Shuhari is about master-apprentice, not solo learning

5 minute read

I’ve recently came in touch with an article detailing the fallacy of Shuhari, by Pawel Brodzinski. It is very interesting to me because feels like a good analysis of how Shuhari can be misunderstood or badly applied, more of a dismissal of the model itself. I’ll follow his excellent analysis as an outline to clarify the model itself.

In the article, Pawel writes:

We don’t solve that problem by pushing solutions through people’s throats. The best we can do is to help them understand the method or the practice in a broader context.
It won’t happen on Shu level. It is actually the main goal of Ha level.

To me this doesn’t describe a problem in Shuhari. If anyone “push solutions through people’s throats” that’s a bad teacher, and that’s an issue that comes way before any model for learning we can use.

Shuhari is deeply rooted in the master–apprentice relationship, and we can’t take that assumption away. If there’s no master, which rule am I applying? Written words don’t really help beyond basic understanding.

The point of the Shu practice is to learn superficial patterns in order to gain an understanding of the deeper reason of their existance. And that’s why Shu is referred as “follow the rule”: because if you don’t follow the pattern, it’s harder to get that deeper reason. But that’s the goal.

I would go as far to argue that, in our context, starting on a Shu level may simply be a waste of time. Shu-Ha-Ri model assumes that we are learning the right thing. This sounds dangerously close to stating that we can assume that a chosen method would definitely solve our problems. Note: we make such an assumption without really understanding the method. Isn’t it inconsistent?

That correct: Shuhari assumes that we are learning the right thing because there’s a teacher, a mentor, guiding that.. Once you have a master guiding you, none of the Shu level activities is pointless. You are using the master’s experience to build up that knowledge, and you trust the master “to the letter” that the teaching is correct. That’s “Shu”.

When I studied Jeet Kune Do I asked questions, discussed, challenged points of view of my master. Not because I was outside of the Shu phase, but because that’s how it works. I talked with my master to reach the kind of understanding Shu is meant to build, and then I followed every tailored exercise my master gave me to the letter, until at some point that move, that punch, clicked in my head: “Ohhh, so that’s what he meant when he kept telling me to hold the wrist in that way! Now I feel it”.

This doesn’t mean that the master is absolutely right. Everyone has flaws. It just means that you trust and you follow someone with expertise in order to learn and get that deeper rationale.

To take an example from an entirely different field since the martial arts metaphor is commonly used, I’ve seen multiple times people stating that “brainstorming doesn’t work” and the reason is that they cobbled together brainstorming sessions reading here and there and trying to apply it. Every time I saw such a comment, there was an inherent misunderstanding of that deeper rationale — you can read more about the problem of brainstorming here.

Before knowing it however, I was clueless myself. I read books, including Gamestorming that I always suggest to everyone, and I was telling myself “so what?”. Then I managed to work shoulder to shoulder with people like Dave Gray, James Macanufo, Matt Morasky, Betty Dhamers and, then, just then, I understood.

Pawel states this point clearly in the article:

It doesn’t mean going through practices only. It means figuring out what principles are behind and, most importantly, which values need to be embraced to make the practices work.

Figuring out what the principles are is exactly the objective of the Shu phase. But it needs a teacher.

Missing someone there to support you, of course that “figuring out” becomes difficult. How could it be otherwise? You’re blindly applying techniques. That’s exactly what the Shu phase is for. With a master, that’s a shortcut to learning.

Without well… I agree with Pawel: how can you choose a practice without knowing it? But that’s not Shuhari.

In a sense, we can say that Shuhari isn’t a model for the student. It’s a model for the teacher. It’s a way to engage in a master–apprentice relationship, out of many possible ones.

What if however we take the premise on not having the master and we try to still use Shuhari? Pawel says:

That’s why Shu-Ha-Ri is misguiding.
We need to start with understanding.
We need to start at least on Ha level.

Which is correct, to an extent. But it’s a steep step to take, and will still require practice to be used to internalize it and make it work, to see the details that build up the model, to see how the theory and deeper reasons map to practical actions. So you still need Shu.

It’s the very same reason why learning martial arts, or diving, or skiing, from a book can surely be done, but it’s incredibly, incredibly harder than having a teacher guiding you.

Even without a teacher however, we might stretch the concept a bit and say that Shuhari can still be applied. It just means that without a teacher, it’s harder to follow these phases more or less linearly (even if I’d argue that even with a teacher these aren’t that linear). Without a teacher it requires instead a continuous effort in trying to the letter (Shu) seeing the whys, the parts that did and didn’t work (Ha), then go back to practice trying to fix them.

It’s a closer loop between the three phases, way closer, but I’d argue that the phases still exist in some form.

It can be done, but it’s an entirely different approach. You can read an example of this here, inspired from extreme surfing.

So, it’s entirely fine if you don’t have a mentor and you learn by yourself. Go ahead! But if you have a teacher, that relationship is can work very well by following a Shuhari model. Or one of the other possible teaching methods.