Just under six years ago I published an article entitled The Kendo Lifecycle. It was quite popular at the time and, based on my site stats, is still visited regularly by people from all corners of the Internet. As an extension to this I started, from about two or three years ago, to attempt and organise Japanese terms and phrases used in the discussion of long-term kendo shugyo. Using these I then tried to sketch out a physical “image” of what kendo progress looks like in theory.
Although it’s been quite challenging to combine somewhat independent ideas and represent them visually, I came to a conclusion about the general “shape” of the graphic quite quickly. After this I kind of sat on it and let it simmer for a year or so. Since I’m not sure I can expand or detail it any further without input from others, I’ve decided to publish it here. If it seems like a random collection of ideas pulled together simply as an academic exercise please don`t worry… that`s exactly what it is!
Here it is …
(Apologies for the low quality of the image… I bought a new MacBook and my scanner stopped working! I also have terrible handwriting – in English as well as Japanese – but don’t worry about that… )
Commonly used terminology
First, I’ll introduce and describe the various ideas/phrases used in the chart.
1. Shu ha ri (shin-gyo-so)
“Shu ha ri” is a common concept discussed in budo circles so I`m sure all kenshi 24/7 readers have heard of it before. Its basic meaning refers to the progress of skill and understanding in an art by a student under the tutelage of a master. Although we are referring to it in a budo context today, it is used across not only all the traditional arts of Japan (for example tea-ceremony or noh) and also in more modern endeavours such as cooking, baseball, or even software development.
The shu (“protect”) stage is the time when a novice studies diligently under a master. At this time they are like an infant copying the actions of their mother. No deep discussion of theory is needed, they simply look at the master and copy. Needless to say, a bad “master” at this stage often spells disaster for the future.
The ha (“break”) stage sees the student progress to the point where they are experimenting a little bit with what has been taught them, like a teenager rebelling against her parents. Sometimes this can lead to great progress, but at other times a night in jail or a trip to the hospital!
The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.
In arts such as kendo, which has quite a long gestation period, the shu stage is usually what makes up the bulk of an individuals career. A novice who thinks that they have acquired deeper understanding than they actually have and attempts to experiment before they are ready is setting their own progress back considerably. What is needed here is the guidance of a good teacher and humility from the student. There is no sudden line to cross between shu and ha and, I think, most people who get this far spend the rest of their careers hovering above and below the line, alternating between serious study under a teacher or teachers and personal experimentation.
Note that there are also some other terms that attempt to describe what is essentially the same progress of physical skill but sometimes with a different twist, e.g., shin-gyo-so.
The problem with gradings as indications of shugyo
I have seen various charts attempting to equate the shu-ha-ri stages to grades. For example:
As I have discussed before, I believe the grading process to be the biggest problem in modern kendo. There are various reasons for this including wide discrepancies in the difficulty of gradings based on area, and the fact that gradings are often the primary (sometimes the only) source of income for organisations. On top of this is, of course, the fact that it`s extremely difficult if not impossible for judge on a grading panel to know or read the mental state of the challengers.
I personally know plenty of people who’s attitude to and skill in kendo far surpass their grade (some even have no interest in grading) and others whose grade surpasses their actually ability. The latter outnumber the former.
At any rate, I think we can safely disregard grade as anything other than a general indication of technical competence, and remove it from our discussion today.
2. San ma no kurai. (Kenkyu to Kufu)
Moving on, san ma kurai is a term which initially appeared in Yagyu shinkage-ryu`s heiho-kadensho, written in the 17th century, and is process that underlies this entire discussion.
San ma no kurai describes the acquisition of a physical skill (any skill, not only budo) as a circle with three parts:
Shu (習): to study or learn something
Ren (練): to practise it (repeatedly)
Ko (工): to work/figure out and improve on what you studied based on feedback from practising
After the ko process you would then go back to shu and repeat. This learn-practise-think process continues, round and round, endlessly. To those that think, then, continually progress is thus assured (however minute), and it is implied that there is no limit to the skill that can be acquired.
This phrase pops up a lot in serious kendo publications and discussions, but your general kenshi usually uses the term “kenkyu and kufu” when describing this process at work. Basically, it is up the individual to do their own research and to make an effort to work things out for themselves (of course, whilst under the tutelage of more senior teachers). Again, this is a circular, never-ending process that continues for the entirety of their career.
