truth_1My compassionate and skillful teacher, through the example of a hundred-rupee note, made it clear to my respectful yet confused mind that the mode of being or existence of all phenomena within samsara and nirvana is similar to that of such a clearly visible illusion.

– Geshe Rabten

Insights are leaps; they leave no tracks on the ground. The epigraph refers to such a realization. Simply by listening to his teacher explain, with the example of a hundred-rupee note, that a piece of paper could become whatever it was imputed to be, Geshe Rabten saw how all phenomena present themselves to us in the same way.

For those of us engaged in making a living, under pressure to make ends meet, seeing that money is like an illusion may not be as simple as it was for Geshe Rabten. Quite the contrary: calling into question the objective and separate existence of money is bound to evoke a resistance akin to that provoked when something questions the reality of our separate selves. It is precisely because of this resistance that the illusions surrounding money warrant exploration. Looking into the story of money, into its birth and its death, may shed fresh light on the story of our own birth and death.



To understand the story of money is to understand how it gets endowed with value. Usually that value is simply transferred from one form of money to another—as when I get cash with the help of an automatic teller machine. A sum disappears from my bank account, and an equivalent sum appears in the form of bills. When banks run out of bills, they replenish their stock in a similar way by debiting their accounts with the Federal Reserve (Fed). These are instances not of birth but of rebirth, and do little to illuminate the question of where money’s worth ultimately originates.

How do we catch money in the act of being born from scratch? When I recently borrowed twelve thousand dollars from my bank, the balance of my checking account increased accordingly. When bank loans expand, money expands, too. Banks are allowed to lend up to roughly ten times the amount of the funds they keep in reserve. The Fed controls this. It can make the reserves expand, for instance, by making loans to the banks. A stroke of the pen—or an electronic blip in a computer—and, abracadabra, brand-new money is born. Where does it come from? Surprisingly, it seems to come from nowhere.


Following the analogy of money’s birth, how then do we catch it in its vanishing act? As before, we must look at the credit the Fed extends to the banks. When the Fed fails to renew a loan to a bank, that money will die. Why should the Fed want to do this? Because it is its mandate to keep the growth of money in line with the growth of the Gross National Product and with the general level of economic activity. Insufficient growth of money (“tight money”) leads to hardship and recession; excessive growth leads to inflation.

Inflation can be seen as a different form of monetary death. In this case, it’s not that the total quantity of money shrink—quite the contrary—but rather that the value of each unit is lessened. Some measure of inflation acts as a lubricant for the economic process, but beyond a certain point inflation becomes a disruptive force. It may sound OK to talk dispassionately about inflation in technical terms. But when the talk turns to my money, the prospect of its slow death has all the makings of a full-fledged catastrophe, even if we are devout Buddhists and apprehend the impermanence of all things.



When I choose to see myself as a solid, separate individual, the most immediate piece of evidence I grasp is the body I see myself incarnated in. When I choose to see money as solid and separate, what evidence do I offer to substantiate this? The usual answer is gold. Gold is the subtext of money. And this is odd, because even the formal connection that once existed between the major currencies of the world and gold was terminated over two decades ago. Before that, for nearly a century, the dollar was redeemable in gold at a fixed rate, but convertibility was actually a sham. The gold cover represented only a small fraction of the currency it was supposed to back. When the gold at hand became insufficient, the requisite fraction was readjusted. Furthermore, to forestall any possible run on gold, a law was passed prohibiting U.S. citizens from owning gold bullion. Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson puts it bluntly: “The modern student need not be misled, as were earlier generations of students, by some mystical belief that ‘gold-backing’ is what gives money its value.”

Yet in our psyche gold continues to back money. The gold cover for the dollar is not buried at Fort Knox, but implanted in our minds by metonymy. Metonymy is a maneuver, often used by Madison Avenue, by which the properties of one object are transferred to another, as when a car is pictured in an ad next to a stately residence, clothing is displayed on the enviable body of a model, or money is spoken of in the same breath as gold. Even plastic money partakes of this metonymy in the guise of the “gold” credit cards.


On the notes issued by the Bank of England, its Chief Cashier solemnly states: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten [whatever the denomination] pounds.” The implication is that you’ll get some weight of precious metal in exchange. But should you be tempted to call his bluff, you’ll get nothing but pieces of paper of the same ilk.

