From Nothing to No Thing

As a Canadian of Chinese descent growing up in the 60s and 70’s, one of my boyhood idols was the martial artist, Bruce Lee.

I watched all his kung fu movies – Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, Enter the Dragon, Return of the Dragon, The Game of Death. I imitated his demeanour, practiced his moves and even tried to dress like him! He gave all Asian kids instant street cred. He made me proud to be Chinese. I no longer had to try to fit in by playing hockey, eating bologna sandwiches and wearing bell-bottom pants. I could be me and I wanted to be just like him.

As I grew older, the pull of the martial arts grew stronger. I wanted to do more than just watch from the side lines and daydream like Walter Mitty. My interest had matured. Evolving from childhood fascination with the flamboyant aura of martial arts movies and superstars to a solid grounding in the basics of martial techniques and tactics. I studied and practiced karate. Specifically, Japanese Shito-ryu karate. It wasn’t Chinese kung fu. However, when all is said and done, a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick. How you deliver a punch or kick may change from style to style but the intent remains the same – to strike. Karate gave me the foundation to appreciate the mechanics, flow and meaning behind every punch, kick and block. Shito-ryu techniques emphasized upright stances and speed. The many Shito-ryu kata I learned gave me patterns to hold, practice and improve my techniques. Sparring sessions and tournaments gave me opportunity to apply the techniques in the heat of mock battle. To see what worked, what didn’t work and to try different combinations. I didn’t stray far from the codified Shito-ryu techniques that were taught from one generation to the next. I knew what distinguished Shito-ryu from the other karate styles including Shotokan, Goju- ryu and Wado-ryu. I had become a journeyman Shito-ryu karateka.

Now, many years later, my fascination with the martial arts has not waned. My physical abilities have declined from lack of practice. I’ve forgotten most of the kata with the exception of some of the kihon (basic) kata. Throwing a roundhouse or crescent kick would most probably throw out my back. I’m no longer fascinated by the physicality of the martial arts. The pull of the martial arts is now a spiritual one. My aspirations for kata and kumite have been eclipsed by my search for meaning. A meaning that is forging a connection between the martial arts way of being and the agile ways of working.

My martial arts journey is an illustration of the Japanese Aikido martial arts concept, Shuhari. Shuhari defines 3 stages of learning, Shu Ha Ri, from rote beginner to advanced. Aikido master Endô Seishirô shihan described each stage as follows:

  • Shu: We repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation.
  • Ha: Once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded.
  • Ri: We completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

The concept of Shuhari is well known in agile circles. It’s used to describe the cycle of learning agile ways of working.

Martin Fowler described Shu-Ha-Ri as follows:

  • Shu: In this beginning stage students follow the teachings of one master precisely. They concentrate on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, they concentrate on just the one way their master teaches them.
  • Ha: At this point students begin to branch out. With the basic practices working they now start to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. They also start learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.
  • Ri: Now the students aren’t learning from other people, but from their own practice. They create their own approaches and adapts what they’ve learned to their own particular circumstances.

Lyssa Adkins was even more succinct in her description:

  • Shu: Follow the Rule
  • Ha: Break the Rule
  • Ri: Be the Rule

This connection between martial arts and agile ways of working took a wild and unexpected turn when I dove deeper into the spiritual side of Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy – what he called Jeet Kune Do. As part of that, he referred to a concept called “The 3 Stages of Cultivation” which bears a striking similarity to the concept of Shuhari but with a twist.

  1. Stage of ignorance and innocence: Movements are natural, reflexive and honest but inappropriate.
  2. Stage of art: Movements are no longer natural but intellectually bound by the sophistication and mechanics of a particular style.
  3. Stage of artlessness or second innocence: Movements are minimized and even eliminated as one returns to a stage of innocence marked not by nothingness but rather by no thingness having transcended things for deeper insight. “Using no way as way” and “Having no limitation as limitation

The 3rd stage is what resonates most with me. It adds body to the phrases,

The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know

Albert Einstein

The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing


It also adds another dimension to Shuhari’s Ri stage – an emptying of my mind’s teacup so that I may continue to learn and adapt, unfettered and untethered from all that I’ve learned thus far.

My story started with a fascination for all things Bruce Lee. Funny how it has come full circle with Bruce Lee’s belief in no things!

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