Even after completing my translation the Daodejing, I am still struggling to paint a clear picture in my mind of what exactly the Way is. In literal terms it’s a path, but as Laozi candidly admits in Chapter 25 he only gave it this name because he didn’t know what its real one is:
I do not know its name, so I call it the Way.
The best definition I have found of the Way is from the scholar Robert Henricks, who describes it as Laozi’s take on the “ultimate reality” that existed before Heaven and Earth and gave birth to all things.
Henricks goes on to liken the Way to a great womb: “it is empty and devoid in itself of differentiation, one in essence; yet somehow it contains all things in seedlike or embryo form, and all things ‘emerge’ from the Tao as babies emerge from their mothers.”
As Henricks argues, however, the Way does much more than simply give birth to all things: “Having done so, it continues in some way to be present in each individual thing as an energy or power, a power that that is not static but constantly on the move, inwardly pushing each thing to develop and grow in a certain way, in a way that is in accord with its true nature.”
The Way is thus not only the source of all things but also the invisible and dynamic force that guides them through their life cycle. By extension, therefore, it is the central principle that governs how all things are created and behave and the process by which they grow, mature, and ultimately die.
In other words, given the complexity of the ideas he was trying to convey in the Daodejing, Laozi did a pretty good job of boiling them down to one simple and memorable word. Perhaps, painting a clear picture of the Way in my mind isn’t quite such a struggle after all.