Shu-Ha-Ri means "obedience-divergence-transcendence" and are the three stages of Karate training.  When beginners attend their first several months of classes they will see more advanced practitioners practicing complicated techniques.  The beginner's training by comparison, seems much less exciting.  Why then can't a beginner practice advanced techniques?  The answer lies in understanding Shu-Ha-Ri.

In the begging stages of Karate training, up to and including first degree black belt (1st Dan) it is necessary for everyone to learn the basic techniques in a standard way.  1st Dan black belt indicates that the practitioner has a firm foundation in the standard methods of practice.  Karate adepts consider 1st Dan black belt to be a beginner rank.  This is the "Shu" stage of training in which the practitioner must adhere strictly to the instructor's teachings in order to gain basic competence in technique.

The second stage of training is "Ha" where the practitioner begins to adapt the various Karate techniques to their own individual body type.  The practitioner is beginning to break away from the standard basic practice.  Kata performance during this period begins to change to suit the practitioner.  Additionally, a distinct fighting style is developed that demonstrates that the practitioner has learned to adapt Karate so that the movements fit his or her own body.  This stage starts when the practitioner has reached black belt and continues till around the 6th or 7th level black belt stage.

The final stage in Karate practice is "Ri".  In this stage the practitioner begins to make his or her own Karate, adopting movements that are appropriate for him or her, but which may not be suitable for any other fighter.  Ways of moving that might have been discouraged during early training are now considered acceptable, since the practitioner has the basic foundation to make progress.  In this stage, much of the advancement in technique comes not from instruction by others but from introspection, during which the practitioner develops his or her own individual technique to its fullest.  This stage starts at around the 6th or 7th Dan black belt stage, where completely adapting Karate techniques to the practitioner's own needs is needed progress to the highest ranks of Karate and to show mastery of the art.  This stage is even more important for the top ranked practitioners as they have few to no-one to look to for instruction or inspiration in order to keep progressing.

-Adapted from Chapter 5 of Karate Basics by Robin Rielly