1. There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of all things.
2. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Dao (the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I call it The Great.
3. Great, it passes on (in constant flow). Passing on, it becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns. Therefore the Dao is great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the (sage) king is also great. In the universe there are four that are great, and the (sage) king is one of them.
4. Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is.
象玄, 'Representations of the Mystery.' In this chapter Lao approaches very near to give an answer to the question as to what the Dao is, and yet leaves the reader disappointed. He commences by calling it 'a thing (物);' but that term does not necessitate our regarding it as 'material.' We have seen in the preceding chapter that it is used to signify 'spirits and men.' Nor does his going on to speak of it as 'chaotic (混成)' necessarily lead us to conceive it as made up of the 'material elements of things;' we have the same term applied in ch. 14 to three immaterial constituents said to be blended in the idea of it.
'He does not know its name,' and he designates it by the term denoting a course or way (Dao, 道), and indicating the phenomenal attribute, the method in which all phenomena come before our observation, in their development or evolution. And to distinguish it from all other methods of evolution, he would call it 'the Great Method,' and so he employs that combination as its name in ch. 18 and elsewhere; but it cannot be said that this name has fully maintained itself in the writings of his followers. But understood thus, he here says, as in ch. 1, that it is 'the Mother of all things.' And yet, when he says that 'it was before Heaven and Earth were produced,' he comes very near his affirmations in chapters 1 and 4, that 'the nameless Dao was the beginning (or originating cause) of Heaven and Earth,' and 'might seem to have been before God.' Was he groping after God if haply he might find Him? I think he was, and he gets so far as to conceive of Him as 'the Uncaused Cause,' but comes short of the idea of His personality. The other subordinate causes which he mentions all get their force or power from the Dao, but after all the Dao is simply spontaneity, evolving from itself, and not acting from a personal will, consciously in the direction of its own wisdom and love. 'Who can by searching find out God? Who can find out the Almighty to perfection?'
The predicate of the Dao in the chapter, most perplexing to myself, is 'It returns,' in par. 3. 'It flows away, far away, and comes back;'—are not the three statements together equal to 'It is everywhere?'
From Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation1
1. There is an undiscriminated thing formed before the heaven and the earth (Yin and Yang). Extremely quiet, existing alone and without change, repeating cyclically without end, the mother of heaven and earth.
2. I do not know its name and so call it Dao.
4. Man copies the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven models itself after the Dao, the Dao follows nature.