The meaning of Shu Ha Ri

Mar 14, 2015

Debate of the usefulness of shu-ha-ri seems to be common right now. However, much of the debate may be framed in a misunderstanding of the original meaning of the concept.

Shu Ha Ri is a centuries old concept, used in teaching Japanese arts (including martial arts). For clarity, I’ll give an abbreviated quote from the Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts by David Hall:

Shu-ha-ri is a metaphorical equation describing the three stages of development through which exponents of classical martial disciplines may pass on the way to attaining expertise.

Shu; Lit “protect.” This refers to the trainee’s dedication to study in a chosen martial ryū. This inculcates him in the techniques and underlying principles of the ryū. Shu is meant to be experienced and intuited as explanations are often non-verbal.

Ha; Lit “break.” Traditionally, upon completion of shu, a trainee was permitted by his original headmaster to examine and train in another ryū. Ha recognises the trainee’s having obtained a solid technical basis in the ryū he has been studying, able to perform naturally and automatically. The trainee should naturally feel an obligation to maintain his skill in the original ryū.

Ri; Lit “to separate from.” Ri relates to the natural evolution of seasoned martial artists aspiring to create their own systems or schools. He may create an entirely new ryū, or he may become headmaster of one or more of the schools he has studied over the years, or he may create a branch tradition of his former ryū. He has separated himself from his original relationship with his primary tradition and has become a leader in creating a new - or renewed - tradition.

There follow some important points from this.

  • Shu level is hard. A high level of technical skill and understanding in a difficult art is gained during shu. There is no implication of rote learning or cargo cult mindset. Instead, experience under coaching brings understanding; this understanding changes over time as progress is made.
  • An experienced (senior) person studying shu will be teaching others at shu level. Teaching others solidifies one’s own understanding.
  • Once a student commences ha, their experience learning a new ryū will not be the same. They have all of their previous experiences on which to draw and they will learn more about both the new ryū and their original ryū than they could learning either alone.

Through shu and then ha, good coaches will lead a student to their own understanding, rather than forcing the coach’s own understanding upon the student. The role of the coach is to

  • provide a system that protects the students from harm during the learning process and provides real skills at the beginning of the learning process
  • ensure the student performs the kata correctly, thus allowing them to find the deeper meaning and ensure that safety is maintained

They will begin by telling you how; they will later ask you why.

So why might one apply shu-ha-ri thinking to software development? Some possibilities:

  • Common Agile techniques have been thoroughly tested by others. When correctly employed under the guidance of a good Agile coach, they provide a safe way of spending customers’ money while allowing understanding of the agile values and principles to develop.
  • Existing systems (e.g. Scrum, XP) allow for a quick agreement on techniques, without the overhead of inventing everything up front.
  • Software development is design work and design is an art, not a science.