Shuhari – 守破離

Shuhari (守破離) is a Japanese term with its origins in the martial arts, the tea ceremony and all arts in general. It defines the process of learning from a divided in three stages that will allow us to reach mastery.

The three stages of shuhari are:

  • shu (守): the literal translation is “to protect” or “to obey”.
    • It is the first stage of learning the fundamentals of a discipline.
    • We are beginners and we follow exactly what our teacher and the tradition say.
    • We learn the rules and obey.
  • ha (破): the literal translation is “to detach” or “to digress”.
    • It is the stage in which we are allowed to start acting creatively breaking the rules.
    • We are not beginners any more, we have a deep understanding of the discipline.
    • We know the reasons of why the rules are how they are at the moment, that’s why we are allowed to break them.
  • ri (離): the literal translation is “separation” or “to leave”.
    • All the discipline skills are now part of us in a natural way, we don’t cling to the rules, we are transcending.
    • You feel true creative power, you are creativity itself.
    • Your responsibility is to create a new style.
    • We are allowed to transcend and make new rules.
    • The pupil can leave the master and create its own path.
    • Reaching this stage allows the art as a whole to progress forward, if the pupils never surpass their teachers the discipline is doomed to stagnate.

These three phases are true not only in Japanese arts but they can be seen as a universal scaffolding in order to think about how we learn.

Being aware of which stage you are is key. Don’t rush. Don’t be overconfident and arrogant breaking the rules too early.

Instead of rushing focus your effort on being “slow” with the right intention. During the shu stage break down the fundamentals and learn them step by step. When you move to the ha and ri stages you should also incorporate the fundamentals from the shu stage, never forget to keep a beginner’s mind. Shuhari is not a linear progression, you can visualize it as three concentric circles starting from the center and going outwards as you progress in your learning journey.

Using the shuhari framework can help us to identify problems in the way we learn. We all know the feeling to be forever stuck in the shu stage even when we know all the fundamentals because we lack the proper mindset to move to ha. We also have encountered arrogant people who jump directly from shu to ha or ri without even knowing the fundamentals. It might be overconfidence telling us that we jump straight ahead. Going too fast towards the outer circles is usually a recipe for disaster.

The difficult question is: when should we move on to the next stage of learning?

Having good mentors helps a lot. If you are learning on your own, practicing the discipline on a daily manner will make you sensitive to start noticing your progress in a natural way,

“We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I met you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.”

Darth Vader to Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977)