Have you ever studied another language? You memorize vocabulary and verb conjugations. You get ready for quizzes and drills. If you’re a particularly good student, you may get these basics down well enough that you’re able to have real conversations and write passable essays in your new language.
This is where most of us stop. We learn enough to pass the test, even come up with some creative phrases in the language. But just a few months later, we’re lucky if we can even order toast!
Let’s say you continue on, though. Perhaps you study abroad and get a chance to use your new language in everyday life. At a certain point, something magical happens. You’re no longer actively thinking about vocab and grammar. You’re not pondering how to express ideas in a creative way. You just speak. You just live and think in the language, and the language lives in you.
We’ve all experienced this journey, in one way or another – progressing from learning the basics of a skill to demonstrating mastery. In Japanese martial arts, there’s a word for this process: They call it Shu-Ha-Ri.
In the Beginning: Shu
The first stage, Shu, is all about learning the basic forms of whatever art you are practicing. If you’re a guitarist, it might be learning to form chords and play cover songs. For a swimmer, it could mean proficiency in all the basic strokes. Above all, the Shu stage is about observation and imitation.
In Shu, your job is to learn from those who have mastered the art. You absorb the basic forms by mimicking the teacher without deviation.
Getting Creative: Ha
Things begin to get more interesting in the Ha stage. By the time you reach Ha, you’ve already acheived what some might mistake for excellence. The Ha-level artist has a firm grasp of basic technique. A Ha-stage photographer, for example, would have no trouble framing an aesthetically pleasing shot that followed the basic forms of classic photography. The real challenge would come in composing a photograph in an unexpected-yet-powerful way.
As a beginner, it is foolish to deviate from the forms set out by the master; you simply don’t know enough yet to discern between useful tweaks and silly errors. At the Ha stage, however, you are challenged to innovate. With a firm grasp of basic technique, it’s possible to experiment in useful ways. The dancer may add another swing to her step. The painter can try out unorthodox uses of shadow.
Attaining Mastery: Ri
By the time you’ve progressed through Ha, many observers may mistake you for a master. Not only do you have the basic techniques of your art down flat, but you innovate with grace and integrity. Because Ha is so easily mistaken for true mastery, this is where almost everyone stops. But for those few who continue, who refuse to accept mere excellence and persist in self-questioning, experimental practice, there is another level to be achieved.
This final stage, known as Ri, is a state of genuine mastery. Back in the Ha stage, you practiced your craft by skillful innovation on the basic forms that you mastered during Shu. When you arrive at Ri, however, you begin to discard the forms altogether. Your art has become so much a part of you that you embody it in your person, without need to refer to the rules.
The Shu-Ha-Ri of Christ
All of the truly great historic movements of the Holy Spirit bear the marks of Ri. The early church with its deep roots in the Jewish tradition, the Quakers, Methodists, and Pentecostals, all of these outpourings of radical faith were possible precisely because a critical mass of daring men and women had arrived at Ri. They were so steeped in their traditions, so well-practiced in the religious traditions of their day, that they were able to respond spontaneously to the movement of the Holy Spirit. When Christ showed up in their midst, they threw off the shackles of conventional wisdom – all those Shu forms – and embraced the new thing God was doing.
The apostles were so rooted in the essence of the Jewish faith that they were able to throw out the rules. They welcomed the unclean, notorious sinners, even Gentiles, into the church. The Quaker movement was best known for the reckless abandon with which it discarded the traditional forms of Christianity – including water baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many other beliefs and practices that Christians had come to take for granted. When the Pentecostal wave hit America, it broke down the traditional authority of pastors, re-discovered Christian nonviolence, recognized the spiritual equality of women, and, as Frank Bartleman described in his history of the Azusa Street Revival, “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”
Of of the marks of a great spiritual movement is the joyful abandonment of dead forms. When Ri arrives, the rules and regulations of Shu are hushed.
Careful Where You Throw Those Training Wheels!
But not all rulebreaking is revolutionary. Sometimes it’s just a sign of immaturity. When a child has learned to ride a bike with ease, it makes sense to ditch the training wheels and begin riding in the street. But what happens if the child hasn’t really learned the lesson yet? Removing the training wheels too early can lead to disaster.
And therein lies the rub. Our culture is one that values creativity so much that we often presume to engage in Ri before we’ve learned the basic lessons of Shu. We often teach kids to question authority before they’ve learned how to respect it. We expect to be masters when we’ve never done the work of an apprentice.
In the Quaker community, where I have been formed, we have a tendency to think of ourselves as iconoclasts – even when we don’t really know much about icons! We critique tradition without being familiar with it. We insist that we will accept nothing less than a Ri-level faith, yet we have so little grounding in the basics that we never even arrive at a solid engagement with Shu. This has the potential to be the worst scenario of all: We believe ourselves to be masters, but we haven’t even begun our apprenticeship.
The Shu of Quakers
Since the 1960s, deconstruction has been the name of the game in Western society. Any cherished belief or institution that could be challenged and discredited has been. But there comes a point at which there is nothing left to deconstruct. Eventually, we have no alternative but to begin learning the basics again.
I see this happening. Throughout the church in the United States, we’re increasingly getting back to the basics of our traditions. High church folks are re-discovering the liturgy. Evangelicals are exploring contemplative prayer. Many Quakers are encountering the Bible as a source of inspiration, power, and spiritual authority.
This reconnection with our Shu-stage roots is important. The Quaker movement was founded by an apocalyptic, Ri-stage spiritual explosion, and to this day we have a tendency to imagine ourselves as being beyond forms. Yet, if we are to have any chance of living up to the full promise of our faith, we’re going to have to commit ourselves to re-learning the basics. Until we have fully integrated the fundamentals of our Christian walk – until engagement with Scripture, prayer, waiting worship and action for justice become part of our muscle memory – we are simply not yet qualified to innovate. So long as we refuse to learn the basics of spiritual grammar, we will never be able to form coherent sentences.
Towards True Mastery
Our engagement with the Shu experience is going to vary. Different individuals and communities will need to re-connect with the ABCs of the tradition in their own way. But if we want to see a truly transformative spiritual movement re-awakened in our day, we have no choice but to begin walking this path again.
What will this look like for you? For the communities that you are part of? How will we need to change our posture in order to become people who are ready to experience the Ri revolution?
Note: I am indebted to Jeff Sutherland and his book, SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, for introducing me to the concept of Shu Ha Ri. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in improving the health and productivity of their team or organization.