The great masters of antiquity who were adept in the Dao,
Were subtle, clever, mysterious, and perceptive;
Their thoughts were too profound to be understood.
Because they could not be understood,
The best I can do is describe their appearance:
Cautious as if crossing a river in winter,
Alert as if aware of danger from all sides;
Dignified like a guest;
Yielding like a melting block of ice;
Simple like an uncarved block of wood;
Open-minded like a valley;
Opaque like muddy water.
Who can remain calm until the mud settles?
Who can remain tranquil until the right time to act arrives?
Those who embrace the Dao never seek fulfillment;
Precisely because they never seek fulfillment,
They can always renew themselves.
What are the qualities that you will develop by following the way? Although he claims that he can only “attempt” to describe these qualities, Laozi paints a vivid portrait of the “great masters of antiquity” who had absorbed its teachings to provide you with the right example to follow.
The highly-evocative metaphors he employs make it easy to picture how people possessing these qualities look like and behave. They are cautious and alert, dignified and practical, honest and simple, open-minded and inscrutable, and patient and unruffled.
As a result, they remain humble and balanced. Like the way itself, they are like an empty vessel that never fills up*.
*See Chapter 4 :
“The way is an empty vessel; But as much as it is drawn from, it never fills up.”