The shugyo spiral

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 dont worry… thats 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)
守破離 (真行草)

“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:

Shodan-godan: shu
Rokudan-nanadan: ha
Hachidan+: ri

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) 
三磨の位 (研究と工夫)


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.

Related terms

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!

Don’t forget to support kenshi 24/7 by picking up one of our publications or sharing our dedicated publication website. Cheers!

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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16 replies on “The shugyo spiral”

Hi George!

Thank you as ever for expanding the scope of the English-speaking kendo community’s knowledge. I wanted to ask you, although I understand the importance of finding the right teacher, whether there can be any leeway when it comes achieving real progress along one’s shugyo without the constant support of kodansha. This is of great importance to me training in Ireland, where the highest graded kenshi are 5th dan, and I only get to train with them irregularly. While I respect these senpai greatly and endeavour to learn all I can when practicing with them, it is difficult to train together more than once a month. I know many kenshi in this situation, with only occasional access to higher graded aite, that have to muddle through under 1st dan or even lower grades if they want any practice at all.
Two views spring to mind when I consider this situation: that of Salmon sensei, who related how after training for quite a number of years in England and apparently acquiring bad habits, on travelling to Japan he had to reshape his kendo from the ground up; on the other hand, in an interview Sumi sensei said that it might be possible to progress without having access to sensei because we can watch high level kendo on YouTube and learn that way. I am not suggesting that kendo can be learnt purely through visual instruction; without someone correcting us and our own constant efforts, it’s obvious we won’t go far. But for those many kenshi in the shu stage without the means of studying regularly under kodansha and having that example to follow in real time, do you think YouTube can provide an ameliorating effect?

Shu Ha Ri – I also believe this exists not only through the entire body of work but in the micro-acquisition of kendo as well. As such it’s not only a spectrum along which we hope we can move from Shu through Ha through Ri but cyclical as well just as Sanma No Kurai is depicted…but then again I am well down on that food chain.

George, another fantastic post! Although I am low in grade (just beginning to test Yondan) I have been responsible for leading practices at our dojo for a number of years. Fortunately I have a few higher ranked friends ( rokudan, nanadan, hachidan) that I can practice with on occasion and even visit our dojo once in a while. I feel that especially in countries other than Japan and South Korea it is difficult for kenshi to have high ranked instructors. I always encourage my students to visit other dojos and (obviously) make sure they come to practice when we have a higher ranking guest. When I was in Japan I was wowed by the number of nanadan and hachidan I had available to practice with. I was in Atsugi and practiced at Takizawa Kenji senseis dojo. The kendo was amazing and it becomes apparent how having a really good sensei can improve your understanding oh kendo. I feel sorry for my students 😉


At one point in my kendo career I was teaching a kendo club when I was nidan while watching videos of Miyazaki Masahiro. I would get occasional input from a British high grade, perhaps once a month (but of-course, a high grade doesn’t tell you much shugyo wise). So I’ve experienced the situation you are in first-hand. After competing in the 12th WKC I arrived Japan thinking I knew what I was talking about…. my opinions (and my kendo) were in for a beating.

Studying under a good teacher is fundamental to the process. If you don’t have access to one it doesn’t mean you can’t copy some technique or get the odd hint from videos (I even watch YouTube videos myself), but it is a severely limiting way to learn physical kendo, and (more importantly I believe) you miss out on the non-technical things kendo also (or is meant to) imparts. I guess you have to decide if those parts are of value to you or not.

Note that it must be a “good” teacher. There are plenty people with high grades that, despite perhaps having decent technical kendo, are not good models. Not everyone is cut out to teach.

A bigger problem in some places of Europe as far as the shugyo element goes is, rather than the lack of “high” grades, the over emphasis and value placed on middle and low grades, the strong desire to grade at all costs, and the amount of shiai for adults. That’s another story though.

@Mike, I don’t think you should feel sorry for your students at all, just do your best. Like I suggest in the article, grade matters less than you would expect. btw, even in Japan – where there are a lot of opportunities to study kendo – there are many people without a proper teacher.

@Ron, I’ve heard that explanation as well, and I did think about it for this article, but I’m not convinced by it.

My wife and I are finishing up three years in rural Akita-ken, and one of the mild cultural dissonances we experienced was finding out that middle school kendo practice (I think most of the clubs, for that matter) are often to mostly unsupervised for the first couple hours, and the kids are responsible enough to run through everything by themselves (and practice still happens when the sensei isn’t at school that day.) Sempai-kohai in action, I guess.

I’m not sure how that fits into the philosophies you’ve described, although I suppose it’s hard to develop bad habits in one week when you had 4-5 years of instruction 3-4 days a week with three sensei, as the kids around here have. It also, as far as I can tell, sounds like scholastic kendo isn’t necessarily trying to be the philisophical ideal. They probably have more access to and time with a good teacher than many foreigners at the same level anyway.

Hey Brad,

I see high school students year in year out with all different levels. I’ve never met or seen a student who had good kendo that didn’t have a teacher in junior high school/local dojo… but I’ve seen thousands and thousands of kids with “broken” kendo because they were either in a club without a teacher and the kids did it themselves or – and this I believe is worse – they had a bad junior high school kendo teacher.

I’ve actually had some of those “broken” kendo kids enter my club. It’s much easier to take someone from scratch than fix the bad habits they developed at junior high school.

If a (junior or high) school club has a good teacher that can keep the kids on track – even if he or she can’t be there all the time – it makes a world of difference.

I think that the best kendo teachers do have a philosophical outlook on how and what they teach, it’s just not necessarily spelled out explicitly, especially to primary or junior high school kids. I’m always telling my students how it’s important to keep their word, do their best, take care of their own stuff, support their friends, respect their parents, etc etc…..

