanshin are prescribed for each waza at each learning stage. Little or no room is allowed for self expression or personalisation. In essence the way we do each kendo technique is set in stone.

It stands to reason then that if we study and practice kendo diligently and correctly, we should each perform every waza in exactly the same way as every other kendoka. So much for logic!

My post before last covered learning styles, and as often happens the comments I received took on a life of their own and moved on to discuss the best way to approach kaeshi dou. Ken Kuramoto sent a great link to a video of Baba sensei’s version of the technique which was excellent. He executes the technique very quickly, barely raising his shinai from chudan and striking dou with great force.

Having said that, I have looked at the kaeshi dou of other hachidan sensei, particularly the well known Hanshi and most do excellent kaeshi dou, and almost all are different. Chiba sensei makes a more obvious block and hits with flatter hasuji. Ohta sensei lifts the left elbow more and tends to complete his zanshin on the same side as the technique, and I could continue to point out the differences that many other kendo meijin demonstrate with this technique.  Which is correct; in my humble opinion all of them. Who you eventually copy is a matter of which teacher you have most exposure to; or if you are lucky enough to have the choice, which approach best suits you.

I stress eventually, because for most kendo students, struggling with the complexity of blocking at the right time, at the right distance and returning the strike to the correct target with the appropriate hasuji, does not really allow you to explore the subtlety of which sensei’s approach is the most effective. So if you are in the early stages of learning kaeshi dou, or any other technique, the only option is to follow your teacher’s instruction and continue to repeat the technique until it starts to work. I personally like the idea of breaking waza down into component parts; In this case block – then return striking dou,- then repeat with correct zanshin. That is my view, but I repeat, you should do whatever your own instructor guides you to do. This is the “shu” stage of shu-ha-ri

As for picking up on and adopting any of the subtle differences that different kendo masters bring to kaeshi-dou or any other technique, that is “ha”. Finally we can start to innovate and stamp our own personality on our favoured waza (ri). But for most of us that is a long way in the future.

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ReiWhen people come over to make the final one-to-one rei at the end of a practise session, there is always the expectation that the more senior kendoka is going to say something useful about their keiko. This is not always easy as the teacher or sempai might be thinking:

  1. No change since last week, so nothing to talk about.
  2. I did not really notice what you were doing, I was just enjoying the practise.
  3. You are still doing what I have been telling you not to do for the past 2 years, so what is the point.

On the other hand and more likely, he or she may have some useful advice to give you. The only problem may be, that it sounds completely different to the advice you got from the guy you bowed to 30 seconds before. In this case you need to remember that different people see things in different ways. One teacher may tell you your feet are too slow, and another that your hands are too fast. If you think it through, it is clearly the same point made differently.

You do though often get conflicting information. I regularly visit a club where I invariably suggest to a number of members that they make a bigger men attack. The resident instructor urges the same people to make smaller movements. The reason behind my advice is not because I particularly like big techniques, but because there is a tendency for them to cut only with the right hand, which will limit future progress. My colleague on the other hand, wants them to make small attacks so that their kendo becomes quicker. Who’s right? Why me of course:-) , only joking, but the real issue for the student is which advice should you take.

I believe the solution comes back to the concept of shu ha ri. When you start, you should find a teacher you trust and follow his or her advice exclusively. Later when you have the basics established, you can benefit from the knowledge of other instructors, but evaluate the information thoroughly. Either that, or you can start cutting big in a small way, whilst moving your hands slower and your feet quicker

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Photograph courtesy of George MCCallMost 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.

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