Part 1

Several years ago a shiny new phrase swept through the industry in which I work. Professional networking was amazed and new student enrollment went through the dojo roof everywhere. The initial LinkedIn article and inaccurate Wikipedia entry all attribute Aikido with understanding and quantifying the progression of learning development in humans.  Like many of you, my eyes rolled and the audible groan emanating from my coffee filled mouth was likely heard across the office upon reading the byte-sized descriptions. The Five Stages of Learning can be abbreviated for an ‘elevator pitch’ (done it). Understanding both versions can help teachers and students alike; and empower the individual in every aspect of life.

Shu, Ha, Ri etc. are the modern terms we might assign to the progressive levels or stages of learning from introduction to mastery. We have all encountered this idea in some form in our professions or more to the point, Danzan Ryu and other martial practice. The quick concepts are:

  • Shu: Do it by the book. The learner focuses on repetition to develop recognition, muscle memory set the foundation to be successful. Success is in the beginning¹.
  • Ha: Perfect practice makes perfect. Ha is the time to create solid habits as the techniques have been learned. Regular practice reinforces habit which in turn facilitates intrinsic motivation. However in this phase the learner still references the ‘rulebook’.
  • Ri: ‘Break the rules’. A ‘Ri’ person or group has spent time with their practice which has given them enough perspective to understand when the rulebook can be altered to fit a situation and yet can achieve the original purpose or produce innovation. Growth Mindset is consistent with Ri. Advancing through the 5 Levels depends on how we perceive the plasticity of our mind. Thus, a Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed. Often people in this stage are seen to have a healthy balance of technical and intuitive acumen. Confidence precedes them or is noticeable. (Ri confidence should not be confused with elitism and self-promotion. This is actually a regressive trait). Professionally I am of the opinion that there are very few actual Ri people; they are the quiet self-effacing people in the room.
  • Kokoro: Kokoro attempts to name the seamless unification of what we call the heart and mind and body². It does not mean ‘heart’; that would be shinzhou for the anatomical location or ha-to which is a modern label for a ‘love-heart’ (emotional reference). Eihei Dogen and Dainin Katagiri explain this unification as the ‘Buddha body’³. We will revisit this concept in the latter part of this article.
  • Mu: A return to one’s original state. As Zen, Soto Zen in particular, explains things, our original ‘state’ is one of pure energy. Think Yoda in his blue-lighted immanence (transcendent state). In this context we can roughly understand this concept as ‘mind-no-mind’ or something similar.

None of these stages or phases describes a Dan or kyu rank.

Part 2

When you read Part 1 your brain was immediately asking which stage it was in or assigning you a category which made you feel confident. Finding a safe place mentally and physically is our prime survival instinct. This is seeing duality.

We (humans) expect to get something from what we do. The longer we train the worse it gets sometimes. Collecting techniques, we find the best one to use for a situation. At the far end we expect things like advanced dan rank, recognition and positions of influence. While these are normal for our species, they are behavior ‘anti-patterns’ to a Growth Mindset and life-long learning. 

We can deepen our practice of Danzan Ryu by learning who we are. Most people get through life just fine by using the common sense of their culture, professions etcetera. Most of us are like this and there is nothing wrong or right about it. But there is no depth, no charm or fascinating quality in how one understands his or her practice. Then something happens, perhaps on the mat and you sense there is more to understand.

This is the turning point which has aroused the Way-seeking Mind. This is the first stage of learning. The turning point may have occurred before your Danzan training. Maybe it occurred at some point years later….there is no schedule. But once it does happen you realize there is more.

This is the second stage of learning according to Zen Buddhism. This stage is a chance for you to practice. Practice is boring. Even Muhammed Ali hated training; no joke. Ponder that one for a moment. Sports medicine studies have shown us there is a point at which beginner athletes start wanting to train more honing skills and becoming more efficient. Inevitably the athlete realizes more and more depth to their training. They see themselves climbing the proverbial mountain.

More research, more study, more practice. Our teachers and their teachers help show us the way to the top. The third stage of learning only happens when you reach the summit. What that is for each of us is often hard to see. You’ll know once you get there. More probably others will see it when you get there.

And yet we cannot stay at the top of the mountain. Staying at the top is lonely. There’s no one else there and rational thought points the way back down to society. The answers come easy now. Adjusting to society again means forgetting what was learned at the top of the mountain for a while. This is the fourth stage of learning. Dainin Katagiri does explain it as ‘forgetting’ what we have learned. I suggest it is a metaphor to remind the mountain climber that no one in the village can see the world in the same way she did from the summit.

The fourth stage is rather selfish. We think we’ve seen spiritual truth. We know the best techniques and were taught by people who performed amazing feats of martial skill. When I was a kid those Kool-Aid commercials were so awesome; so many flavors.

It can be frightening to forget ourselves and just help people. It takes time to learn this part of our practice. This is the final stage. This is mu. This person has shibumi. When we can forget that we are simply sharing our life and forget our expectations of receiving…

That is peace — real peace. Real peace is to become Buddha.”  – Dainin Katagiri


[1] The article Success Is In the Beginning by Professor Tony Janovich has been a cornerstone for my journey in Danzan Ryu Jujutsu and the other supporting martial practices in which I train. I read it every year. And it is new every time.

[2] Writing the phrase as “heart and mind and body” illustrates how we as Westerners create a mental boundary making comprehension difficult.

[3] The ‘Buddha body’ is not a ‘god-like’ state by the way. Self-actualization is not divinity.

References (in order of use)


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