Question: Derek, what is the real meaning of dao fa zi ran? The translation I have says "the Tao follows itself." Is this correct?
Answer: This is an important phrase that comes from chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching. Let's take a closer look at its four characters.
Dao is the new romanization for the Tao. Fa has multiple definitions, but in this context it means to follow or to model after. Put these two together and we can see that the first half of your translation is correct.
Zi ran means nature or natural. Therefore, dao fa zi ran means "the Tao follows nature." We can express this in different ways and still remain faithful to the original: the Tao follows the laws of nature; the Tao follows that which is natural; the method of the Tao is natural, etc.
Some choose to analyze zi ran as two separate characters. Zi means self and ran means correct, or "just so." This leads them to the explanation that naturalness in the Tao means "of itself so." It also leads to the translation that the Tao follows itself.
Many translators accept this, but is it what the original really says? It turns out that analyzing the characters separately may not be necessary at all. In addition to chapter 25, the Tao Te Ching also uses zi ran in chapters 17, 23, 51, and 64. In each usage, the context is always nature or natural, and never "of itself so." There is no particular reason why chapter 25 should be an exception to the rule.
Simplicity is treasured in the Tao. "The Tao follows nature" is simpler because it requires only the basic definition of zi ran. It is also more meaningful. The phrase tells us that the functioning of the Tao must always be consistent with natural laws and universal principles. Miracles in the Tao are not impossibilities resulting from supernatural intervention. Instead, they are achievements within reach of human beings who understand how to work with nature rather than against it.
The last four lines of chapter 25 are as follows:
Humans follow the laws of Earth
Earth follows the laws of Heaven
Heaven follows the laws of Tao
Tao follows the laws of nature
Once we understand Lao Tzu's message, it should become obvious why "the Tao follows iteself" is only a shadow of the real teaching. When we refrain from making things too complicated, we see a clearer image of the Tao - one that also happens to be more practical and applicable to everyday living!