Echoes of Emptiness (虚之響)-Gradual and Sudden

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


Taiji emerging from wuji


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


Pacific tide bagua


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).


Gu Shen Yu

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,

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About Gu Shen Yu

Jacob Newell (Gu Shen Yu Daoshi) teaches Ruyu-style Taijiquan in Sonoma County, California through Old Oak Taiji School. His instruction emphasizes Laozi's approach to meditation and qi-cultivation: wuwei-ziran. Jacob has been practicing Taijiquan and related arts since the early 1990's and is an ordained Daoist priest. His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website,
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