Shibumi- The Way of the Business Warrior


Excerpt From The Book RISE By Wes O'Donnell


If you’re one of the ones that doesn’t buy into the Zen, touchy feely crap, then you are not alone.  I didn’t either, at first.  Shibumi is a very abstract idea… That’s why it’s important that I should state right now that this section is not for everybody.  Can you be successful without it?  Absolutely.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t share all of the tools that I believe have contributed to my success and let you pick and choose which ones you want to use.

In 1999, I attended a friend’s retirement ceremony while in the Army at Fort Campbell that was taking place in the NCO Club.  After the ceremony was complete and the formal portion over, the attendees began to gather in groups and continue the long military tradition of “shooting the shit”.  Then, quite abruptly, our brigade commander Colonel Benjamin Mixon entered the room.  He was an imposing figure physically with his back straight as a telephone pole, his closely cropped hair, and his jaw of granite; but it was his gaze that was most striking.  His very presence commanded the attention of everyone in the room when he entered.  This was a person that projected personal power everywhere that he went.  In addition, he was warm, friendly and made sure that everyone around him felt comfortable and at ease.  He embodied the very definition of composure and confident dignity.  Colonel Mixon was Shibumi made mortal.

When I was a kid in Texas, I had a very strong desire to learn martial arts.  But I didn’t want the commercialized, hyped up karate that has become so ubiquitous in America with the loud uniforms, multicolor belts and flashy tournaments.  I wanted something more traditional; more ancient.  Back then, there was something appealing about the Japanese approach to martial arts that spoke to my simple, understated and even shy teenage personality.  I chose Kendo, the Japanese equivalent of European fencing and it was here that my Japanese instructor told me an old story that I am only now beginning to appreciate and illustrates the concept of Shibumi in action.

To fully understand the following story, a quick familiarization with the class structure of feudal Japan is necessary.  Feudal Japanese society was dominated by the samurai warrior class.  Although they made up only about 10% of the population, the samurai wielded enormous power.  90% of the population was made up of merchants, artisans and fishermen; all lower classes than the warrior class.  When a samurai passed, members of the lower classes were required to bow and show respect. If a farmer or artisan refused to bow or insulted the samurai (real or perceived), the samurai was legally entitled to chop off the recalcitrant person's head.

“The Tea Master” as told to the author by Sensei Yoshikuni


A lone samurai was passing through a small village in Ashu Province of feudal Japan and while making his way through the crowded village square, he turned and banged his sword scabbard, which was hanging at his side, against a tea master’s leg. 

The samurai gazed at the tea master and yelled “You banged my sword.  This is a grave insult and I shall kill you for it.” 

The tea master understood instantly that the samurai sincerely meant to kill him and was paralyzed with fear.

“I meant you no insult, noble sir.  Please excuse my clumsiness and let me live.  As you can see, I am no warrior and have no sword.”

The samurai could sense the tea master’s fear and it excited him. 

“Then go buy a sword and meet me in the street tomorrow at midday, and I shall let you die like a man.  If you don’t show up, I shall hunt you down like an animal and take off your head.” 

He turned his back on the tea master and walked away.

The tea master was nearly incapacitated with fear.  I’m a dead man, he thought.  Then he remembered that another samurai, a famous master swordsman, was also in town. 

Thinking that the master swordsman would be able to help, the tea master sought him out and explained his story.  He stated that he had money to pay for his protection services and would like to hire him.

“I don’t hire to commoners.” The swordsman replied coldly. 

“Use your money to buy a sword and fight your own battles.” 

“Then will you teach me swordsmanship?  I can pay you very well”

“I don’t teach martial arts to commoners either.  Besides, what do you think you can learn in a day?” the swordsman asked.

“What do I have to lose?”

The swordsman agreed.  Even though the tea master was a commoner, he understood that he was an innocent victim in need of help.  He relented, and agreed to teach the tea master what little swordsmanship he could in a day.  The tea master went and bought a sword and they began practicing that afternoon.  It turned out that the tea master had absolutely no talent for handling a sword. 

After several hours of watching the tea master make hundreds of awkward practice cuts, the swordsman shook his head and spoke with calm conviction.

“Tomorrow, you are going to die.”

The tea master was crushed.  He was physically and emotionally drained.  He dropped his sword, and, shoulders slumped, stood there staring at the ground. 

The swordsman examined him for a moment and then said

“Let’s have tea.”

The tea master looked up confused but then began unpacking his tea set.  The two men settled in a clearing nearby and the tea master began his familiar routine.  The swordsman was amazed as the man gracefully poured water into a bowl containing the bitter, green powder.  As he whisked the mixture into a frothy brew, the swordsman saw a startling transformation occur before his eyes.  Absent was the tired, broken man who was before him mere moments ago.  Now the tea master’s back was straight, his shoulders square and his head erect.  Sitting in front of the swordsman now was an austere, dignified “master” of an ancient ritual.  His face was a picture of calmness and when he looked into his eyes, the swordsman recognized immediately that the man was in shibumi. 

