Naming the nameless

Laozi was truly revolutionary 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 to call it by – 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 for the others to follow?

「有物混成,先天地生。寂兮寥兮,獨立而不改,周行而不殆,可以為天下母。吾不知其名,字之曰道,強為之名曰大。大曰逝,逝曰遠,遠曰反。故道大、天大、地大、人亦大。域中有四大,而王居其一焉!人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然」。
There is something mysterious and all-encompassing,
That existed 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 things in the universe;
Humanity is one of them.
Humanity models itself on earth.
Earth models itself on heaven.
Heaven models itself on the way.
And the way follows its own nature.

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