The Samurai’s Three Sons

The Samurai’s Three Sons

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The Samurai’s Three Sons

Tsukahara Bokuden (1489 – 1571), the founder of the Kashima Shinto-ryu school of swordsmanship, was a fine warrior and caring teacher. However, he was growing old and as skilled as he still was, the time had come for someone younger to assume the challenges of running his dojo.

Bokuden had three sons, and while tradition dictated that the oldest always takes over from the father, he decided to test them to see just where they were at in their training.

Bokuden placed an apple over the door at the entrance to his room in such a way that when the screen was slid back, the fruit would fall on the head of anyone who entered.

Once Bokuden had placed the apple he called his youngest son.

The youngest son, quick to obey his father, hurried to meet him. He slid back the screen to enter the room. Thunk. The apple bounced off the top of his head. In a blinding flash he drew his sword and cut the apple in two before it hit the floor.

The old master found another apple, arranged it over the entryway, and called his middle son who approached a bit more cautiously. As he slid the screen open he caught a blur of movement with his peripheral vision, but sensing no danger, he quickly sidestepped and caught the apple in his hands.

Then it was the turn of his eldest son. The moment the eldest son arrived at the entranceway, he waited outside the screen and didn’t enter. Again his father called him and told him to enter. He slid the screen back just enough to get his hand through, reached up, took down the apple, cautiously entered the room and put it back in its original position.

“Good morning, Sensei,” he said as he bowed to his father.

“Eldest Son, you are an excellent samurai and well qualified to be sensei.” With that, Bokuden passed to his first son his own ceremonial sword. “You will be the new sensei, not simply because you are the eldest, but because you understand what it means to be a great samurai.”


This story is a classic and a version of it is incorporated into Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. However the real beauty of the story is the way that it so clearly depicts the 3 Levels of Mastery. Many of the Japanese martial arts refer to these three levels of training as Shu-Ha-Ri .

Shu means to protect or maintain. At the Shu level the student should be an empty vessel to be filled up with the instructors teaching, working to copy the techniques exactly as taught. In this way, a lasting technical foundation is built on which the deeper understanding of the art can be based.

Ha means to detach or break free. At this stage each technique has been thoroughly learned and absorbed into the muscle memory and the student reflects on their meaning and purpose and reaches a deeper understanding of the art. At the Ha level one’s zanshin (awareness) also increases, especially to assessing potential danger.

Ri means freedom, or to transcend. At this level one rises above what one learned in the previous two levels, developing original thoughts from their understanding of the art. In the Ri stage, the art truly becomes the practitioner’s own and even the traditionally arranged and performed techniques become free-flowing movement. One’s zanshin be comes acute enough at the Ri level to perceive things intuitively and with precognition.

In the Jet Li movie “Hero,” the 3 levels of swordsmanship are described as follows

1.) Sword and Man are One (Physical Mastery)
2.) Sword in Mind, No Sword in Hand (Mental Mastery)
3.) No Sword in Hand or Mind (Spiritual Alignment)

“The purpose of training is to “Tighten up the Slack (mentally), Toughen the Body and Polish the Spirit.” — Morihei Ueshiba

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