[As always for this project, I am using the Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching, which can be found here. The interpretations and opinions expressed are strictly my own; this is what I make of the text. I welcome comments from anyone who might wish to share.]
There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.
It flows through all things,
inside and outside, and returns
to the origin of all things.
The Tao is great.
The universe is great.
Earth is great.
Man is great.
These are the four great powers.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
This verse is sort of a restatement of the fundamental idea of what Tao is. Lines 1-8 allude to its transcendental nature; it existed before there was a universe -- before there was space, or time, or substance. Thus it had no form, it was infinite, it was eternal. But the change from past tense [lines 1-2] to present tense [lines 3-8] indicates that the Tao still is all these things. Because its transcendent reality cannot be aptly described in words, it cannot be named; and thus it is called simply the Tao [lines 7-8]. But there are several words used to describe this transcendent reality: serene, empty, solitary, unchanging, infinite, eternally present. All of these give some insight into what it means.
The first term is "serene," and to me this means the Tao is in perfect balance. From our personal perspectives it may seem quite out of control – we may see conflict and suffering and destruction and poisoning of the earth – but all of this is incorporated within a single overall system that is not spinning out of control but rather continuing to exist in harmony with itself. This is the only possible condition, because the Tao is also "solitary," there is nothing for it to be in conflict with. There is no way to put it out of balance because it is the system as a whole. So if it seems overbalanced in one direction, it just means it is building greater force toward its eventual move in the other direction.
The second term used to describe the Tao here is "empty" -- the same idea as was expressed in verses 4 - 6. The Tao should not to be conceived of as a thing in itself, but rather as the source of things. Everything that exists springs forth from the Tao. If the Tao was a specific "something" then nothing could come into existence that was other than that thing -- there could be no polarity, no opposites. If that were the case, there would be nothing dynamic, no movement, no process. More than a thing, the Tao is a process. It is the ongoing process of existing. And while this process happens through an ongoing interaction between opposing forces (Yin & Yang, etc.) the nature of the process, the way it works, remains the same. Thus the Tao is called "unchanging."
And because everything that exists is a manifestation of the Tao, it can be said to be "infinite" as well as "eternally present."
But the Tao is more than just the physical world. It is not simply a structure or entity that contains the universe within it. Rather, it is a reality that interpenetrates every point in the universe [lines 9-11]. It is that interpenetration that in the context of time, appears as an eternal ongoing flow that emerges from the Tao and returns to it. I think line 10 is significant, in that it indicates that the Tao is not just contained within up – like the western concept of the soul – but is also outside of us, manifest in all of reality. It is panentheism.
Lines 12-20 talk about the Tao giving rise to the Universe, which gives rise to the Earth, which gives rise to Mankind. Mankind at last has the capacity to conceive of and understand the earth, the universe and the Tao. But inasmuch as Mankind came into existence on the earth, we are inherently a part of it. Our behaviors, our patterns, the cycles we manifest are an expression of the cycles and patterns of the earth. Similarly, the earth follows patterns and cycles that are inherent in its being part of the Universe. The Universe's patterns, cycles, and behaviors arise from its being a manifestation of the Tao. Only the Tao is beyond outside influence because it transcends anything that could be "outside."