Gradual and Sudden
by © Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu)
When it comes to cultivating qi, there is no question that Laozi suggests we take a gradual approach. “A tree too large to embrace starts as a tiny shoot; a 9-story terrace starts as a mound of earth; the journey of 1,000 li happens under the feet” (Ch. 64).
Not only does Laozi advise us not to dismiss the collective results of small, seemingly insignificant actions, but he repeatedly cautions against straining to achieve those results. “Take long strides and you will not progress; assert yourself and you will not advance” (Ch. 24).
So when we undertake a qi-cultivation practice, be it Qigong, Taijiquan, calligraphy, etc., we are advised not to focus on reaching the end goal, but rather to take care of our current situation. Is my breath smooth, easy, and quiet? Is my spine relaxed and upright? Is the brush comfortable in my hand? In this way, we gradually establish the fundamentals of good practice. As our foundation becomes stable, our practice grows naturally.
But in the midst of our gradual progress we should realize that our cultivation is taking place within a context of boundless open space. When we practice according to Laozi’s principles, at some point we drop the aspiration for personal transformation and self-improvement. When this happens, there is a sudden shift in which we realize the goal of cultivation is not at the end at all. It is already present from the very beginning.
This is the realization of Hui Neng, the 5th Patriarch of Zen, who said there is no need to polish yourself to perfection because there is no contamination in the first place. This is called the sudden path because it involves no refinement.
In Buddhism they call this the doctrine of original enlightenment (本觉). Because from the very beginning, the goal is already reached, we can practice – without self-based aspirations, gradually, with no end in sight.
Before reaching the mountain summit
I already perceive the cloudless sky
Forgetting my accomplishments
Nameless and complete
Casting off thoughts of gradual and sudden
I empty myself completely
Solid ground beneath my feet
White clouds passing overhead
Self-improvement is wonderful, wonderful
But it is changing, changing
Striving upward and upward
Will we ever reach perfection?
But setting aside “I” for even one moment
The nameless appears nameless and complete
Quanzhen is there from the very beginning
Special training gives birth to special skills
The highest fly away in a spirit body
The sage remains unmoved
Clouds coming and going in the sky of my true nature
When the fruit is ripe
Let others debate about whether it ripened gradually or suddenly
As for me
I only taste the sweetness
Water flowing downstream
Just following the open channel
Left, right, effortless response
Rocks polish themselves
The chapters cited herein are my own translations of the Dao De Jing (Wang Bi).
Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu) is an ordained Daoist priest and founder of Old Oak School of Dao. He practices and teaches Taijiquan and Daoist cultivation in Sonoma County, California. His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website, www.oldoakdao.org.