There is something mysterious and all-encompassing,
That came into being before heaven and earth.
Silent and formless,
Independent and unchanging,
All-pervading and inexhaustible,
It may be considered the mother of all things under heaven.
I do not know its name;
I call it the way.
If forced to give it a specific name,
I would call it the great.
Great means it is boundless.
Boundless means it reaches everywhere.
Reaching everywhere means it returns to itself.
Therefore, the way is supreme;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
Humanity is great.
There are four great powers in the universe;
Humanity is one of them.
Humanity models itself on earth.
Earth models itself on heaven.
Heaven models itself on the way.
The way follows its own nature.
In Chapter 25 of the Daodejing Laozi provides a useful summary of the key characteristics of the way, telling us that it’s “silent and formless,” “independent and unchanging,” and “all-pervading and inexhaustible.” He also reminds of its feminine nature, too, saying that it is the “mother of all things under heaven.”
While cheerfully admitting that he doesn’t know the real name of the way, Laozi remarks that if pressed to give it one he would call it (rather unimaginatively) “the great”. This is because it reaches everywhere yet always returns to its source in a constant cycle of reversion.
Laozi goes on to emphasize the supreme position of the way in the cosmic order. It is the guiding universal principle that heaven, earth, and humanity model their behavior on. It is a law unto itself. It answers to no one.
Laozi was truly radical in developing the theory that the origin of the universe wasn’t a god or some form of supernatural being, but even he couldn’t find the right name for it — preferring instead to employ vague metaphors such as the way, the great, and the mother of all things under heaven to describe it.
Perhaps this was deliberate, because he wanted people to think deeply about how the universe came about and where they fit into it. Or perhaps he simply had no idea himself and writing the Daodejing was exploring the question further in the hope of finding an answer.
Laozi is on much firmer ground when describing the timeless and pervasive qualities of the way. He also does a masterful job of positioning it above the other three “great things”, humanity, earth, and heaven.
Why should the way need a definitive name, after all, if it’s already in charge and sets the natural laws itself?
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!