The figure of the fat laughing monk popularly known as the Happy Buddha (開心佛 Kaixin Fo), or Laughing Buddha (笑佛 Xiao Fo), is often mistaken by some people for being the historical Buddha of the 5th Century BCE. This popular character, often seen in Asian art and sculpture, is actually the eccentric Zen monk Budai Heshang (布袋和尚) of 10th century
. His name, which means Cloth Sack Monk, came about because he often carried a cloth sack from which he distributed gifts to children. His name is sometimes shortened to just Budai (Cloth Sack). In China , he is known as Hotei (the Japanese pronunciation of Budai). Right before he died, he uttered the following profound lines, which led others to believe that he was actually an emanation of the future Buddha Maitreya (彌勒佛 Mile Fo). Japan
Maitreya, the true Maitreya
With billions of emanation bodies
Often he is revealed to people at the time
At other times they do not know it’s him
Since then, Budai Heshang was considered a transformation body of the future Buddha Maitreya, and Maitreya has always been depicted in the form of the rotund and jolly Budai Heshang in traditional Chinese art and iconography.
10th century Chinese Zen monk - Budai Heshang
It should be emphasized so that it is properly understood that the image of Budai Hesheng as a fat and happy monk is only a manifestation of Maitreya due to his expedient means (upaya), because all bodhisattvas (i.e. future Buddhas) employ skillful means in order to save and deliver sentient beings. In other words, they appear in a form that is necessary or appropriate to teach a certain lesson, and they can appear in countless forms, as indicated in the verse left by Budai Heshang.
If we were to venture a guess as to how the actual future Buddha Maitreya, or any other Buddha, might actually look like in person, we should first understand that the sutras (Buddhist scriptures) already taught us that the physical features of a fully enlightened Buddha always include the same set of standard characteristics called the 32 Major Marks and 80 Secondary Marks of an Enlightened Being. Two of the marks from the list are worthy of mention here. One is that the body is always straight and tall, and the other one is an upper torso that is like a lion’s (i.e. the upper torso gets progressively broader). Based on these two characteristics alone, it’s not difficult to conclude that the actual physical body of a Buddha is always tall and athletic. Indeed, if we refer back to the life story of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha), we read that he was a champion who was skilled in many athletic arts before he started his spiritual journey. Traditional drawings of the Buddha after he attained enlightenment show him embodying the graceful and noble physical characteristics detailed in the list of the marks of a Buddha. In Indo-Tibetan Buddhist iconography, Maitreya Buddha is never depicted as an obese monk, but always as a noble being with a fit and athletic build, similar to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.
Tibetan statue of Maitreya - the Future Buddha(Image: Maitreya Project)
, the image of Maitreya in the form of Budai Heshang became so popular that he was adopted into traditional folk religion and also popular Taoism, often as a god of wealth and abundance. China
Red auspicious print - Happy Buddha(Image: Tplm123.com)
The popular interpretation of his characteristics was that his cloth sack, or his fat belly, symbolizes wealth and prosperity, and his happy smile represents joy and happiness. But from a Buddhist perspective, his large belly symbolizes the more important values of magnanimity, tolerance, and generosity, and his happy smile represents the joy that comes from helping others and cultivating contentment and a peaceful mind.
Today in the West, for better or for worse, the traditional image of the rotund Happy Buddha has been borrowed and redesigned to serve as icons and logos for commercialism and popular culture imagery.
Text © 2011 Harry Leong