The “fat Buddha” explained. (Fat, happy and poor. Quite simply, my favourite ancient deity.)

Posted: June 4, 2012 in Popular Culture et al, Religion
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

What’s not to like?

So yesterday I blogged on yummy Chinese food, and suddenly realised that I didn’t know why we had a fat Buddha outside our front door greeting our guests when the Buddha himself was a thin ascetic type who eschewed the pleasures of the flesh. Flesh? He even eschewed the pleasures of bok choy  in oyster sauce …

Anyway, the answer is that I was confusing Budai (Chinese: 布袋; pinyin: Bùdài), pronounced Hotei in Japanese, Bố Đại in Vietnamese, who is a Chinese folkloric deity, with the Buddha.

Wikipedia, as so often, is our friend here. (What a great experiment in information dissemination Wikipedia is, to be sure.)

Anyhow, courtesy of Wikipedia’s contributors, here is the fascinating story of the “Fat”  or “Smiling” or “Laughing” Buddha. Look, he’s fat, celebrates kindness, is nice to kids and is poor but contented. I mean, hello? What’s not to like? I am clearly channelling him in my life. I wonder if he enjoyed a pint or two of bitter British ale?

Anyhow, I have left the Wikipedia internal links in, in case you want to explore further …

His name – Budai – means “Cloth Sack,”and comes from the bag that he is conventionally depicted as carrying. He is usually identified with (or as an incarnation of) Maitreya, so much so that the Budai image is one of the main forms in which Maitreya is depicted in East Asia. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname in Chinese, the Laughing Buddha (Chinese: 笑佛; pinyin: xiàofó). Many Westerners confuse Budai with Gautama Buddha. (There ya go. I’m not uniquely stupid.)

Description

The laughing or fat buddha

“So I said to the girl at the drive thru at McDonalds, “You know what, supersize me”. And now look what happened.”

Budai is traditionally depicted as a fat bald man wearing a robe and wearing or otherwise carrying prayer beads.

He carries his few possessions in a cloth sack, being poor but content. He is often depicted entertaining or being followed by adoring children.

His figure appears throughout Chinese culture as a representation of contentment. His image graces many temples, restaurants, amulets, and businesses.

History

According to Chinese history, Budai was an eccentric Chán monk (Chinese: 禅; pinyin: chán) who lived in China during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923 CE). He was a native of Fenghua, and his Buddhist name was Qieci (Chinese: 契此; pinyin: qiècǐ; literally “Promise this”). He was considered a man of good and loving character.

The term buddha means “one who is awake”, connoting one who has awakened into enlightenment.

Over the history of Buddhism, there have been several notable figures who would come to be remembered as, and referred to as, buddhas. Later followers of the Chan school would come to teach that all beings possess Buddha nature within them, and are already enlightened, but have yet to realize it. This teaching would continue into Zen.

Budai is often conflated with (or simply replaces) the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, in spite of the distinct visual differences in how each has been depicted. In India, Nepal, and throughout southeast Asia, Gautama (who lived during the 6th c. BCE) is commonly depicted as being tall and slender in appearance. In contrast, in China and those areas to which Chinese cultural influence spread, the depiction of Budai (who lived during the 10th c. CE) is consistently short and round. Both depictions are the idealized results of the religious, cultural and folkloric traditions which evolved in the centuries after their respective deaths.

Traditions that revere Budai

Folklore

Budai in folklore is admired for his happiness, plenitude, and wisdom of contentment. One belief popular in folklore maintains that rubbing his belly brings wealth, good luck, and prosperity. (When I did business in China, young ladies often wanted to rub my belly. So it’s for good luck, huh? Who knew? They might have explained: could have saved some embarrassing mis-understandings.)

In Japan, Hotei persists in folklore as one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin) of Taoism.

Buddhism

Some Buddhist traditions consider him a Buddha or a bodhisattva, often identifying him with Maitreya (the future Buddha).

His identification with the Maitreya is attributed to a Buddhist hymn he uttered before his death:

Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
other times they do not recognize him.

Zen

The primary story that concerns Budai in Zen (Chán) is a short kōan. In it, Budai is said to travel giving candy to poor children, only asking a penny from Zen monks or lay practitioners he meets. One day a monk walks up to him and asks, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Budai drops his bag. “How does one realize Zen?” he continues. Budai then takes up his bag and continues on his way.

I Kuan Tao

Statues of Budai form a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines, where he is usually referred to by the Sanskrit name Maitreya.According to I Kuan Tao, he represents many teachings, including contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kindheartedness. He is predicted to succeed Gautama Buddha as the next Buddha, and helps people realize the essence within, which connects with all beings.

Conflation with other religious figures

Angida Arhat

Angida was one of the original eighteen Arhats of Buddhism. According to legend, Angida was a talented Indian snake catcher whose aim was to catch venomous snakes to prevent them from biting passers-by. Angida would also remove the snake’s venomous fangs and release them. Due to his kindness, he was able to attain bodhi.

In Chinese art, Angida is sometimes portrayed as Budai, being rotund, laughing, and carrying a bag. In Nepali, he is also called hasne buddha (“laughing Buddha”).

Phra Sangkajai / Phra Sangkachai

In Thailand, Budai is sometimes confused with another similar monk widely respected in Thailand, Phra Sangkajai or Sangkachai (Thai: พระสังกัจจายน์). Phra Sangkajai, a Thai spelling of Mahakaccayanathera (Thai: มหากัจจายนเถระ), was a Buddhist Arhat (in Sanskrit) or Arahant (in Pali) during the time of the Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha praised Phra Sangkadchai for his excellence in explaining sophisticated dharma (or dhamma) in an easily and correctly understandable manner. Phra Sangkajai also composed the Madhupinadika Sutra.

Gratuitous photo of not fat body for journalistic balance.

One tale relates that he was so handsome that once even a man wanted him for a wife. To avoid a similar situation, Phra Sangkadchai decided to transform himself into a fat monk. (That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it – Ed.)

Another tale says he was so attractive that angels and men often compared him with the Buddha. He considered this inappropriate, so disguised himself in an unpleasantly fat body. (Or that one. That’s a good one, too.)

Although both Budai and Phra Sangkajai may be found in both Thai and Chinese temples, Phra Sangkajai is found more often in Thai temples, and Budai in Chinese temples. Two points to distinguish them from one another are:

  1. Phra Sangkajai has a trace of hair on his head (looking similar to the Buddha’s) while Budai is clearly bald.
  2. Phra Sangkajai wears the robes in Theravadin Buddhist fashion with the robes folded across one shoulder, leaving the other uncovered. Budai wears the robes in Chinese style, covering both arms but leaving the front part of the upper body uncovered.
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Comments
  1. I am always happy to learn something new! Well done.

    Like

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