It’s ok to be different. We have been told this all our lives. Likewise I’ve been told by numerous sensei that people should find their own karate, yet they continued to teach fixed-form mass-produced karate with set ‘standards’.
BUT here is the contradiction:
You cannot truly discover your own path while being stuck on a train.
The concept of shu-ha-ri is bandied about quit a bit nowadays but I think (as per a lot of Japanese concepts) it is totally misconstrued and used almost fraudulently in order to brainwash members. Most dojos only ever take people as far as shu (obey the rules and do what you’re told), with ha (think about what you’re doing and why) and ri (create new ways of doing things) being the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, which you can only reach when you are deemed worthy.
I remember when I was younger that we were encouraged to get to ha during our brown belt grades. However this consisted of being able to use jiyu kamae rather than formal stances and that’s pretty much it. We were then told how to make jiyu kamae, making it shu rather than ha anyway… the fools gold had been found!
Over the years I have seen this farce continue, but with the ‘grade’ moving upwards as we see more and more dojos growing and wanting to retain members for longer. Nidan is probably now the stage when most dojos talk about bending rules – and then they tell you how to bend them!
In truth, the shu part should be ongoing throughout our karate life. We should never stop concentrating on it, and this is where ‘our karate’ comes from. It’s not as linear as stopping and moving onto the next stage. Instead we add ha and ri gradually until our daily training encompasses all three concepts. The shu should, however, be a relatively narrow aspect.
What do I mean by this? I mean there should be a short number of concepts and principles that make up shu. These should be based upon mechanical facts such as weight placement within stance, knee and foot positions in relation to each other so as not to cause injury, and core control of movement, for example; essentially the aspects of karate we must all share in order to improve our fitness, efficiency and wellness.
By thinking about it like this, it can be seen that ha can start much sooner, making our karate more personal at an earlier stage.
What all of this shows is that, realistically, someone’s opinion on your standard and belt colour bear little relevance. Instead it is how hard you have trained, both physically and mentally, over how much time. It’s the hours of training in the shu mindset that creates the physical capability. It’s the hours training with the benefit of ha that allows you the trial and error experiments that will lead to the achievement of ri.
I therefore define shu-ha-ri slightly differently:
Shu – what we know in general for all (which may change over time)
Ha – what we try through adaptation
Ri – what we know for us personally
In summary, karate concepts provide us with a commonality that we can call our karate. Your interpretation of this WILL NOT match mine 100%. Giko and Gichin Funakoshi both had very different form, as have many of the “greats” from the JKA golden era. And this is fine and in fact it doesn’t matter. Our own bodies and personalities will be the dictating factors along with our goals of how we use our karate training.
Therefore, hours and effort are the key to karate. Not exams. Not someone else’s opinion. And definitely not false fixed ‘standards’ that prevent you from finding your karate.
If karate is a life’s study, then it should be your life’s study.
How do we accomplish this? By training and encouraging training. Set syllabi to train to will not develop people. A long list of kata to learn verbatim will not encourage or allow time for individual thought and development. A long path to black belt will not automatically mean good black belts. Instead we need to cultivate motivation for people to train as often as they can and to keep karate in their life for as long as is practical and enjoyable. For this they need to see progression, but they need to look for it in the right place. That place is in their capabilities not their belt or perceived standard.
This raises the question of whether all dojo time is equal and if hours counted really can be a good basis for measuring. The answer is that you can always cheat the system. You can pay for gradings. You can turn on the standard for an exam. You can cram in the weeks leading up to an exam. But what does any of that really achieve?
It is far better to look at yourself and the dojo. Enjoy training and train frequently. Test yourself. Are you keeping up with those of similar experience? Are you able to consistently defend, counter and attack during kumite. Do you feel you are better today that you were a month ago? These are the questions you should be asking yourself in order to make the karate you practice ‘your karate’.
This is why we stay true to the concept of not following a style. Yanagi-do is a karate path to follow and explore, with the end goal of achieving your own style of karate-do.