Siddhartha Gautama, the hedonist who turned to extreme asceticism to pursue the spiritual path before achieving Enlightenment to become the Buddha, is sometimes depicted in art as an emaciated, skeletal figure.
Who then, is the fat and jolly Buddha whose statues Westerners are familiar with? It turns out that he is an actual historical person, an eccentric Chinese monk named Pu-Tai, and his story is a heartwarming one.
The Laughing Buddha, with his bald head and protruding belly, is a familiar icon in homes and other establishments in Buddhist countries.
Often, he is carrying a cloth or linen sack and surrounded by children. This jolly man is a symbol of good luck, health, happiness, prosperity, and long life.
The Laughing Buddha is the image of a historical, albeit obscure, personage—a Chinese Zen monk who lived over 1,000 years ago. His name was Pu-Tai, although the Japanese call him Hotei.
Both of these names mean “cloth sack,” a reference to the knapsack he carried around. Like Santa Claus, the cheerful monk went to the hamlets and villages of China giving away sweets and toys to children from his knapsack.
His sack was never empty, providing rice and other food for the needy. Pu-Tai was benevolent and generous to everyone, has made it his mission to spread happiness and joy wherever he went.
For this reason, people identified Pu-Tai as a bodhisattva (a saint). They believed he was an incarnation of the future Buddha Maitreya (Mi-lo-fo in Chinese), as expressed in a poem:
Mi-lo, true Mi-lo
Reborn innumerable times
From time to time manifested to men
The men of the age do not recognize you.
Centuries before science confirmed the fact, Pu-Tai believed in the healing power of laughter.
Pu-tai might have been a man of few words, but his laughter was contagious and the cheer he spread enabled people to view their problems from a different perspective.
The Buddha image with the sack represents him gathering people’s problems and putting them away in his sack. Pu-tai himself never lost his fun-loving disposition even in the face of death.
Knowing the end was near, Pu-tai instructed his fellow monks to burn his body after he was gone. The monks were puzzled, as cremation was not a Zen custom.
Nevertheless, they decided to carry out Pu-Tai’s wish. As the flames started to consume the body, fireworks began to explode. In a final prank, Pu-Tai had stuffed his clothes with firecrackers and rockets before expiring.
As the Buddhist message spread east and reached China, its lofty idealism merged with practical Chinese concern with the here and now.
The original Buddhist ideal of happiness through self-mastery and spiritual enlightenment was supplemented by the idea that happiness might also be gained by material prosperity.
It was in this environment that the jolly Pu-Tai gained popularity as a representation of material well-being. In Japan, Hotei is one of the seven gods of good luck.
Iconographers of the 10th century fused the virtues of spirituality and prosperity by depicting the Laughing Buddha with prayer beads in one hand and a bag of gold in the other.
The group of children surrounding him illustrates the Chinese preference for large families. On the other hand, a Buddha with a bowl symbolizes a monk’s life, the renunciation of worldly possessions and attaining enlightenment.
The Laughing Buddha statue also plays a role in feng shui and is believed to manifest desires depending on its placement.
When it is situated where it can be seen by the entire family, it is said to bring harmony and contentment in the home.
When displayed southeast of the main hall, dining room, or bedroom, it allegedly brings luck and increased income. In the office, it reduces tensions and conflicts with co-workers.
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Just as the candle won’t be shortened, one’s happiness never decreases by being shared.” —Gautama Buddha