The shugyo spiral 修行スパイラル
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 don`t worry… that`s 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)
“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:
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.