There is something confusedly formed,
born before heaven and earth.
silent, empty, standing alone and unchanging.
Circle around it and there is no danger.
You can consider it the mother of Heaven and Earth
I don’t know its name. We can well call it Tao,
because we could well call it the eldest.
The eldest are said to have passed away.
Those passed away are said to be distant.
Those distant ones are said to return.
Within this domain there are four “Greats”
and the human realm is the first of these
The human follows the earthly,
the earthly follows the heavenly,
the heavenly follows the Tao
the Tao follows what is naturally so.
Some take this passage as indicating a creation myth and it has some echoes of one, but it is not really establishing a cosmology. Rather, it builds upon the traditional Chinese sense of things to explain the primacy of the Tao.
In the Chinese idea, the interaction between Heaven, Earth and Man is of great importance and in this process the ancestors who have passed away, but return to assist the living, play an important role. When times were difficult, people would consult the ancestors, by prayer and often by divination. In a culture in which the past was generally judged to have been better and wiser than the present, the ancestors were naturally believed to know more and better than the living.
This passage establishes the Tao as the first ancestor, being the ancestor not only of humankind but, more importantly, of Heaven and Earth. The Tao is the primal Mother and, therefore, the most trustworthy source of wisdom. This wisdom is what is naturally so.
The Tao is confusedly formed, which is to say that it cannot be explained by neat rational ideas or concepts. It cannot be reduced to anything else. It is the fertile matrix from which all else arises. Therefore it is the Mother.
It is silent, empty, alone and unchanging. Here, perhaps, we see the origins of the Chinese interpretation of the Buddhist notion of shunyata, emptiness. The Tao is silent and empty in that it is not simply one sound among others, nor one form among others, for it permeates all sounds and all forms. It is alone and unchanging because it does not depend upon anything else. In this sense it is similar to the Buddhist idea of nirvana. It alone is not impermanent. Everything depends upon it. It encompasses the ceaseless churning of conditioned things, but it itself is unconditioned.
Because it is so, it is the most reliable guide. If you circle around it you meet with no danger. To live in close relation to it is the safest that one can be.
Because it is so fundamental, we cannot know it directly or completely. We cannot “know its true name”, but we can think of it by analogy and so refer to it as the Mother, or as the Tao. In saying it is the Tao, we are saying that it is the original guiding principle or force. As it is the original, it is the eldest, and, therefore, is as if a first ancestor; and the ancestors, as any good Chinese person knows, although they have passed on and gone far away, return to assist the living when necessary.
Humans follow the way of the Earth, but Earth follows the way of Heaven and Heaven follows the Tao. The Tao is what is naturally so. The way of the Tao is, therefore, the way of simple honesty, living in accord with the seasons and circumstances with no pretense nor undue sophistication.
So, this passage is saying that ordinary people inevitably follow the way of Earth - the practical, materialist life; but that ultimately, Earth actually relies upon Heaven. The way of Heaven is the path of goodness and virtue. However, Heaven ultimately actually relies upon the Tao. The Tao is the way of complete naturalness. Therefore, the sage transcends Heaven and Earth by relying upon the Tao directly.
The clever person can be a worldly success. Better, however, is the person who lives a good and saintly life. Best of all is the sage who lives naturally. The sage is in accord with the origin of things and walks in the most ancient footsteps.