In Zen and Martial Arts there is this concept known as Shugyo. I’ve heard many definitions of Shugyo. In fact, everybody can, in one way or another, come up with their own interpretation of what Shugyo is. 

Shugyo is often simply defined as the ultimate level of physical and mental training.

It is the word “ultimate” that brings me to what I’m writing today. This means that Shugyo does not stand on its own, it is rather the ultimate step of a latter. 

The mistake most students make is aiming for Shugyo directly, instead of focusing on each degree of training. One can expect to reach Shugyo after experiencing every degree of training. 

One step at a time. 

Some instructors tell students that they can experience Shugyo by attending weekend seminars. This can be true. However, this will only be a weekend long Shugyo experience. In other words, it's superficial Shugyo— attained solely through the commitment of training for a weekend. 

In order to dig in deep into Shugyo and experience the deepest level of physical and mental training, Shugyo needs to transcend the mat and into our daily lives. 

In Chozen-Ji (a Rinzai Zen Temple in Honolulu) literature Shugyo is explained through the analogy of forging a sword from raw iron. Fire, water, and iron are the instruments. The pounding of the hammer over and over again to create the cutting edge is our daily experience attained through the following degrees of training.

1.    KEIKO - Keiko translates as “practice”. It is the period of time spent repeating an activity or skill to acquire proficiency. This is going to the dojo and taking classes every day. In fact, classes at the dojo are known as “keiko”. In Shodo this is brushing exercises. Brush Kanji after Kanji, stroke after stroke, for no other reason whatsoever than to practice to get better at it. 

2.    RENSHU - Renshu translates as “training”. Unlike practice, training focuses on the action to understand the teaching in order to develop a particular skill. During training we come to understand the why’s of things. I think that weekend seminars and workshops fall under this level. They provide a unique opportunity for students to submerge themselves into training. Usually students leave seminars with a deeper understanding of the art. 

3.    KUNREN - Kunren translates as "discipline". This is the experience that provides mental and physical training. Therefore, this level can only be achieved after spending a few years practicing and training. In order to develop discipline students need to be committed to developing their art. They have already found the path and what motivates them to continue their path. 

4.    TANREN - Tanren translates as “forging” or “improving". The experience acquired through years of practice and training will help you move forward gradually and steadily. One must always carry SHOSHIN or beginner’s mind, and be motivated to always move forward and better oneself. 

5.    KUFU - Kufu does not have a direct English translation. It can be translated as working under intense concentration or deep focus. I like to think of Kufu as “hard work” or “hustle”. This the level where you don’t stop. This is the point of no return. You have years of practice and training. You have developed the discipline to continue your training and improve yourself on a daily basis. Now you are working hard to continue this path, hustling every day, and perhaps start passing on to others what you have learned. 

6.    SHUGYO - Like Kufu, Shugyo does not have a direct translation. This ultimate level, the deepest one, transcends physical and mental boundaries. You surpass intellectual understanding and you can embody your practice into your daily life. 

Martial arts have no meaning if what you learn stays at the dojo. Why practice Shodo if your experience ends the moment you wash the ink off the bristles? Take all of it with you into your life. Make use of it. Do go out in search of Shugyo, experience it and live it. But understand you can't get to Shugyo before passing through the other levels; it’s a natural progression.

Embrace it. 

-Esteban Martinez

joshua barbosa1 Comment