The Art of Understated Perfection (1 of 2)
July 26 to August 1 Edition
The Art of
I have chosen a path where I found inner peace. Then the story of a young man led me to an even deeper understanding.
I discovered more profound insights about living to my fullest potential, unchained by the need for the approval or admiration of others. I saw a kindred spirit in Nicholai Hel in Shibumi, Trevanian's classic thriller. Above all, I now begin to seek something new in my life: shibumi.
Philosophers and Warriors
When Nicholai was thirteen, he found the father he never had in General Kashikawa Takashi when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded his hometown, Shanghai. The boy's intelligence, self-confidence and skills in Gō defied his youth and stunned the General.
It was even more amazing because the boy wasn't even Japanese or Chinese: his mother was a Russian Countess and his father a mysterious German aristocrat. "That is precisely why I chose Gō," he said. "What Gō is to philosophers and warriors, chess is to accountants and merchants."
Winds of victory were blowing towards the Allied Forces. Kishikawa was to be transferred and he arranged for the boy to be sent to Japan to stay with Otake-san, the legendary seventh dan Gō master.
Otake-san is a man of wisdom, one who "will listen with interest but will not burden you with advice," said Kishikawa. "All of life, for him, is a simplified paradigm of Gō." Otake-san possesses the quality of shibumi, he continued, trying to find the right word. Nicholai asked what it meant.
The General, of noble samurai lineage, said that shibumi is an "ineffable quality" that "has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearance. It is a statement so correct it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it doesn’t not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without prudency. 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."
But "One does not achieve it," Kishikawa explained further. “One...discovers it." It is not about learning, rather, "one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.”
Nicholai knew, at that moment, that he will spend the rest of his life in the pursuit of shibumi. He will achieve "a personality of overwhelming calm" and he will "excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses."
First Conscious Act
Kishikawa took a small sandalwood box under the low tea table. Nicholai bowed his head as he accepted it. "He did not express his gratitude in inadequate words," writes Trevanian. "This was his first conscious act of shibumi.”
Nicholai opened the farewell gift as he crossed the sea. Inside were two Gō ke lacquer bowls containing black Nichi stones from Kishiu and white stones made from Miyazake clam shells. "No one observing the delicate young man standing at the rail of the rusty freighter," writes Trevanian, "would have surmised that he was destined to become the world's most highly paid assassin."
To Be Continued
See also Shibumi: My Favorite Novel