Considerations as we enter another year of training (Part 1)

As we enter another year of training, I think it best to start on a philosophical point. After all, our training is as much about improving our minds as our bodies – this in inturn enriches our lives! So let’s start with our minds before we get into the sweaty stuff of the year – the rigorous training on the mats!

Budo (Training in the martial arts) – why do we do it? And more importantly, why should we do it?

Before addressing these questions, I want to acknowledge that I will be blending some of the ideas of Swiss martial artist Pascal Krieger[1] with ideas taken from Gozo Shioda Kancho Sensei’s[2] writing and many of my own thoughts and experiences training under Michiharu Mori Shihan. So let’s begin…

Training. Why do we do it? We are all interested at first by the way it looks… it looks really cool to seemingly effortlessly throw a person across the room. After all, we’ve all seen the movies! It is our ego that brings us to the dojo initially. But more importantly, it is our ego at which the dojo wears away and refines it into something else, something much more productive in life: your spirit!

A Japanese saying concerning the forging of a pure spirit:

“In Budo, it takes one thousand days of training to learn (the technique), ten thousand days of training to polish (the technique); the difference between victory and defeat is a matter of fractions of a second.”

This saying may also be quite pertinent in terms of an athlete training in any sport too, don’t you think? The training is along the lines of arduous repetition, deep thought, and considered adjustment and improvement under the guidance of experienced instruction. But the competition (especially if you consider an Olympic swimmer, runner, or shooter etc.) is won in ‘fractions’; fractions of seconds or fractions of centimetres.

Ultimately it is the ‘spirit’ within an open mind (and with a growth mindset[3] – see clip below) that is the continuous driving force behind any success. The spirit is cultivated throughout the training and polishing and is nourished by success in the end result, thereby creating sustenance for further training and strength to overcome tribulation and adversity encountered while training. It can be seen as a ‘feedback loop’ or perpetual cycle of continuing development. All we need to do is ask ourselves, ‘how far would we like to go in our achievements?’ World Chess Champion Josh Waitzkin points out that, “The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.” As Josh[4] points out above, it is through dedicated and spirited training – not the belief that we are special or anything other than human, and not unlike others – that success is achieved.


Furthermore, the ‘adversity’ to which Josh alludes references any difficultly within our lives; not simply a difficult technique on the mats or a problem position on the chess board. Therefore, our training within the dojo is as beneficial to our daily successes as it is to our aikido successes – it is all one! It is as Gozo Shioda Kancho Sensei said, “aiki soku seikatsu.” (Life and Aikido are but one!) Now let’s move to the manner in which ‘training’ (or a better way of looking at it is to consider training as development and learning) is conducted in a traditional Japanese dojo.

SHU-HA-RI: Why is training done the way it is in the dojo?

Figure 1: Calligraphy of ‘Shu Ha Ri’


Traditional Japanese arts are practiced in a certain way. This ‘way’ (Do in Japanese) is purposeful and follows a philosophy of learning called ‘Shu-Ha-Ri’ (complying – breaking – moving away). Let me explain using a modern metaphor that might clarify the point best: the apprenticeship. The way in which training is conducted in traditional Japanese martial arts follows very closely to the way a master craftsperson trains an apprentice even today. At times I will delve into this metaphor in order to illustrate relationships, expectations, and principles.


The SHU stage

A person who wishes to learn a craft looks for someone who can initiate him/her to the art. When found, he/she agrees to abide by the laws of the trade, and he/she is not skilled in the art, trust is placed in the teacher (sensei). From the start, he/she shows great deference and submits to carrying out duties which sometimes bear no direct relation to what the student expects to learn. He/she quickly realises that the teacher is showing much more than is required simply by the craft/art that is being learnt. The teacher wants to see things done in a certain way and with a well defined state of mind.

In Budo (martial training), this first stage is called SHU (to protect, to comply). The young Gyosha (student) chooses a Master or, more usually, is chosen by him – the Master commits (or chooses not to) to the responsibility as much as the Gyosha does; a reciprocated expectation begins. From then on the student will abide unreservedly to the principles of the tradition. His/her experience will not be much different from that of the young apprentice. However, the educational aspect (in a holistic sense), will be more extensive than the technical aspect. The various tasks he/she will be compelled to carry out will sometimes seem to bear no relation to martial disciplines, yet it is the state of mind with which he/she applies him/herself to the duties that will be emphasised by the Master. Furthermore, there is the expectation to “protect” the technical knowledge being acquired by declining to form a personal interpretation (don’t alter the techniques or processes), the student is expected to apply the techniques with the most rigorous precision. The young trainee will progressively develop the qualities of the Junanshin (malleable mind): patience; trust; humility; a supple mind; openness.

