Shu-Ha-Ri – The Martial Recipe

In studying, practising and teaching karate, I have come across the concept of Shu Ha Ri a few times. Of course my mind latched right on to it, because it is a neat way to explain vast concepts. Anything that offers an elegant shorthand is basically catnip to the instructor-in-training. Of course, Karate by Jesse has already expanded on this concept, and it is a worthy read indeed. In writing this, I’d like to explore ways to understand Shu-ha-ri, both as a student and instructor. Let’s look at the concept and get down with some metaphors.

Shu – Keep | Obey | Protect

Anyone beginning their martial arts journey would be advised to stick to what their instructor offers. Of course, the value of this depends entirely on the instructor, but it is generally advised that for the first ten years (I know, a long time indeed), the budo practitioner should listen, imitate and study the basics intently. This is the foundation of a great martial journey, and the student that closely studies the principles, ideas and history of their school/style will build an immensely strong base on which to expand their understanding.

How to explain it, exactly?

Think about learning to cook. No one starts with deconstructed sushi served on a foam of chocolate with smatterings of mermaid’s tail. It starts with boiling an egg. Making white sauce. Macaroni and cheese. A grilled cheese. It’s not particularly exciting, but it takes repetition to not burn the cheese, or leave the sauce standing too long. We learn by watching our parents, sitting on the counter and staring at the pot as they stir.

Ha – Break | Let Go

Some say that this stage starts at shodan, but I feel that only once one has settled into being a black belt and a solid foundation that it’s possible to start bending the rules. Now we look into our kata and bunkai, breaking things down by understanding the constituent parts of every block, every strike. A face block, for example contains a strike, a punch , a reverse elbow strike, a cross-block and a grab – but only to the trained eye. To a white belt, it’s just a face block. To a ni-dan, it is an elegant compilation of techniques that can be tweaked to solve several problems. This is what happens when a student absorbs more than just the words of their instructor – this is the result of immersive training and study.

How to explain it exactly? 

Remember that macaroni and cheese? When you first started making it, it was just some grated cheese on some macaroni. Curbed your hunger, sure, but you’ve had maths classes more thrilling than that. But now that you’ve watched it being made and looked up a few recipes, you can make some delicious white sauce to go with it. Throw in some bacon bits, or  crumble in some pedano while you make the white sauce. Now, you’re starting to get it, and you’re making it your own.

Ri – Leave | Transcend

This is beyond fourth and fifth dan – this is when you get your own school of thought – this is the realm of Chojun Miyagi, who created Goju Ryu out of karate, or naha-te. This is the place where the storied legends live – Higaonna Morio, Yagi Meitoku, Yamaguchi Gogen. Each took Goju Ryu in a new direction, pouring in their knowledge and creating a distinct look and feel that is clear in their students’ work. A style like a signature, a whorled thumbprint that is unmistakable to the trained eye. It’s still karate, still Goju Ryu, but each school is entirely theirs.

How to explain it, exactly? 

Heston Blumenthal makes food. But what he does with ingredients, science and creativity is a culinary explosion that can only be achieved with vast, relentless study, exploration and practice. His food is a work of art, the peak of culinary science. He also started with learning to make a white sauce. No one gets to three michelin stars without burning a few dishes along the way.

Shu-ha-ri applies to all aspects of life – there are some areas in life where we are at the shu stage, or ri. When it comes to writing, I’m getting closer to ri. But with my training, I’m just starting to edge into ha, and even then only in certain areas. Don’t be disheartened by the seeming length of this journey – the time will pass anyway. And as it does, you’ll deepen your knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of your training.

Martial Heart Series: The Concept of Giri

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite parts about martial arts (and running as well) is that it is a mostly solitary endeavour. Unless one competes in unison kata, it is an art taken up and enacted alone. No cheerleaders or team captains or deadweight team mates. It is the overachiever’s dream: to work alone and take all the credit for it.

(Basically, I just want to be the Hermione Granger of karate.)


Except. Except.

Except no one ever gets anywhere alone. Or at least, not meaningfully. For every one who gets to black belt, for everyone who stays long enough to grade, there is an entire structure designed to help them get there. It’s easy to be solipsistic in karate – after all, when it comes to a grading, the karate-ka stands alone. You are responsible for your kata, and your training, and your extra-curricular studies around the art. Is it not written that a Sensei can only show you the door: you must walk through it yourself? (Though a bridge may be a better metaphor).

There’s a word that’s worth knowing. Giri. It is obligation and responsibility. It is integral to Japanese society, and therefore appears within Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. It is ‘to serve one’s superiors with a self-sacrificing devotion’. To the Western mind, a mind obsessed with individual achievement and the slaying of giants (why else is the David and Goliath metaphor still so pernicious?) such a term might seem servile and pathetic. Giri has its origins in feudal Japan, a society that had incredibly static social strata. In what was once an agricultural society where people put down roots and built homes, there were ‘giri books’, registers of families’ obligations to one another. Since no one really left, the debts had to paid. This wouldn’t have worked in a migrant/hunter society. The giri tradition continued into the samurai mode of service, in which suicide and a placid acceptance of death are seen as appropriate services to others. After all, samurai means ‘servant of love’. (The samurai tended to use seken-tei, which is social appearance and along the lines of saving face or matching to others. But that’s a blog post for another day.)

Of course, to Westerners, this has mostly been watered down to “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. ”


Admittedly, the idea of such servitude and obligation rankles your average Western martial artist. In much popular culture and media, it is the sidekick who is reviled, the Igor and the henchman and the maidservant. No one wants to be in service to another. And I agree – too much servility leads to a frail mind and weak heart. I think service given willingly and with meaningful understanding can enrich a person, but servitude can shackle and cripple the spirit.

As we discussed in black belt grading prep last night, giri should be willingly given for it to mean anything. No one should be forced into helping their dojo (even though, so often, dojos often desperately need the help of their older students) because it leads to resentment. But I have found great refuge and education in assisting my instructors, both past and present. Being chairperson for two martial arts clubs at Rhodes University gave me an anchor and direction in a town that remains notorious for thwarting even the best intentions. Helping younger students now highlights the flaws in my own karate and teaches me to have patience, something I had always thought happened to other people.

And I come back to where I started: no martial artist really accomplishes as much as they think they do purely on their own merit. Whether it is the federation that supports its instructors with consistent training by bringing in instructors from around the world, the sempai that took the time to train you on a Sunday morning on a rugby field when the dojo was closed, the junior that asks the questions that you hadn’t considered, or the Sensei who works tirelessly to keep the dojo open so that you can train with others – no one becomes a martial artist alone.

So, giri is obligation, but it is dynamic and concessionary and nuanced. And as mentioned in this fascinating essay by Masayuki Yoshida, “there is no explicit request by one party that the other act under an obligation to do, or refrain from doing, something. Indeed a large part of giri is for parties so obliged to act in advance of the need arising to ask for any particular favour”.

No martial artist is an island, and nor should we be. It remains a privilege that we can train and learn with others, to grow with them and learn from them. Giri is simply an extension of your training through contribution to the dojo and those who have given their time and knowledge willingly. So say thank you to your sensei, and offer to help out with the junior classes, or stay behind to help tidy up. It’s maybe not as exciting as doing some chishi training, but it’ll do your martial heart a world of good.