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Shibumi

The term shibumi is Japanese and comes from a book with the same title written by Trevanian. I had no idea what the book was about but it came highly recommended by a family friend so I made it my next audible.com purchase. When shibumi was defined as part of the narrative during the story, it grabbed my attention so profoundly and created a moment of incredible stillness in my being. I immediately felt that it defined exactly the type of character and being that I am strive to embody.

Below is the excerpt from the book where shibumi is described:

“He sounds as though I shall like him, sir.”

“I am sure you will. He is a man who has all my respect. He possesses a quality of . . . how to express it? . . . of shibumi.”

“Shibumi, sir?” Nicholai knew the word, but only as it applied to gardens or architecture, where it connoted an understated beauty. “How are you using the term, sir?”

“Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.”

Nicholai’s imagination was galvanized by the concept of shibumi. No other ideal had ever touched him so. “How does one achieve this shibumi, sir?”

“One does not achieve it, one . . . discovers it. And only a few men of infinite refinement ever do that. Men like my friend Otake-san.”

“Meaning that one must learn a great deal to arrive at shibumi?”

“Meaning, rather, that one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.”

Some other definitions

3 Responses

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  1. Trish Feistner

    being without the angst of becoming

    this spoke to me so powerfully – thank you for posting Justin.
    when i actually have time to be still and read, i can always find something here to contemplate if i’ve run out of ideas on my own.

    xo and many blessings.
    t.

  2. Adam Smith

    I felt the same way when I read this passage. All my life I’ve felt this need to achieve shibumi, but couldn’t put it into words.

  3. Urb Gim Tam

    I’ve read the book over 15 years ago, and it striked me hard. You really need to read the book to fully accomplish the meaning of Shibumi, as you begin to acknowledge all the small details that add up to this definition.

    Even the way one plays Go, a traditional Japanese board-game, becomes relevant to the matter, as Shibumi is refleted on all actions of a person.

    Almost half the book is directed towards defining Shibumi, and it does quite a good work at it, IMO.

    A nice starting point for Shibumi should be a fully-fledged Japanese martial art – I recommend Taijutsu – as the whole process of learning, training and teaching turns you into a more humble person, at the same time as it builds your self-confidence. It must be with a real Sensei, tough, as a huge part of it is still very much bounded with Japanese culture and traditions, which bear different values from today’s western societies.

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