With regards to shugyo progression and the importance of a good sensei, I think it helps to see kendo as an art. The article mentions tea ceremony and noh. But to bring it closer to familiar cultural references for some of us, let’s say one lived during the time of Rembrandt (within some reasonable travel distance from him and forgetting any social barriers between classes) and wanted to learn his style of painting. To do so, one would (at a fairly young age) have to go knock on the door of Rembrandt’s atelier and beg to be accepted as an apprentice. Once accepted, one spends years performing seemingly menial tasks such as mixing paints, preparing easels, stretching canvases, cleaning, etc. Then one day one might get to contribute one specific aspect of a painting such as add the highlights or fill in the shadows. Over the years the scope of responsibilities increases until one day you are the unknown assistant artist behind work credited to the master (I’m being liberal with this analogy as I do not know how things worked in the historic atelier of Rembrandt but this kind of stuff did/does go on in art studios). The daily repetition over years and years with the master eventually makes the master’s style of art inherent in one’s own execution. Those early menial tasks may seem like donkey work but they are actually the foundation for the rest. If one cannot keep the brushes and work space clean, one is not taking care of one’s tools and dust can stick to wet paint, ruining months of work. Only when the correct attitude towards the art is developped can one really move on to technique.

If you do not join Rembrandt’s atelier could you become a reasonably competent portrait painter by practicing a lot on one’s own supplemented by seeking advice from experienced but less well known painters (including Rembrandt’s students)? Could you try to copy Rembrandt’s style (composition, light and shadow, etc.) and get some praise from lay people? Sure. But the work will speak for itself and it will not carry the same subtleties and master strokes as a work from Rembrandt’s atelier. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s not bad… but it’s not Rembrandt.

So if you are in a kendo environment that lacks senior sensei, should you just hang up your kote and retire? No, you don’t need to do that (if the ZNKR advocated that, they wouldn’t be promoting kendo around the globe through the FIK) but you do need to realize just how far you can(not) go if you never break out of that environment. You can still seek out high ranking sensei and go far (the earlier generations of senior sensei in Europe did that) but you have to sacrifice a lot more than someone who lives down the street from a 8-dan in Japan.

Which brings me to a tangential thought that one of the key benefits of training in Japan is being exposed to a kendo population where movements are more “natural” (e.g. correct, not natural as in born with it… natural kendo movements are in no way actually natural). As George points out, there’s a lot of bad unnatural kendo movement here in Japan as well but compared to a young kendo community, at least the majority of adult kendoists don’t struggle with things like fumikomi (they usually nail it around middle school if not earlier). That has a pretty big passive learning effect I believe. If you’re in a dojo where almost everyone but a handful of seniors (or even the seniors) are lifting their front foot too high on fumikomi, too tense in the shoulder, leaning too far forward or back, etc. it’s very hard to absorb an image of how kendo is supposed to look. Maybe this is what Sumi-sensei had in mind about internet videos. Aesthetics is important as it reflects the degree of correctness. By that token, being surrounded by “bendy” kendo will not doubt prove to be a corrupting influence. Another tangential thought is whether starting kendo at a more advanced age where it is difficult to keep up with hard keiko means the foundations will never really be there for natural movement.

I suggest that you look at the late Aikido Sensei George Leonards’s Book Mastery.

He makes the point that mastery is not a straight line, as you show in your chart, but a series of steps where you make progress, then it falls a bit and it plateaus out for a long period, then you have a spurt and you progress, and then it starts again.

Nice site by the way.

Good ma

What is the difference between 我以外皆師 and 我以外皆我師? I seem to find the latter all over the web but not the former (which is in this article).
Any insight?

This post makes me think a lot… What is Shugyo? What kendo actually is? And in more personal way, what am I doing? Should I even continue? …

I’m nothing but a begginer of course, barely 10 years of practice, but since I have started I have sadly either been in very novice small groups or just like for the las 4 years, alone in an Island in the middle of nowhere… (I must drive 3hours+ Ferry in order to meet a kendo club with people that have been trained apporx. the same amount of time than meor less, and it is not always doable).

Currently I have no “good teacher” , because I have no teacher at all…

Despite all this I try to improve, I practice kihon alone as much as I can, I study and investigate, travel to events, the closest club, etc. to get small feedback and focus my training alone on it.

I don’t find myself fully fitting in the chart and descriptions given above …
In my situation I need to believe that one can still practice even with no teacher.
I have by no means level to reach “ha” stage, and my current development is of course slower than most … And I do not expect to reach any “mastery level”, but I honestly believe (might be wrong) that my experience do fit the “shugyo” part, I just keep on going, searching for the little feed back I can get during seminars, etc. again and again and again.

Shouldn’t that kind of attitude be at least as important as the figure of the teacher itself? If you are not willing to learn, to put real effort into it, be open to accept that you are truly a begginer, that you need to start from scratch all over again, what could a good teacher give you? Shouldn’t that play a more important role in the “kendo experience” than the technique itself?

I inevitably question this to myself every single day….and even though I do not expect to understand if I’m right or wrong any time soon, I categorically refuse to give up practicing due to such a poor excuse like being alone/not having teacher is.

Dear Miguel,

Nobody is asking you to give up kendo. But having said that, having no teacher is not a “poor excuse,” it is the basic, most fundamental relationship in each and every Japanese tradition, from kendo to tea ceremony. I have no idea whether you value this or not (it seems like you may not, or perhaps you are just attempting to rationalise your situation), but either way I wish you much success. Good luck !

Whenever I feel down about how I am doing or performing in Kendo I come back and read this. Thanks for reposting it the other day.

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