An interesting related phrase “Mon-shi-shu” (聞思修) literally means “listen – think – practise” and suggests the exact same circular process.
3. San toku
Related to 2 above is a term not in common use in the English speaking kendo community: san toku. “Toku” basically means to “benefit” or “gain” something and is, for our discussion, combined with other kanji as follows:
Kai-toku (会得): understanding / comprehension
Shu-toku (習得): acquisition
Tai-toku (体得): mastery
This could be used to describe the circular study of individual waza as in 2 above, but I prefer to use it at a more macro level to describe kendo as a whole, which brings it nearer to shu-ha-ri, though I would suggest it isn’t so all-encompassing.
In the first years of your kendo study you strive to understand how things should be done. Sometimes teachers explain explicitly, sometimes (especially in Japan) they do not. Eventually though you manage to get some sort of comprehension and slowly you begin to acquire the techniques of kendo. These stages tend to overlap with the shu phase detailed above.
Tai-toku, or physical mastery of kendo, takes a very long time, and perhaps is out of reach for most of us. Those that do master it, however, may not necessarily go on to master kendo, which is something different entirely. As with the prior stages, there is a spectrum or gradient of mastery, no final destination.
The following may seem like a loose collection of terms, but I think they are all at play in one way or another in today’s article and the attached graph.
The Importance of a teacher:
(Futoku seishi, funyo fugaku)
It’s better to go unlearned than study under a bad teacher
A saying of the zen Buddhist priest Dogen, it suggests that it’s better to wait until you find a good teacher before learning something. If you are impatient and study under a poor one you will ultimately pay for it.
(Yoi shisho wa tetsu no waraji ha haitemo sagase)
Even if you are wearing steel sandals find a good teacher
No matter how long you walk, no matter how long you search, if your sandals are made from steel they won’t wear out. Keep going until you arrive at the thing you seek, i.e. a good teacher (another way to say this is that “thought the steel sandals hurt your feet it’s worth it to keep walking in them until you find what you seek”).
(Sannen kakete ryoshi wo sagase)
Even if it takes three years, seek a good teacher
Pretty much the same as above.
Again, in order to receive the correct transmission of something you must become an initiate of a good master.
The importance of keiko:
Forge yourself in the morning and temper yourself in the evening i.e. be a kenshi 24/7 !!
Allegedly a phrase first used by Musashi, this spells the importance of constant daily practise. This is a personal favourite of mine (as you may have guessed).
The importance of humility:
(Ware igai minna shi)
Everyone is my teacher
This is pretty simple: there is something to be learned from everyone.
Return to beginners mind
This strongly hints to the cyclic nature of long term study. Even if you think you have mastered something you should, at times, go back to the beginning and re-study with your new perspective. In other words, not only have you not mastered whatever it was that you were attempting to, but you may even have a long long road in front of you. Again, this suggests that there is no end to shugyo.
The shugyo spiral explained
In a paragraph:
Through daily study and practise under the watchful eyes of a good teacher or teachers, the thoughtful individual will see her kendo improve through time. It takes a lot of consistent effort, a lot of listening and watching others, and tireless self study. Mastery comes neither quickly or easily… in fact, it may never come. Taking care during your day-to-day keiko over years is what counts. Mastery, if it does come, can be thought of a by-product of this, it is neither something that is forced nor desired.
The graph shows a straight line through the middle but, of course, progress isn’t straight. In this spiral model you can imagine it a point (“progress”) spinning round and round. Sometimes you spend more time on studying the principles and learning new things, other times you are just busy doing uchikomigeiko and kirikaeshi. In general, however, if someone has the correct attitude towards their shugyo, exerts effort over years, and studies kendo theory then, over the course of years, they cannot fail to progress.
Kendo, as an art, professes to be something more than “mere” sport. The Concept of Kendo, The Purpose of Practising Kendo, and The Mindset of Kendo Instruction all state larger goals within them than that of mere physical mastery, some quite grandiose. If kendo is to be like that then measuring “progress” for the purpose of comparison becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is why I said above that “we can safely disregard grade as anything other than a general indication of technical competence.”
I’m not sure if any of this made sense but, if nothing else, I hope it serves as fuel for discussion over post-keiko beers. Cheers!
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