We see the self as being not only our body but also our possessions, and therefore our money. If my wallet is stolen, I am likely to feel violated. Any tampering with my bank account feels like a “ripoff,” like having parts of my body taken away. “My poor money, my dear money, my sweetheart,” wails Mòliere’s Harpagon when he discovers he’s been robbed. “They have taken you away from me, my prop, my solace, my only joy; all has come to an end for me, I have nothing else to do in the world. Without you I can’t live any longer. It’s all over! I’m dying, I’m dead, I’m buried. Won’t someone revive me by bringing back my dear money?”

It is true that we don’t all construct the self as Harpagon. While some will start the day by turning to the financial pages of a newspaper to evaluate their self-worth according to the fluctuations in their net worth, others will first turn to the sports pages or to the political news to appraise the standing of the self. But whatever methods we favor for the construction of the I, chances are that money plays a significant role, be it because we wish to amass it, because we loathe to spend it, because we spend it irrepressibly, or even because we treat it with aversion and consider it dirty. Couldn’t we look at money in a totally different way.


Buddhist teachings emphasize the emptiness of all things, meaning that nothing has a separate, intrinsic existence. Having examined the mythology surrounding money, we are now in a position to look into its emptiness.

Consider the birth of checking accounts through loans. There is no way for them to come into being without the public requesting them. It’s true that the Fed and the banks can, and often do, withhold credit and offer resistance to our demands; but if they do the holding, it is we who do the pulling.

Who or what is backing our money? It is not the gold, but we ourselves who cover for the dollar with our mortgaged homes, our assets, our capacity for work, our taxes. There is no precious metal backing the currency. What backs it is the precious mettle of our trust in each other. If the money “created” by the Fed seems to materialize out of nowhere, it is only because we look the other way. The bills and checks we see circulating are nothing but IOUs made liquid, credit reformulated so that it can pass from hand to hand. And what is credit if not equity in us, and in all the things and beings that make credence possible, not only because they belong to us, but also because we belong with them?

The emptiness of money leaps to the eye when we examine the emergence of alternative currencies. There are over eight hundred such systems at work worldwide, a dozen or two in the U.S. The one started five years ago by community activist Paul Glover in Ithaca, New York, is still thriving. All it took for Glover to get the system started was a core group of people ready to honor the currency and to chip in to cover initial expenses. Next, they got the currency printed, and put out a newsletter with listings of goods and services being offered in exchange for Hours, as the units of currency are called. Each Hour has an estimated value of ten dollars, the prevailing local hourly wage. Everyone listed in the newsletter is given, for free, two Hours in notes, and can get an additional two Hours every eight months by continuing to participate. Whenever appropriate, these allotments are readjusted at community meetings. The Hours function as ordinary money in trading with the hundreds of individuals and the many stores that accept them (fully or in part) in exchange for goods and services. In trading services, it is understood that one Hour is worth one hour of work, but arrangements may vary. In trading goods, their dollar equivalence determines the price. What gives the Hours their value? Simply the willingness of the issuing community to honor them. When this willingness is tested in the marketplace, the test generates credibility. Credibility is credit; credit made liquid is money. Paradoxically, this simple process tends to baffle most of us, accustomed as we are to the mystification surrounding ordinary money.

How would a world that abides by the emptiness of money differ from the current one? Consider the web of relationships that links each one of us with all things and beings, a web that includes our breathing in and breathing out, eating and defecating, cultivating the land and composting, giving off and perceiving smells, touching and being touched, talking and listening, seeing and being seen, giving and receiving. As things stand now, whenever money enters the picture, whenever a transaction is mediated by it, our obstinacy in seeing it as separate tends to prevail: instead of a link we find disconnection. The web develops a gap. We forget that we are coparticipants in the creation of money. We give it an authority that ought to belong to us all. We see it as alien, and it alienates us. We see it as separate from morality and, sure enough, it behaves immorally. We cast it as the instrument of profiteering and prostitution and, inevitably, it profiteers and prostitutes. But if we were able to see that money simply emerges out of that web—that it’s not separate—then each transaction would become an enactment of our intimacy with the world, keeping the interconnections flowing instead of choking them off.

Am I talking about a never-never land? I do not think so. The belief in the interdependence of all things has recently gained currency in the political arena with the acknowledgment that “it takes a village” to raise a child. It also takes a village to create money. To be aware of this is to take a crucial step toward making our lives whole. Money cannot exist by itself; it has no value or meaning apart from us. Ultimately, the equation is very simple: We are it.truth_5

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters