Tag Archives: Sensei John Szmitkowski

SHU, HA, RI – A Different Perspective

4 May

There is a concept from the martial arts that is applicable to any relationship whereby one individual relies upon another individual for education, instruction or guidance. That martial arts concept is known as “Shu-Ha-Ri.” It applies to any student-teacher, mentor-protege or other similar relationship.
Shu-Ha-Ri has been analyzed ad infinitum from the standpoint of the student. I myself have often engaged in such analysis. Here is a convenient link to an article I had posted a few years ago https://senseijohn.me/2010/06/20/the-martial-arts-learning-process-of-shu-ha-ri/ 
One night, while teaching at the USA Goshin-Ryu Dojo of my late friend, Shihan Wayne Norlander, I realized that this historical analysis is limited to one-half of the dynamic of transmitting karate-do from one person to another. In so far as the teaching of karate-do implies an obligation to accurately transmit the karate of one’s Sensei, I propose that the common trend to analyze Shu, Ha, Ri form the standpoint of the student must be overcome (See Endnote # 1).

In this submission, I would like to set forth an alternate perspective from which to consider the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri; namely the perspective of the teacher, or Sensei, of karate-do, who was by definition once a student him or her self.

By way of introduction, a review of the popular discourse on Shu, Ha, Ri is appropriate. There are three stages of the martial learning process which are generally accepted and a fourth, more esoteric stage. The three generally accepted stages are the stages of “Shu”, “Ha“, “R1“.

Kanji for Shu-Ha-Ri

Each particular stage is described as follows.

SHU(pronounced “Shoe”) means to correctly copy all of the techniques of one’s instructors;

HA (pronounced “Ha”) means the liberty allowed to a student to develop his own way of executing techniques based upon the demands of his own physical stature and his own individual understanding of Karate;

RI (pronounced “Rhee”) means “transcendence” or “mastery”. It is when a student can perform all of the techniques automatically and becomes a teacher himself (See Endnote # 2).

A fourth, more esoteric, stage of the process of learning the martial arts has come to be identified. This stage is called the “Ku” (pronounced “Cue”) stage. Kuis the stage of emptiness. It means everything is gone and no trace is left behind. The student has reached the highest level and no one can trace his movements or capture his techniques.

I submit that the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri transcends the bounds of the student’s perspective and can (and should) be extended to include an analysis from the perspective of the teacher. A natural consequence of learning the martial arts, as set forth in the description of the Ri stage above, is that the student becomes a teacher him or herself. Once the student becomes a teacher himself, the analysis and application of Shu, Ha, Ri historically ceases. I proffer the following analysis of Shu, Ha, Ri as applied to the teacher who was once, naturally, a student himself.

SHU means to correctly copy the technique, kata, method and manner of one’s Sensei as one teaches one’s students. While the technique and kata of one’s Sensei are easily governed by stylistic dictates (see Endnote # 3), the method and manner of one’s Sensei are unique to the Sensei under whom a student (now teacher) originally learned his or her art. Each individual instructor of a style of karate-do, while teaching the technique and kata of the style, combines these physical dictates with the non-physical traits of the style (philosophy, ideology, spirituality, etc) as set forth by the style’s founder and progenitor. While so teaching the “style”, the Sensei imbues and infuses the teaching with his or her own unique character and personality traits. These character and personality traits generally may be of a positive nature, but, as dictated by the frailty of the human condition, may also include the instructor’s character flaws; even those that may considered less than admirable (See Endnote # 4). It is the “style” of karate, as imbued and interpreted by a Sensei that is transmitted to the student (who is now the teacher).

HA means the liberality to be allowed an instructor (by his original Sensei) to develop his own way of teaching. I submit this development is influenced by two key factors. The first key factor is the teacher’s unique individual physical and psychological traits. These factors would have been accentuated or modified as necessary during the teacher’s tenure as a student. IF the teacher’s Sensei was a Sensei of merit, then his Sensei would have discovered and been aware of these individual traits during the time period wherein the teacher was a student of the Sensei. During this time, Sensei would have nurtured the student’s meritorious traits and modified or corrected the student’s character flaws. Thus, Sensei would have guided his student, now a teacher, so that these individual traits do not offend the tenor and tone of Sensei’s style of karate-do. The second key component is highly variable. Surely, Sensei is aware that his student will encounter this factor but cannot predict the specific character of same. This second trait that the student, now teacher, will encounter are the physical capabilities and mental attributes of his individual students.  The student turned teacher must be allowed the liberality to mold his instruction of karate-do on these two key factors. If this liberality is granted, the student-teacher, now Sensei, starts to represent the embodiment of the karate he learned from his Sensei.

RI means “transcendence.” Transcendence occurs when a Sensei becomes the living embodiment of the karate-do that he continues to practice and subsequently teach. This karate is no longer the karate that he learned from his Sensei; it is more than that. It is that learned karate as interpreted by the individual Sensei’s physical and spiritual traits AND as transformed by the mechanism of Sensei’s continued practice of karate-do and individual teaching methods and manner.

KU is the stage were the Sensei no longer affirmatively teaches. Rather, Sensei transmits karate-do by virtue of being an active Sensei. This is to say that Sensei has become his karate-do. Sensei has come to embody and represent his interpretation of karate-do in such a way that the students are capable of learning by Sensei’s example. This means that the student no longer learns by rote drilling, they learn by being in the presence of Sensei as Sensei lives in karate-do. This stage is the lifeblood extension of the observation of Shihan Peter Urban, Ju-dan, USA Goju-ryu, “A Karate man in training is in karate.” At this stage, “A Sensei who practices and teaches karate IS karate.” (See Endnote # 5).

I submit that understanding the various stages Shu, Ha, Ri from both the perspective of a student and a Sensei is necessary so as to fully understand the total dynamic within which the art of karate-do is transmitted from one person to another.

Respectfully submitted for your contemplation,


 Sensei John Szmitkowski

 dreams-seisan    For information on my “no-risk”, kata seminars, please visit the seminar page using this convenient link https://senseijohn.me/seminar-kata/

KATA LAB  For a refreshing and innovative discourse on kata and bunkai, please feel free to visit Sensei John’s Kata Laboratory and “THINK * SWEAT * EXPERIMENT” using this convenient link: https://senseijohn.me/category/kata-laboratory/


1. I use the word “implies” because there are those Sensei that are perhaps less than meritorious and simply teach without regard to a sense of duty or obligation to purely transmit the teachings of their Sensei.

2. The following symbolism has been ascribed to each stage. Such symbolism may assist you in further understanding the three stages of transmittal and learning.

SHU is symbolized by an egg. The first stage is hard, the form or shape of the technique must be mastered or protected, just like a mother protects her egg.

HA is symbolized by the breaking egg. The basic form is broken into its infinite applications. It means the fundamentals are now mastered and are applied in all situations.

RI is symbolized by the fully released chick that has matured and flies away from the nest. The student forgets all forms and masters the formless technique, leaving old ideas behind him. He has fully matured in his training.

3. This means simply that a student of Goshin-Do Karate will teach the technique and kata of the Goshin-Do Karate style. Similarly a student of Goju-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Isshin-ryu or any other style will teach the technique and kata of their particular style.

4.Since we are human, we are inevitably fallible. Thus, by human nature, a Sensei carries his personal flaws with him as he teaches karate. Such flaws may include, ego, jealousy, anger and the like. It is a direct consequence that the karate transmitted will be influenced by both the instructor’s positive and negative personality traits during the transmission process.

5. Urban, Peter, The Karate Dojo, (Charles E. Tuttle & Co., Tokyo, Japan 1967) p. 77.

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© Copyright 2015 Issho Productions & John Szmitkowski, all rights reserved.

Kata Lab # 2130: Kata-Kumite-Ichi

26 Jan


Had I mastered mere technique without theory, I would have ended up merely a simple recorder, mechanically teaching what I learned without creative development of ideas. (See Endnote # 1)


All too often, western karate-do curriculum teaches kata as separate and distinct from kumite. Many Dojo have segregated the two topics so that they are taught in separate training sessions. A typical example of a three day a week training schedule often goes something like this: Monday night: stretching, conditioning and drills, Wednesday night: kata night (which includes, basics, (possibly) physical bunkai and kata drills) and Friday night: kumite night, which includes jiyu-kumite, ippon kumite and kumite drills.

Rarely, if ever, have I seen Dojo that integrate kata and kumite to the extent shown in this Kata Lab. Incidentally, this Lab was standard procedure at my Issho-Dojo where the idea of Kata-Kumte-Ichi was omnipresent. To integrate kata and kumite takes work, effort, frustration and dedication.

The purpose of this Kata Lab is to provide a basic means to start the integration process. While basic, for the uninitiated, it will provide quite a challenge. If the reader applies determination and sweat, this Kata Lab will bear fruit. It will allow the practitioner to progress to the next levels of physical bunkai of kata beyond the ken of the majority of karate-ka.

Experiment: (Recommended reader participation

This Kata Lab is best performed with three people, two participants and one acting as a moderator. Naturally, all three should change roles throughout the Lab.

  • The two participants should face each other, slightly askew (not in a direct line) and at a greater distance than normal for kumite practice;
  • Each participant starts to perform either the same kata or each perform a kata of their choice;
  • It is IMPERATIVE that the kata be performed with the mental attitude and physical commitment as if your life was at stake! You must perform the kata as if you are in a real  street fight!;
  • At a random point in the kata performance, the moderator calls out a command for the two performers to engage in kumite;
  • The kumite is limited to only about 30 to 45 seconds (no dancing or “sparring”);
  • The kumite MUST be performed at half speed and half power;
  • After the time limit for kumite, the moderator will signal to stop kumite – the performers freeze in place and in whatever direction they are facing;
  • The two performers then return to performing their kata, BUT they begin at the point where they left off and finish the kata (they begin in whatever direction they are facing regardless of the direction they started the kata);
  • Therefore, while engaged in kumite, they performers must be mindful of their kata, specifically where they paused the performance for kumite.

Keep in mind:

  • The emphasis is on the kata, not the kumite. It is for that reason that the kata is to be performed as a fight and the kumite at half speed and power;
  • The moderator MUST pay attention to the kata so that he can:
  •        – insure that each performer re-starts the kata from where they left off;
  •        – the kata is performed correctly
  •        – as such, there is as much pressure on the moderator as the performer.

Here is a video I filmed at the spectacular Lower Salt River, Arizona which gives you the general idea of interrupting your kata. The video uses a “natural makiwara” in lieu of kumite, but the concept is the same.

NOTE: you may notice that due to variations of the kata being performed and the random nature of the moderators command to engage in kumite, the performers may be some distance apart. This will be overcome in the future by combining this drill with my kata deconstruction technique. Do not adjust the kumite time, if the two performers can not either close the distance or figure out an alternative means to engage in kumite (hint) the fact that they could not adequately engage in kumite in the 30 to 45 seconds is their problem.


This Kata Lab is a challenging means of integrating the idea of “Kata-Kumite Ichi”, Kata and kumite are one. When one is performing kata, one is engaging in kumite and vice-versa.

The Lab also provides a spring board for more difficult kata and kumite integration using  my kata deconstruction techniques.

Most importantly, the performers will be able to use techniques from kata in actual jiyu kumite. No more “Sparring combinations” that are not grounded in kata. Kata-Kumite Ichi.

While physical bunkai (analysis) of kata greatly improve, spiritual or mental bunkai will begin to be fostered. The proper mindset for kata will begin to take root and grow within the performer.

Please remember, the mandate of the kata laboratory is

lab-collage-6HANKOCum superiorum privilegio veniaque (With the privilege and permission of the superiors)

Sensei John Szmitkowski

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© Copyright 2006, 2013 & 2014 Issho Productions & John Szmitkowski, all rights reserved.


1. Toguchi, Seikichi-Sensei, Okinawa Goju-Ryu: The fundamentals of Shorei-Kan Karate. (O-Hara Publications, Burbank, CA, 1976) p. 17

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KATA – A Lazy Pursuit

22 Sep


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Only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighing of oneself against the world and the world against itself. A busy man cannot find time for such balancing.

One could argue that laziness is a relaxation pregnant of activity, a sense of rest from which directed effort may arise, whereas most busy-ness is merely a kind of nervous tic. (See Endnote # 1)

a "lazy" summer day, Cape Cod, 2012

a “lazy” summer day, Cape Cod, 2012

“But Sensei, I don’t have time to practice my kata at home – I’m too busy.”

How many times have we heard that excuse.

I’m no exception. As a young boy, I told my first Sensei, Sensei Nick D’Antuono, the same excuse many times. Being a good Sensei, he out-foxed me and subsequently devised an easy way for me to find time to practice kata. (For details, see Endnote # 2)

If the opposite of being too “busy” is “lazy”, then with a nod towards John Steinbeck’s quote above, I propose that Kata is a lazy man’s pursuit. For only in the lazy state can our kata be pregnant with activity, insight, imagination and intuition.

Given my affinity for kata, I am proud to be lazy. By this I mean that no matter how busy I may be, I always find time for my daily kata practice. One may argue that such daily practice is not productive – it does not add to my finances, does not elevate my social status, fails to adhere to the social norm of possessing a “constructive” purpose. It does; however, invigorate me physically and mentally, stimulate my understanding of my place in a larger realm of existence. If daily devotion to kata makes me lazy, then I am glad to be lazy.

If one is too busy to practice kata, then I can’t help but agree with Steinbeck’s assessment that “busy-ness is merely a kind of nervous tic.” Busy-ness is often represented by the pursuit of money, notoriety, popularity and the like. In the spectrum of life, such hedonistic, ego-centric pursuits are mere nervous tics. For my part, I’ll always find time to be “lazy” and explore my kata. Such exploration deposits into my spiritual, moral and ethical bank account an untold wealth.

After reflecting on the above, I have chosen to modify my admonition to those students, that do not practice kata regularly. Normally I would say, “Don’t be lazy, practice your kata.” It is time to re-interpret the entire concept. I now advocate the idea that one should, “Be lazy so that you can practice your kata.”

A video example of a lazy ride on my Harley, and of course, Sanchin Kata, in the cotton fields of San Tan Valley, Arizona – a promotional video for my Sanchin For Everyone DVD –

In closing, I remain contentedly lazy – – – practicing daily kata,

Sensei John Szmitkowski

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1. Steinbeck, John, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez (Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1995) p. 150-151.

2. I’ll share with you Sensei Nick’s little trick to practicing kata. When I was young, after homework was done, I enjoyed television time. That little black and white t.v. set with its seven channels could mesmerize – except during commercials (with no remote control to easily change channels). Sensei Nick knew this; he recognized I was busy watching t.v., so in an effort not to interfere with my busy-ness, he suggested that one kata be practiced every commercial. A simple solution – even when “busy” there is always time.

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In Memory Of Sensei Paul Recchia

7 Apr

This Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 marks the ten year anniversary since Sensei Paul Recchia was taken from us. Please join me in performing either Sanchin, Tensho or Seienchin at sunset on this date in memory of Sensei Paul and all whom we have lost. Better still, if you know all three from purchasing my DVD and book, then perform all three.

The following Hatsu Bon Poem, together with the above training, are offered to his eternal spirit.

May Sensei’s spirit find our training and poem worthy.

Sensei Paul, age 60

Sensei Paul, age 60


Please don’t cry before my grave
That’s not where I am
Nor am I sleeping for eternity
I am already part of the breezes
numbering a thousand
I am part of the light
that brightens this world
Like a diamond glittering in the snow
Like the sun that coaxes seeds to sprout
And in the Fall I become the gentle rain
that nurtures all.
When you open the window in the morning
I am the breeze
That causes your hair to flutter;
And at night, I am the star
That watches over your sleep.
So, please . . . don’t cry before my grave
That’s not where I am.
I am not dead.
I have been born anew.

The last time Sensei Paul (in wheelchair) was at the Issho Dojo (January, 2000) with (L-R), Sensei Walter Byrne, Sensei Kim Szmitkowski, Sensei John Szmitkowski, Sensei Jimmy DiMicelli, Sensei Bobbie Gumowski. I will never forget that this was the first time in almost eighteen months that Sensei Paul, confined to his in home hospital bed, left the comfort of his home to honor all who were elevated that day in the black belt promotion ceremony.



Sincerity in sweat, you are not forgotten, Sensei.


Sensei John Szmitkowski

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