In a field such as Budo, where a Gyosha (young trainee) would train for many hours every day, the SHU stage may last three to five years – much like the apprentice learning the trade. However, in the modern context, where a young trainee might only train twice a week for a couple of hours, this stage may take ten to fifteen years, depending on the Gyosha’s ability and spirit. After this period, the apprentice or Gyosha will have a solid grounding in the trade or art, but will not yet have any practical experience.

The HA stage

The apprentice is now a qualified technician and must live hi or her own experiences. The teacher will ask him/her to experience training in different ways and in different places – to broaden horizons by taking what has been taught and applying in different contexts in order to face new difficulties. There often will be no one to appraise his/her work or give advice. Moving amongst people who don’t know him or her, the student will always be having to prove him/herself. This experience, though very difficult in the beginning, will, in the end, give a certain confidence to his/her ability. While applying his past experience, he/she will learn new techniques and meet people who have a different approach to the craft/art. Knowledge will increase as experience matures. Even though a personal style has now been developed, it is still strongly influenced by the teaching of his master – one only needs to look at YouTube video of O’Sensei, Shioda Sensei and Mori Sensei to see this clearly.

In Budo, this stage is called HA (break). It is time when the trainee decides to test his competences in the world around him/her. Note, in ‘the old days’ this might only mean skill as a martial artist. However, in a contemporary context this might mean all learning acquired in the Dojo that can be applied to any facet of one’s life. This experience, called Musha Shugyo (austerities of the warrior) is fraught with difficulties. The challenges are many, and the learning experiences are painful. However, through the student’s attitude, it is the Master who will be judged. He has remained faithful, in spirit, to his Master, and is aware that he/she is in some way his/her representative in the world. After increasing and enriching knowledge at length, great confidence (not of the egotistical, but of the humble type) will be fostered, and his/her own technique or ‘way’ (Do) will develop. The student will have, at last, his/her own idea of the art being practised. This stage may last ten to twenty years in the traditional context. But, again, in a contemporary context, this period may last twenty to forty years, or unfortunately, it may even last until one’s death.

The RI stage

Providing one progresses adequately, applies him/herself appropriately with spirit and respect throughout the first two stages, and lives long enough, one may reach the final stage of learning. The RI stage is a natural consequence of the first two stages. The craftsperson or the shugyosha can return to his/her Master to be an assistant or to succeed him/her at the head of the business/company or the Ryu (Japanese school of a specific style of martial art). But, more often than not, because of his/her own personal experiences, he/she will want to do his/her own thing, to create a school based on his/her experiences and ideas underpinned by the learnings taken place under the tutelage of his/her Master during the first two stages.

At that time, him/herself a Master, the former pupil will discharge his duties towards his Master – while still according the Master all the due respect and gratitude for providing the solid bases on which to construct his/her own style. He/she now has no one to answer to but himself. But with this comes the responsibility to be independent, respectful and look to pass on to others that which has been bestowed on him/her – to become ‘Sensei’, a great and serious responsibility! Sen: before; Sei: life – He/she who has lived before. So, as we move into 2017… and you assess yourself within the SHU stage of your development, maintain your focus, maintain your spirit and trust in the process – it will take time, many years, but you will always be growing!

Figure 2: Illustration of the traditional Japanese learning philosophy that underpins martial training

Figure 2: Illustration of the traditional Japanese learning philosophy that underpins martial training



Ryan Slavin


[1] Pascal Krieger spent many years training Japanese traditional martial arts in Japan and has travelled the world extensively teaching in and writing about them too. Krieger, Pascal. 1989. Jodo – The Way of the Stick. Pascal Krieger. France.

[2] For further information on Gozo Shioda’s ideas about Aikido and life see Aikido Jinsei – My Life in Aikido. 1985. Shindokan Books. And Aikido Shugyo – Harmony in Confrontation. 1991. Shindokan.

[3] For more on a growth mindset, please see Eduardo Briceno’s TED Talk which is based off the research of Stanford Professor Carol Dweck:

[4] Josh is cited in Eduardo Briceno’s TED Talk above.

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