Demystifying the Philosophy of “Shu-Ha-Ri”: 2 Awesome Stories

By Jesse | 11 Comments

I don’t know about you, but in our dojo we’ve got to write a thesis for some gradings.

For example, for 1st kyu you are required to write a little something on the Japanese philosophy of Shu-Ha-Ri.

I bet you’ve heard the phrase before.

Consisting of three separate kanji (the logographic Chinese characters used in writing Japanese) representing ‘protect’ – ‘detach’ – ‘transcend’, the philosophical concept of Shu-Ha-Ri isn’t exlcusive for the martial arts.

Even though hanshi Google suggests it is one of the most common names for Karate dojo around the world (along with Keiko ['training'] and Shin-Gi-Tai ['Mind-Technique-Body']!), the theory of Shu-Ha-Ri is just as important in everything from flower arrangement [ikebana] and tea ceremony [chado] to martial arts [budo] and Japanese “chess” [go].

It is, in one word, universal.

Play the rules, break the rules, make the rules.

  • But what does it really mean?
  • And where does it come from?

Well, let’s begin by addressing that second topic right now, because I have no clue, to be honest. Historically, according to sempai Wikipedia, the Shu-Ha-Ri concept was first presented by a man named Fuhaku Kawakami in Tao of Tea. Then, Zeami Motokiyo (a master of Noh theater) extended this concept for the performing arts, which then became a part of the philosophy of martial arts.

However… the only problem is, this Zeami Motokiyo dude had to know a thing or two about time travel, since he was born in 1363, while Fuhaku Kawakami, the alleged “originator” of the concept, was born in 1716

The fun thing is that every frickin’ site on the internetz has copied the Wikipedia entry without checking the dates. Needless to say, unless the Japanese know something about time travel that we don’t, the history of Shu-Ha-Ri will have to remain a mystery for now.

So, leaving that topic, what does Shu-Ha-Ri actually mean then?

Well, I’ve actually written about it a couple of times in disguise (like here). And the almighty sensei Google is stuffed with excellent analyzations on the deeper aspects of the kanji of Shu-Ha-Ri and their “hidden” meaning anyway, so I’m not interested in reinventing the wheel. Fuggedaboudit.

Instead, let’s try something different.

Today I thought I would present you with two stories that might help you understand a bit more about Shu-Ha-Ri.

Two metaphors, if you so will, that explain certain parts of the philosophical concept of Shu-Ha-Ri in an amusing (or confusing?) manner. The stories have nothing to do with the martial arts per se, but like we’ve already said Shu-Ha-Ri is universal and can be applied to basically everything (especially teaching) once the basic theory behind it is understood.

So let’s try it, shall we?

I hope they’re not too abstract.

Here’s Shu-Ha-Ri story number one:

The Dissatisfied Stonecutter

There was once a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.

One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house.

Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stonecutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant. To his great surprise, by magic he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself.

Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession.

“How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!” Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around.

It was a hot summer day though, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence.

“How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the sun!”. Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and labourers.

But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!” Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone.

Soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!”

Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. After a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock.

“How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock!”. Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought.

He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a
stonecutter.

Cool, right?

There’s a whole lot of implications going on in that one. I hope you consider them, or else you might be misunderstanding Shu-Ha-Ri. Yes, that actually requires some thinking power on your part, champ.

Here’s the next, last, one:

The Mexican Fisherman

An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.

“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.

“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, señor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, señor?! Then what?”

The American said slowly, “Then… you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

The End.

(Too cryptical? Me? Getouttahere!)

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

11 Comments

  1. Manuel

    June 3, 2011 at 11:11 am

    oh my God! Jesse! those two stories are so nice! (I don’t think I got the whole meaning though…) =P
    I’m not a philosopher but at least…I think they have something to do with circularity…and our destiny being inside of what we already are…
    but…maybe it means that we must take a long and hard journey to fully understand the importance of WHO we are..?
    maybe yes…following the -play-break-make- the rules sequence.
    one cannot jump from play to make but has to pass through the “break”..
    but maybe it’s too simplified…

  2. Manuel

    June 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

    but still….I’m not able to connect the circularity of the stories with the three phases of shu-ha-ri…
    anyway, unlike what I said before, I know some people (like the mexican fisherman) who already understood how good their life is, without taking that looong and hard journey…and there are people who can’t quite catch that, and they need it?
    maybe that’s the secret?

  3. andi

    June 3, 2011 at 11:45 am

    I like the “copied from Wikipedia to everywhere” thing. The German minister of defense had to resign recently because some people proofed he stole a bunch of the thesis he wrote for his ph.d. And I have here this new, red Japanese book on Chotoku Kyan. The author, when writing the text, obviously copied and pasted complete text passages from Japanese Wikipedia. Maybe I wouldn’t even have noticed if he wouldn’t have kept the Wiki-footnote-numbers in the book-text, without giving the actual footnotes. Not much to do with Shuhari, though…

    • Jesse

      June 3, 2011 at 1:46 pm

      Haha, I actually flipped through that book today at Shureido. I live the pixels on the first Kyan pic! :)

  4. andi

    June 3, 2011 at 11:54 am

    hahaa, that’s perfectly my idea of life
    “sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos”

    • Jaybee5

      June 4, 2011 at 12:53 am

      Shouldn’t it be;
      “sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, VISIT THE DOJO, PRACTICE A FEW KATA, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos”

  5. Cathryn Obray

    June 9, 2011 at 9:01 am

    I think this is among the most vital information for me. And i am glad reading your article. But want to remark on some general things, The web site style is perfect, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

  6. Dave

    June 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Yes, but he could sip better wine… :)

  7. Francis

    June 26, 2011 at 10:34 am

    the Stonecutter.Sounds like Voltaire to me

  8. warrioress

    August 11, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Great stories. I think Shu Ha Ri might actually be the Japanese equivalent of what we call “Divine Perfection,” which basically means that everything is just as it should be and that the present condition of things is always the best.

  9. Josh

    August 11, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    I think I understand, my sensei told us that everything is a cycle, that eventually through use a black belts belt will return to white, is it like that? That you can wish for something to realise you had it before.

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