Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of the ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.
Being great, it flows.
It flows far away.
Having gone far it returns.
Therefore 'Tao is great;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
The king is also great'.
These are the four great powers of the universe,
And the king is one of them.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.
 This line - translated as 'It operates everywhere and is free of danger' by Henricks and by Lynn - is missing in the Ma wang tui text.
 Lau has 'It is capable of being the mother...', the Ma wang tui text 'It may be regarded as the mother of Heaven and Earth...' (and not just of the ten thousand things).
 Most other versions have more or less the idea that, being great it goes forth, and that in its going forth - its distance - it is conceived of as returning.
The Wang Pi commentary says: Since it is amorphous, we are unable to know it yet the myriad things are all completed by it... We do not know whose child it is, therefore 'it was born before heaven and earth'.
Chi liao (which generally means 'silent and empty/vague') here means 'without physical form or substance. Nothing exists that can match it. In the end it always transforms back into what it was at the start, never losing its constancy...
Operating everywhere, nothing out of its reach and yet never in any danger, it begets and keeps whole the vast physical totality and may thus be regarded as the mother of the myriad things.
Names are used to distinguish forms, but, amorphous and complete, it has no form, so we cannot make any such determination.
Names are used to distinguish forms, and style names are used to distinguish attributes. To speak of 'Tao' - 'the Way' - is derived from the fact that absolutely nothing fails to follow it and because, of all the terms that might be used to address 'the amorphous and complete', this has the broadest meaning... Seeking a reason for styling it thus, we find that it is connected with the notion of greatness. But once such a connection exists, separation is sure to occur, and once separation occurs, all sense of what it ultimately means is lost. Thus the text says: if forced to give it a name, we call it 'great'.
'Goes forth' means 'operates', so the meaning here is not restricted to the single sense of great as in 'great body'. Since it operates everywhere, there is nowhere it does not reach and this is the meaning of 'going forth'.
'Far-reaching' means 'to reach the ultimate'. Since its operation is all-encompassing, there is nothing that lies beyond its infinite reach and no particular direction of operation which it might favour over any other... Because it does not subordinate itself to that to which it goes as a substance, it 'stands alone'. This is why the text refers to its 'return'.
... The king is the master of men ('man' regarded here as the quintessence of all that is between heaven and earth... Though he may not be in charge of something great, he is still great and considered a cohort of Heaven, Earth and Man.
Although we speak of the 'four greats' and all things have designations or names, as such, these are not what they ultimately are. When speaking of 'Tao', this has a derivation. First there is the derivation and only then do we refer to it as 'Tao'. Although this is the greatest of equivalents for it, it nonetheless falls short of its ultimate greateness for which no equivalent exists. That for which no equivalent exists cannot be named. The Tao, Heaven, Earth and the king are all included in that for which no equivalent exists.
'To model himself on' means 'to follow the example of'. It's by taking his models from Earth that Man avoids acting contrary to Earth and so obtains perfect safety. Its by taking its model from Heaven that Earth avoids acting contrary to Heaven and so realises its capacity for upholding all that exists. It is in taking its model from the Tao that Heaven avoids acting contrary to the Tao and so achieves its capacity for encompassing all that exists. It is by taking its model from the Natural that the Tao avoids acting contrary to the Natural and so realises its own nature. Taking the model of the Natural means that when it exists in a square, it takes squareness as a model, and when it exists in a circle, it takes circularity as its model: it does nothing that is contrary to the Natural. 'The Natural' is a term for which no equivalent exists, an expression for that which has infinite reach and scope. Just as knowledge falls short of being without the capacity for knowing, so physical forms and earthbound souls fall short of embryonic essences and images, and embryonic essences and images fall short of being free from forms and having the twin modes of yin and yang falls short of being beyond them
Thus each takes its model in the one above: The Tao complies with the Natural, which results in Heaven's having someything to rely on; Heaven finds its models in the Tao, thereby giving Earth something to emulate; Earth takes its model in Heaven which results in Man's finding images in the Earth. The way a king becomes master is by treating what he rules as a single entity.
Cheng's commentary contends that the line concerning the greatness of 'the king' should actually refer to 'mankind'. This seems perfectly correct to me, but none of the versions I have (aside from his, of course) has this reading. He continues:
Why does mankind 'follow the ways of the earth'? Because earth's Teh is fecundity. Why does earth 'follow the ways of heaven'? Because yin and yang interact. Why does heaven 'follow the ways of Tao'? Because the Tao melds with it to form a unity. And why does Tao 'follow the ways of Nature'? It does so because it is part of Nature.
I love this chapter because it comes very close to my own vision of reality as being like a continuous fountaining of becoming arising out of nowhere, manifesting as dream-like display, and then dissolving back into the plenum for immediate recycling and rebecoming... The 'fountain of eternal youth', as it were... the dragon-dance of space dancing space in to space...
Pure perception sees what is; conceptualisation judges...
Conceptualisation is 'that'; pure perception 'this'.
[The diagram in this section comes from Eva Wong's excceingly interesting Cultivating Stillness, SHAMBHALA PUBLICATIONS 1992, p. xvi. The descending order on the left describes the arising of the ten thousand things out of wu chi. The ascending order on the right shows the practice of returning to the supreme ultimate and beyond]