Shuhari as a Basis for Rank

No one seems to agree upon a universal standard by which to bestow rank. Standards of awarding rank vary between dojo and even within dojo themselves. This is compounded by the common problems that plague rank in general.

However, I believe that there is a universal standard by which to measure students.  It allows for individual variations for every student's unique qualities while holding students to a certain level of understanding and technical proficiency. When used as a basis for rank it makes the rank meaningful to the student and the art. This is where we can apply the concept of shuhari.




Shuhari is the fundamental learning cycle in the fighting traditions. It is the natural progression of understanding. Whether a martial artist is aware of it or not, he is always at some stage of shuhari. There is no definite time-frame for the progression through the three stages, nor is everyone within a particular stage at the same level within that stage. Shuhari exists along a spectrum.

As a basis for rank, it is specific enough to be used as a standard while being flexible enough to allow for individual variations.

Shu: phase of imitation

Everyone starts their martial journey at shu. In this phase, the student imitates his sensei without much critical thought or consideration to the deeper principles and concepts of the art. It is the stage where the technical foundations of the art are laid down and ingrained into muscle memory. The student is learning the basic precepts of the art.

In this phase, the student strives for technical proficiency and he gradually increases his competence until he is able to perform all basic movements correctly. Accuracy of movement is an important milestone along the path to ha and cannot be reached without ithowever, it is not the end of shu. The true threshold between shu and ha is the following combination: correct movement, critical thinking about the art, and personal ownership of one's training journey. No matter how technical the student may be, if he has not crossed this threshold then he has not crossed into the next stage of understanding.

A student within the stage of shu would be considered a mudansha, "one without rank".

Ha: phase of exploration

At some point along a student’s journey, after a basic level of technical proficiency is acquired, he begins to take a more critical view of his lessons. He is able to take his teachers off of their pedestals and appreciate them for both their wisdom and their limitations. The student begins to see a deeper connection between the things he has learned and becomes more aware of the gaps in his own knowledge. This is the phase where the student truly takes ownership of his study. This means that the student takes it upon himself to map out his own training and to determine which areas he needs to focus on improving. Although he still honors and appreciates the knowledge of his sensei, the student's growth is no longer dependent upon the sensei's guidance. Due to this, the student's own personal "style" emerges and often diverges from that of his sensei. He has an understanding of the precepts of the art and how to apply them. Also, throughout this stage, the student increasingly perceives relationships between the precepts; how they converge and diverge.

A student within the vast phase of ha would be considered a yudansha, "one who holds rank".

Ri: phase of transcendence

One enters this stage after decades of practicing the art, studying its precepts at the deepest level, and sharing knowledge with many students. Someone in this phase has a deep well of wisdom to draw from; not only from his experience in martial arts but from his life experience as well. A person who has attained ri has infused the martial way into his very being. It is not so much what he does, but who he is. Those in this phase are said to have transcended the style itself.

Students within this phase are generally considered to be "masters". Based upon experience and contribution to the art, students at this level are referred to by the special titles of renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi, respectively.

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Luke Pecor