Many who have been training for a period of time, may have come across certain Japanese phrases that describe the road to mastery. Japanese phrases like Shu-ha-ri and Ten-Chi-Jin are often used to describe the progression. With “守破離” Shu-ha-ri, each kanji character represents a stage of development and requirements. The “守” Shu stage of development requires diligently studying the fundamentals, learning strategies, developing the mind and body, applying the techniques and kata without deviation. The “破”Ha stage of development is the refinement and innovation stage, creative stage and testing stage. During the HA stage, you drill, refine, test and innovate, you learn what strategies or rules can be “broken” and when to break them. The “離” RI stage of development is the mastery stage, where the techniques are second nature, the mind and body is unified, and strategy has become intuition or formless. It is important to note that this isn’t necessarily a linear transition or steps towards mastery, but a Venn diagram contained in a cycle of continuous improvement.
In the beginning the focus should be on SHU, but there is HA in SHU, and SHU in RI as well as RI in HA. Shu-ha-ri is a cyclic and not a linear progression. Bits and pieces of each stage make up bits and pieces of other stages. Each movement in the martial arts or any acquisition of skill contains bits and pieces of different levels of mastery. The secret of shu-ha-ri or the essence of shu-ha-ri really is just continuous improvement that builds upon itself. Mastery really is just a stage of stages built upon or dedication towards continuous improvement.
What is mastery in the martial arts? Mastery is having a mind, body, and spirt that is completely unfettered “融通無碍”. A level in which a practitioner is free, adaptable, and unhindered in any environment or situation. This is summed up quite nicely by following saying in koryu jujutsu about how jujutsu should be done, “a technique should be done as easily as taking off your coat”. We don’t really struggle to take off our coats. We don’t really pay much attention to the act of taking off our coats either. We simply remove our coats, without paying any real attention to the coat or the act of taking off our coats. This is the essence of what we are trying to achieve in the martial arts. Mastery is about making the supranatural natural. The road to mastery begins with competence. A related concept of Shu-ha-ri when it comes to learning specific skills are the four stages of competence:
Unconscious Incompetence is the first stage of learning and acquiring a new skill or technique. Typically, this person doesn’t understand the skill, they do not understand the usefulness or the principles in which makes it work. At this point in their training, they are unaware of how to perform the actions required to make it work. Basically, a new student doesn’t know or recognize what they don’t know. However, this isn’t just for new students, this stage exists for everyone to varying degrees based on their environments or sources of stimuli.
Conscious Incompetence is the second stage of learning. At this stage the individual recognizes what they are missing or seek out an answer in how to develop a new skill or doing a technique. Basically, they know what they don’t know and make steps to develop. There are tons of missteps and failures at this stage, this is basically the stage most beginning students find themselves.
Conscious Competence is the third stage. At this stage the individual knows how to do a technique, but it takes varying degrees of focus. Often doing techniques in a one-two-three manner. They must be conscious of their actions and movements. Most practitioners are in this stage and may take many years to work their way out of this stage depending on their practice. Practitioners will often come back to this stage to make improvements and innovations on their skills, but most people do not attribute the four stages of competence as cyclic.
Unconscious competence is the final stage. They easily perform techniques and movements as they have become ingrained. They can perform techniques in multiple situations without conscious thought and while doing other movements simultaneously. This stage would be the mastery stage, but it is still possible to make mistakes and have failures, but they are uncommon and rare at this stage. People at this stage will be able to teach these skills.
The four stages do not necessarily demonstrate a level of skill, just how competent one becomes with a skill. It is like comparing batters in baseball, both might be at the unconscious competent stage however one is a 300+ hitter and another one could barely hit 200+. Comparable skill isn’t mentioned in the four stages of competence. Perhaps there are stages of the fourth stage or rather there is depth found in the fourth stage. That depth could possibly be better explored via a phrase Hatsumi sensei shared with us in 2009, 才能 魂 器. Which would be better suited for a different article. Keep in mind these stages, cycles, and levels are merely signposts and only semi-useful terminology, don’t get stuck on their usage or worrying about any particular stage. There isn’t any reason to stick yourself in a box, focusing on continuously improving and refining your movement is enough.