When you hear the word Buddha, what image comes to mind?
A tall, thin, calm man either standing with one palm showing or sitting in a padmasana pose or sometimes even lying down.
So, what’s up with the fat one? The one popular as Fat Buddha or Laughing Buddha? How did Buddha, an ascetic who almost died of starvation be fat?
Well, His Fatness isn’t Buddha at all!
He is Budai.
Budai was an eccentric Chinese monk who lived in 10 CE. He is shown as a fat, laughing man in robes with a big stomach, which shows happiness, good luck, and abundance.The stories of Budai are based on a monk named Ch’i-t’zu, or Qieci, who lived on Mount Siming in Mingzhou, during the Liang Dynasty (907–923 CE).
Ch’i-t’zu was a wandering Buddhist monk who carried a sack. It was full of items from his travels. He also carried sweets which he would give to children he met in his journey. Ch’i-t’zu became so synonymous with his sack that he was nicknamed Budai, which means “cloth sack”.
There are many interpretations of what is in the sack, such as treasures, sweets, food, or the sadness of the world. Although originally it was supposed to be anything he found on his travels, later Zen interpretations speak of Budai’s “empty bag” – interpreting the bag as a Zen circle symbolizing enlightenment, non-duality, and emptiness.
Budai’s air of enlightened innocence led him to be admired as an example of Zen. His overall image represents happiness, generosity and wealth. Due to his friendliness and generosity, he is considered a protector of children as well as of the poor and the weak.
In Japan, he is called Hotei. He is depicted generally as leaning on a large sack which contains endless treasures, holding a non-folding Chinese fan in his right hands called an oogi, said to be a “wish giving” fan.
In Japanese culture, Budai is included in the Shichifukujin (the Seven Gods of Good Fortune). The Shichifukujin are a group of deities from Japan, India, and China. In one popular Japanese tradition, they travel together on their treasure ship and visit human ports on New Year’s Eve to dispense happiness to believers. Children are told to place a picture of this ship (or of Baku, the nightmare eater) under their pillows on the New Year’s Eve; if they have a good dream that night, they will be lucky for the whole year.
So that’s the story of His Fatness.
You may scoff, but considering the amount of shit that is going around nowadays, rubbing the belly of a fat man is one of the, if not the, simplest and most innocent of religious practices. And we all need some good luck in these dark times.
So, go out, find a fat man, and rub his belly. Who knows, you may have a wonderful time.
The fat man certainly will.