Ryu — Flowing Water 流

The imagery of flowing water has long been a central one in martial arts. It describes how the schools of martial arts preserve their identity and yet evolve; and it also prescribes for us an attitude of constant improvement and continually moving forward, despite obstacles in our lives.

Ryu 流 [pronounced  “ree-yoo” or “roo”] is “flow” and specifically “flowing water” (sometimes as in a stream or river) – it has multiple levels of meaning and significance.

Schools of Thought

Ryu literally means “flowing water” but it also means “style” or “school of thought” and specifically is used to differentiate styles of martial arts. For example, Goju Ryu and Shotokan are two different "ryu" of karatedō.

In this sense of ryu, we consider all of these branches of a school or an art as being fundamentally the same, but each ryu has some defining characteristics or history that sets it apart from its brother and sister ryu. In short, they are different "flavors" of the same thing.

Stewards of Thought

In addition, ryu has a more significant message for us about the need to both stay true to our ideals and to learn to evolve our core beliefs and continue to keep them healthy and vibrant.

One of the key concerns for any martial art is the transmission of knowledge — the experiences, skills, processes, and wisdom that make up the art — to future generations of teachers and keepers of that art.

In most traditional martial arts, the only way to do this is to train students well, and then choose those among the students that are best-trained and most-skilled, and most-dedicated and passionate, to perpetuate the art.

However, one of the key concerns in doing this is that the information “flow” correctly to the next generation of teachers. The core concepts that make up the martial art must be correctly preserved and nurtured by the next generation, and this “flow” is very important.

Transmission and Evolution

Inherent in the notion of “flowing” is that the information flows away, and is subject to being mis-remembered or corrupted in some other fashion.

This is a dual-sided problem however.

On the one hand, if information isn't transmitted in depth, it risks being forgotten entirely.

On the other hand, if the flow is too stagnant — if the new generation is locked into robotically following what they were taught by their teachers — then the art itself stagnates. For a martial art to survive, it must also adapt, grow, and evolve to assimilate new information and to live in a new world.

It is for this reason that schools of martial arts are called ryu. Flowing rivers perfectly exemplify the need to both be pure and consistent in carrying forward the knowledge of the school while at the same time to move and adapt and reshape itself to continue to stay alive and vibrant.

A healthy ryu is like the healthy ecosystem of a river. If the river is free of pollution and is able to move fresh water through its length, the river and all its inhabitants renew themselves, while still staying true to the fundamental nature of the river itself.

A school of thought, including a school of martial arts, must do likewise. It must preserve its fundamental nature and wisdom, and continue to evolve in a healthy way.

Student as Flowing

But just as a school must be a ryu, so also must the student.

It is important for us to nurture our core beliefs and knowledge so that we continue to be true to them in our daily lives. This is how we preserve our identity.

At the same time, however, it is also important for us to grow, evolve, and keep our core beliefs dynamic and current with our lives and the changing world in which we live. If we stagnate intellectually, then we stop growing.

Just as our school and our organizations must flow like water, so must we.

Acting Like Flowing Water

Again, if we consider a river, we also understand the last component of ryu.

A river is a dynamic, living, moving thing. The waters of a river encounter obstacles constantly. A few small branches that fall in the water hardly make any impact at all. Similarly, we are surrounded by minor distractions and challenges, and they are no cause for irritation or anger. As flowing water is completely unaffected by minor obstacles, we should also be unaffected by minor obstacles.

Sometimes, though, a large obstacle diverts the flow of a river. A giant boulder falls into the river, or a huge tree trunk is felled across the width of a river. These are obstacles that affect the flow of water, surely.

Yet, they don't stop the river.

The river flows around, over, and under the obstacle. It doesn't ignore the obstacle, because to do so would be to ignore reality. Yet, it finds a way forward, moving past the obstacle and continuing onwards.

Again, like that flowing water, we also must not ignore obstacles, but we must also not be stopped by them.

In the end, the flowing action of ryu is what allows us to continue moving forward, ever onward, past our obstacles, and yet true to our identity, and evolving continually.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
flowing water (ryu)

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei at the Goju Karate dojo in San Rafael, California on 30 July 2014; this concept was presented again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 13 September 2023.