Shibui by Walther von Krenner

The Japanese have a special word to describe the bitter taste one experiences after biting into an unripe persimmon. This taste is called Shibui, and has a meaning, something far beyond taste. Shibui sometimes translated as rustic simplicity or austere elegance. Shibui has long been associated with an intimate understanding of the truth and beauty that is the essence of Zen and Zen-related arts. It is an aesthetic concept that rejects kitsch and tasteless elaboration. Those of us who train to transcend ourselves and practice Aikido as a vehicle toward this goal should develop an understanding and familiarity with Shibui and think Shibui in order to grow and realize awareness of the true heart or” being suchness” of things.

To begin to understand this concept, we begin by looking at things outside the dojo. The peaceful setting of Cha-no-yu in the Japanese tea ceremony is one of many Japanese arts where Shibui is the soul and spirit of the art. During the turbulent years of the seventeenth century, when a Samurai was at the constant danger of death in battle, it was in the austere practice of this ritual that he began to develop a deep appreciation for this enigmatic contradiction. The utensils, especially the Chawan, or tea bowl, were chosen on their ability to best reflect the achievement of the state sought by the practice of the ceremony itself, Shibui and Zen. To that end, the best utensils have always been those who’s feeling and look encourage an atmosphere of calm serenity that will aid in the separation from the negative and destructive outside world.

This aesthetic of the Shibui tea bowl can help us to identify our own path and the goal of training. Those qualities and fundamentals which give the bowl its Shibui are the same things we should look for within the Do of Aikido and in our teachers.

The Chawan with Shibui has:

                                                                    Simplicity

                                                                     Implicitness

                                                                     Humility

                                                                     Tranquility

                                                                     Naturalness

                                                                      Normality

                                                                      Coarseness

                                                                      Strength

                                                                      Emptiness

When we scrutinize the objectives of “the way,” we find that, there too, perfection can be measured by the same standards. Look at the great masters and you will see that they demonstrate a lifestyle that parallels the goal of the best Zen potters works. They are recognized by their simple tastes and ways, shunning publicity and preferring to be plain. They are implicit – stressing inner meaning in themselves as well as recognizing the “suchness” of all things in the universe.

They are modest, never seeking credit or rewards for their helpfulness to others. They revere silence and tranquility, finding these in a world where serenity and quietness are difficult to locate. They lean toward natural things and actions, making them spontaneous people who do not live their lives mechanical. They are normal in that they are content while moving about the commonplace without complaint. They tend to be rough, yet at the same time refined, having human imperfections like the repairs in a tea bowl. Finally, they are filled with a wondrous emptiness that enables them to absorb their world in an awareness that invites us to follow them. They are warriors because they have defeated themselves and in doing so, have lost the need for further battles.

The observance or practice of any ritual without deep understanding of its aims is meaningless and without any value. Good aikido and correct training holds out the promise of tranquility, precision, courtesy, awareness, and selflessness. To gain these qualities, we would do well to reflect on the tea bowl and great art, becoming Shibui ourselves. This is the astringent taste of hard training, the nuance of restrained beauty in our art.

In order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion about Shibui, I would like to add a few footnotes to the previous article. Some might think that Shibui in art and objects is the lack of quality and that a cheap and simplistic item is Shibui; this is wrong. The Japanese language has used the word Shibumi to denote a quality which is literally a rough or astringent taste, I other words the opposite of sweet taste. Its adjective, Shibui, is derived from Shibu, as in simple unaffected taste, or elegance. None of those words, however, give more than the barest hint, if any hint at all, of what Shibui really is.

Like all transcendent qualities, the word Shibumi eludes definition. To the Japanese, those externals which soothe and satisfy the spirit are Shibumi. These things are instinctive, not shaped by reason and not easily put into words; but Shibumi suggests art appreciation, culture, ultra-refinement, quiet taste, and a great consideration for others. Nothing “too much” is in it, and the word is in itself a protest against ostentation. It confirms the traditional appreciation of serenity, introspection, formality, nobility, generosity, reserve, and conservatism. As the antithesis of bizarre, it is opposed to everything that is garish, loud, noisy or infused with commercial hype.

No single word in the English language exactly describes Shibumi as the Japanese understand it. The artistic and sensitive foreigner would describe Shibumi as the acme of elegance and refinement, the result of years of training and the use of restraint in the highest sense; the Japanese speak of Shibui in relation to customs, houses, rooms, decorations and art, persons, dress, as well as the tone of voice. It marks the character of the proper order of things. In short, all parts must be related to the whole, and the whole must be seemly to the place and circumstance.

I have coined a word; “appropriateness” (I know there is no such word in English, but it seems appropriate) describing a quality that is much lacking in our times and in most people. Shibumi is found in all the traditional and quality arts of Japan – that esoteric quality introduced by Zen Buddhism. It is the art that conceals art. Perhaps a liberal translation of Shibui Konomi would be: an inherent appreciation of the elements, properly arranged and balanced, that center in art and into one’s life and personality.

Walther G. von Krenner

Shidosha Sandokan Aikido

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