There is a concept in traditional Japanese training that consists of three stages - Shu, Ha, Ri. It can not only be applied to martial arts training, but flower arranging, the tea ceremony and many other disciplines that take a long time to acquire. It is a complex concept with many layers and I am still learning much about this idea. Recently Miles Kessler has organised a series of interviews with prominent U.S. budo teachers to discuss Shu, Ha, Ri. I highly recommend watching these discussions as the insights provided are fascinating.
You can find those interviews here: Shu, Ha, Ri
Today, I will make my own meagre attempt at explaining the three stages but please take what I say with a grain of salt. I am still finding my way on the martial path and do not have the years of experience that the men Miles interviewed have. So, as I often do, I will use two books to help me clarify my ideas. The first book is the Student Handbook of the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Kai by Tobin Threadgill Sensei. The second is Kodo: Ancient Ways by Kensho Furuya.
Kensho Furuya describes the three stages of learning as such: Shu means the protecting stage, in other words, the form or shape of the technique must be preserved or protected. The second stage of training is called ha and this relates to breaking the form. At this stage the basic form is broken into its many applications. The third stage is called ri, the student forgets the forms and masters the formless technique, leaving the old ideas behind. In other words he has fully matured in his training.
I find Furuya's definitions a good starting point but they feel incomplete or too simple for me. After listening to the gentlemen speaking with Miles Kessler I can see there is much more to it than what I have written so far.
My understanding thus far is this:
Shu is where all students start, learning the basic forms. In martial arts this will be, where do I put my foot, my hands, which way do I turn? Until a student can get some competence in the basics, he or she can not move on. In Threadgill Sensei's handbook, an article by Takamura Yukiyoshi explains this concept further. Takamura Sensei explains that without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote (surface ideas, obvious movements) of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner. To embrace the kata the student must resign himself to a series of repetitious movements. This can feel boring, tiring and sometimes the movements seem random. However, the kata are designed to test the student on many levels. The correct repetition of the movements are training important ways of moving, they are developing muscle memory and building a foundation. The beginning kata are also testing a student's concentration, tenacity and devotion to the art. The kata are not just challenging a student physically, but mentally as well. Once a student can execute these kata at a satisfactory level, they can move on.
Ha is where application can be applied. In Aikido this might be the myriad versions of Ikkyo applied to different attacks. In classical training it is finding the applications or bunkai within existing kata. Takamura sensei says, "...ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student." He goes on to say, "This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to failure within the pure kata." Takamura warns instructors that this stage in a student's progress is fraught with dangers. On one hand, the true potential of a student can start to show through and this can be satisfying for the teacher but instruction must still remain structured and core principles adhered to. Failing to do this can cause a divergence from the founder's teachings and what the student is doing is now something else.
Ri is a hard concept to define and I'm still not sure I understand it fully. In Aikido, I see it as spontaneous technique. The student has embodied the techniques and principles of the art and now simply responds to threats organically without thinking. This can be demonstrated most clearly with Aikido randori, where the aikidoka is set upon by multiple uke, each trying to ensnare or pull down the target. Even under this sort of pressure, if the student has arrived at ri, he or she will move appropriately and calmly to neutralise any attempts to down them. Takamura explains ri as the intuitive expression of technique that is as efficient as the prearranged form but spontaneous. For some people, this level if intuition is beyond them.
Now we have some definitions for the three stages. It looks to be a linear progression from shu, to ha and finally ri. However, my own experiences indicate that it is not the case. This is endorsed by the speakers of Kessler's interviews. I was out in my private dojo today and I found myself practising the first sword draw I was taught, some nine years ago. Repeating the sequence over and over, trying to get it a little better. Despite knowing other cuts now, here I was back at this first cut. I was back at shu. Many stories, including those about Takamura sensei tell of exceptional sensei and practitioners going back to the basic movements. However, we return to kihon (basics) with an experienced eye. Perhaps even with a different perspective than when we were first introduced to the movements. I was taught how to apply ikkyo from a single wrist grab many years ago, but I don't do it the same way after all this time, it may look the same outwardly, but I know I move differently inside my body, I think differently too, my intent has changed.
I can also be at different stages of shu, ha, ri in different kata. When I am taught a new kata from the TSYR curriculum, I can find myself back at shu - learning the movements. So depending on what I am working on I could be at shu, ha or ri (theoretically, of course). Imagine the progression as a self-perpetuating cycle, where each stage informs the next but you can move backwards and forwards depending on what you are working on.
At the time of writing this, Threadgill sensei has yet to voice his opinion on this concept with Miles Kessler. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.