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#3178 - Monday, May 26, 2008 - Editor: Gloria Lee
Nonduality Highlights

Shibui (???) (adjective), or shibumi (???) (noun), is a Japanese word which refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as iki and wabi-sabi, shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion.

Originating in the Muromachi period (1333-1568) as shibushi, the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui maintains that literal meaning still, and remains the antonym of amai (???), meaning 'sweet'.

However, by the beginnings of the Edo period (1603-1867), the term had gradually begun to be used to refer to a pleasing aesthetic. The people of Edo expressed their tastes in using this term to refer to anything from song to fashion to craftsmanship that was beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Essentially, the aesthetic ideal of shibumi seeks out events, performances, people or objects that are beautiful in a direct and simple way, without being flashy.  



In the dictionary: (shi-boo'-me) - A term from the Edo period in Japan, used to describe quiet or somber things. Anything that is Shibumi is quiet in refinement, noble and fulfilling in a manner that is not shaped exclusively by analytical thought.

In Japanese culture: a simplicity of spirit; an attitude of refinement without pretension, honesty without apology, beauty without artifice. Western mystics try to attain or achieve a state of inner peace, but shibumi must be found, not won.  

  Shibui is a broad term that can mean irregularity of form, openness to nature, roughness of texture, and the naturalness of daily life. Also known as Shibusa, it refers as well to the Japanese "Seven aspects of being," which are simplicity, implicitness, modesty, silence, naturalness, roughness and normalcy. It's seen in raku pottery, architecture, folk crafts, haiku, gardens and painting. Shibui is worth thinking about no matter where you are or what your art.

Fact is, perfection is boring. Shibui allows viewer participation in the artist's art. It's particularly valuable in an age of highly finished and sophisticated machine-manufactured products. Shibui comes naturally, shows the hand of the maker, and triumphs gesture and the vagaries of process. While there are hundreds of ways to bring shibui into your life, if you think you might include the idea in your painting, here are seven:
Use the whole brush--right down to the ferrule.
Have more than one colour on the brush at one time.
Hold the brush well up on the handle.
Work freshly and let intuition be your guide.
Feel the energy and direction of your subject.
Be not uptight, but relaxed.
Quit when you've connected and while the going is good.
In a way, the making of raku pottery is a good metaphor. In the fiery arms of the kiln god, work takes on a form of its own. Think of yourself as a kiln rather than a labouring artisan. Under the smoking straw of passion, work shapes itself and becomes its own statement. Shibui is all about trust--trust in your materials, trust in your instincts, trust in yourself, trust in the kiln. Shibui transforms frantic work into calm joy and subdues the creator with relative contentment. As well, viewers get a strong feeling they are looking at art.
In shibui, sheer ease is a virtue. Hours fly by as the creator becomes lost in process and the gentle curiosity of outcome. You never know what you're going to pull out of that kiln.


As indicated in the first chapter, spontaneity of aesthetic expression should not be equated with exuberance since both restrained and exuberant art objects can exhibit spontaneity. It is easy to see evidence of spontaneity in art objects and performances that exhibit exuberance in terms of color, form, and movement. But it is not as easy to view restrained objects and performances as exhibiting spontaneity. The concept of shibusa allows the connection between restraint and spontaneity to be made. In fact, the concept revolves around the skilful blending of restraint and spontaneity. This chapter describes the process by which the authors came to understand this complex concept that is so essential for grasping the internal dynamics of Japanese aesthetics.

When we first began to investigate shibusa, many years ago, the meaning of the concept was not entirely clear. It seemed to describe a level of beauty that is traditional, uniquely Japanese, and difficult to attain. Shibusa also appeared to carry connotations of austerity and sophisticated refinement. When we tried to go beyond this general understanding, however, we encountered difficulties, some of which remained unsolved until many years later.

The first difficulty we encountered was that no one could translate the term into English. Even the dictionaries were of little help. The reason for this is that the concept of shibusa includes a range of related meanings that cannot be embodied in any other term, English or Japanese; the concept is unique. When attempts at translation were made, we received contradictory impressions: one person might say that shibusa means refined and subdued, while another might translate the term as rough or astringent. Eventually, however, after enough examples of shibusa had been gathered, we began to formulate an intuitive grasp of this standard of taste, even though we could not precisely define it.

We discovered from Japanese sources that although the Zen arts may have had their origins in China, they were radically transformed by Japanese culture. Furthermore, the tea ceremony was developed in Japan and teahouse architecture is based primarily upon indigenous influences such as the Japanese farmhouse. It could be argued that Zen itself reached aesthetic maturity only after finding a suitable environment in Japan. In other words, Zen culture is not as foreign as it seems; it cannot be understood apart from Japanese developments that preceded it. Although the term shibusa does not seem to have been coined until the Muromachi Period and probably did not come into popular usage until the early Edo Period, the values that the term embodies have been consciously present in Japan since protohistoric times.

The Concept of Shibusa

Shibusa refers to the highest type of beauty. The term is used not only by scholars but by many older people. The foreigner visiting Japan may hear the word shibusa frequently enough to be prompted to ask its meaning. The average Japanese person, however, has no idea of how to translate the term into English, because of its complexity.

That the average Japanese cannot translate this concept is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that when one turns to books on Japanese aesthetics the word is seldom mentioned. When it is used, it is buried in honorifics and lofty phrases, leaving the novice with the certainty that here indeed is an important concept but with very little understanding of its meaning. Stranger still is the fact that most Japanese dictionaries and encyclopedias, until a few years ago, make no mention of the term at all.  [...]

Attributes of Shibusa

In an interview for the magazine House Beautiful in 1960, Yanagi Soetsu, late director of the Museum of Folk Crafts in Tokyo, defines shibusa in terms of seven attributes discussed below. We have taken the liberty of expanding upon Yanagi’s explanations of these attributes, as well as to provide different examples.   Note: These seven attributes are both described and illustrated with images. This website provides an excellent introduction to understanding other concepts that make up the Japanese aesthetic appreciation. Yugen, Sabi, Wabi  

The concept of shibusa emphasizes naturalness and simplicity, as well as an elegant rusticity imparted by texture. The overall effect, however, is refined. The concept of shibusa is illustrated in this mud wall at Katsura Rikyu in Kyoto, and in the beautiful orange colors of ancient clay tiles that contrast with the weathered grays of the siding in this dwelling in Okinawa.


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