“Stop!” the swordsman said firmly.  “Do you want to kill your enemy tomorrow?”

“But you said that I was going to die.”

“Yes, you are.  But do you want to die like a warrior?  Do you want to kill your enemy?”

“Yes.” The tea master said calmly.

“Then do exactly what you are doing at this moment.”

“But I am doing nothing right now.”

“Precisely!  Your mind is empty.  You neither desire life nor fear death.  Tomorrow when you meet your enemy, I want you to empty your mind as you are now.  Raise your sword above your head and when he attacks, do nothing but cut and die.”

The tea master, being a “master”, understood. 

The next day, the insulted samurai was shocked to find the tea master standing in the street, waiting for him; he had expected him to hide.  As he approached, he snickered to himself as he noticed that the peasant had a sword raised in the air. 

But as he came closer, he began to feel uneasy.  He expected to see the man shaking in fear, but the tea master’s sword was still and his face was grimly calm.  The samurai stopped a few paces away and looked into the tea master’s eyes.  He saw nothing…

Only death.

The samurai’s mouth went dry and after a moment he said “I cannot defeat you.”  He turned and walked away.


This story perfectly illustrates the true power of Shibumi.  It has nothing to do with physical strength or technical proficiency.  It is a highly sought after commodity that is separate from political, economic or military power.  It is simply this: freeing yourself from the fear of failure, no matter the consequences… even if the consequence is death.  It is a mental focus so strong, that your mind is empty. 

The most complete definition of Shibumi that I have yet encountered came from a book published in 1979 called Shibumi written by Trevanian.  Here is an excerpt:

“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.”

So why include this discussion here in the first place?  What does Shibumi have to do with being an entrepreneur?  

The benefits to you and your interactions with other business-people will be immediately apparent with the power that you project, similar to Colonel Mixon and our tea master discussed earlier.  Depending on your branch of service, your military experience has likely already given you several key habits, like attention to detail, restraint and the after-action-report, that represents certain key aspects of Shibumi. In essence, thanks to your military bearing, you’re already a Shibumi practitioner. But from a nuts & bolts business perspective, it does four things according to Shibumi expert, Matthew E. May at

It’s a way to strip away all of the non-essential elements of your start-up business so that you can focus on the most important aspects.  When things start to get overwhelming, and they will, practicing the ideas of Shibumi will allow you the laser focus of our tea master from earlier. 

It provides a new way of looking at things; a fresh perspective, similar to a way an artist looks at their work from many different angles and perspectives to arrive at the “truth”. 

It’s a habit of endless refinement in the Zen tradition of “reflection”, or performing an action and reviewing the outcome of that action to find a more efficient way of executing the next time.  The military adopted the after action report or review that we discussed earlier, directly from this Zen concept, whether or not they’ll admit it.

And finally, it’s the acceptance that true creativity, the kind that creates disruptive technologies like the original iPhone, comes from active calm, tranquility, solitude, and quietude.  Silent pauses in music, dance and theater, blank spaces in paintings, the use of negative space in graphic design all illustrate the power of calm in creation.

Okay… I’m sold.  I want to pursue this Shibumi.  But if it’s so abstract, how do I know if I’m doing it or not?

I recommend two important first steps: 

First, educate yourself on the concept of Shibumi by reading two very important books on the subject.  The first is “Shibumi” by an author named Trevanian and the second is a book titled “The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change” by Matthew May, both can be found on Amazon.  Trevanian’s book is a work of fiction, but contains, to date, the single closest definition of true Shibumi.  Matthew May’s book is much more business focused and is widely used by several Fortune 500 companies to stay competitive in today’s business landscape.

Second, it’s obsessive attention to detail that some may confuse with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Having been in the military, you’re already familiar to this concept.  Tiny measurements to ensure the correct placement of a ribbon on a dress uniform or the incremental tweaking of a weapon as you zero it, are merely two examples.   Taking your attention to detail to another level sets off a chain reaction:  You will begin to become more aware and perceptive.  Your memory will improve.  You start to recognize quickly what’s a time waster and what’s important regarding your business and you’ll begin to see things outside and above the lanes that everyone else is caught in, seeing the world from above.

I cannot stress enough the advantage that this will give you.  When you actively pursue the traits that Shibumi provides, the world looks very different to you.  And that understanding empowers you.  You will begin to reach your short-term goals faster.  Your long-term goals will become grander and loftier.  Nobody will question your conviction or resolve to make a better life for yourself and achieve true freedom; the kind of freedom that only financial independence brings.