For Laozi, the legendary author of the enigmatic aphorisms in this brief work, the Dao is the name for ultimate reality, yet the eternal Dao defies all names and descriptions. Images can only suggest its vast and mysterious creative potential. It is like water, giving and sustaining life, always moving, yet never striving.
While the essence of the Dao remains elusive and beyond our comprehension, we may observe the Dao as it reveals itself in the natural development of things. By stripping away our selfish desires and fears and accepting the world as it is, we can imitate the Dao and discover in ourselves De, or natural virtue and moral strength.
The person at one with the Dao gives unselfishly and effortlessly to others without trying to control their actions. Modest, yielding, tolerant, impartial, and patient, the sage lives a simple and tranquil life and realizes the principle of wu-wei, working without effort, accomplishing without concern for reward or results.
Written during the age of political anarchy and social decadence known as “The Period of Warring States” (5th-3rd centuries b.c.e.), the Dao De Jing addresses problems of wise government as much as right personal conduct. Humility is the mark of a wise leader, who rules by virtuous example rather than by interference with other countries or in the lives of the people. With a minimum of laws and regulations and without fear of punishment and harsh taxes, people will order themselves according to their own nature and innate virtue. Ruled with a light hand, they will live long lives of few needs and in peace with their neighbors.