The Dao of dollars: Money wisdom from China's ancient faith


Paul Conley

Paul Conley

Blog author Paul Conley

Paul Conley is a writer, a Dad and a communications consultant living in New York City. You can learn more about him at

Published August 14, 2017|4 min read

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Daoism, a religious tradition with roots in China dating back more than 2,000 years, is undoubtedly the major world religion least understood by Westerners. There are dozens of reasons for that, but the primary one is that the syncretic nature of Chinese religious practices tends to blur the lines between Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, etc. When you meet a Westerner who claims to be a Daoist, you’re likely to find they’re really more of a confused Buddhist or a spiritually inclined Confucianist.

Another problem is Westerners tend to embrace the philosophical aspects of Daoism (primarily by reading the ancient text called the “Tao Te Ching” or popular works like “The Tao of Pooh”) while rejecting the religious aspects that mark the lives of millions of folks in Asia.

Even the way we spell things causes confusion. Older folks tend to prefer the “t” spellings seen in the Wade-Giles system (as in “the Tao”). Younger folks are more likely to use the “d” spellings of the Hanyu Pinyin system (“the Dao”).

But here’s the thing: Despite the difficulties and confusion associated with trying to understand Daoism, it’s worth the effort. The tradition is filled with teachings and insights into every aspect of human existence — even personal finance.

So let’s look at three pieces of the Daoist (or Taoist, I’m not a linguist. Nor are you. So let’s not get hung up on spelling) tradition and what they have to say about money. FYI, you can find more thoughts on the Dao at my newly launched blog

##Greed is not good.

Taoism takes its name from the "Tao Te Ching", an ancient text of sometimes cryptic teachings broken into short, easily memorized passages. The legend is the author was a man called Lao Tzu (or Lao Tse or Laozi.) But there’s some debate among scholars about how many people had a hand in the text, and whether or not Lao Tzu was a real person.

Another crucial text in Taoism is the "Chuang Tzu", an often funny collection of allegorical tales and poetry. (The oft-repeated tale of the man who wakes up confused after dreaming he was a butterfly comes from the Chuang Tzu.)

Both texts contain cautionary teachings related to the pursuit of wealth.

Consider these:

There is no greater misfortune than greed. —Tao Te Ching, Chapter 46

Do not race after riches, Do not risk your life for success, or you will let slip the Heaven within you. —Chuang Tzu, Chapter 29

##Frugality is central to enlightenment.

Central to understanding Taoism are the basic virtues known as the Three Treasures — compassion, frugality and humility, which first appear in chapter 67 of the "Tao Te Ching".

It is the second of the treasures, called jian in Chinese, that is most closely associated with money issues. It can be translated as moderation, economy, simplicity, or frugality. And it is often explained through the Taoist metaphor of Pu, or uncarved wood.

At the risk of completely misinterpreting what Pu implies, let’s say that Taoism teaches the way to find truth is to first cast off unnecessary encumbrances like selfish desires for profit.

The earliest forms of Taoism — just like the earliest forms of Buddhism and Christianity, or the modern secular practice of minimalism — advocate for a simple life that provides room for contemplation and celebrates simple pleasures.

##You can’t take it with you.

Taoism, like all the world’s major religions, has changed over time. And in the centuries after the early Daoist texts were published, things changed dramatically. The worship of deities, the emergence of a priesthood, and the practice of religious ritual all became central to Taoism in Asia.

For Westerners, who tend to see Daoism as an ancient philosophy rather than a modern-day religion, the elaborate rituals of modern Taoism can be bewildering.

But ritual is nothing more than an attempt to say something about that which cannot be understood in words. And Taoist ritual is trying to say something particular about money.

On holidays, at funerals, and in simple everyday rituals aimed at venerating gods and ancestors, Taoists (and a number of other Asian religious groups) burn symbols of wealth.

Joss paper, usually made from bamboo, comes in innumerable forms — duplicates of currency bills, credit cards, luxury cars, etc.

On the surface, the burning of joss paper is said to be a way to provide for the needs of those in the afterlife. It can also be interpreted as a way to emphasize that life, and wealth, is temporary ... a way of reminding people that “you can’t take it with you”.

Burning joss paper, in other words, is another way of expressing the religious and spiritual contradictions represented by money.

Money is what we need. Yet money points away from truth.

It is, as the saying goes, a “necessary evil” — both a requirement and a hinderance in this life.

And that is something that all of us — East and West, religious and philosophical — should understand.

Trying to think differently about how you finance? You can find more deep money thoughts here.

Image: patpitchaya