By Zuiko Redding
Have you ever wondered about the little “Fat Buddha” whose image we often see in Chinese restaurants? Or maybe you have one of those little statues somewhere.
I ran into him last week in the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism; he’s a good deal deeper than I thought.
His name in Chinese is Budai—布袋 (cloth bag). The Japanese call him Hotei. He was a real guy—a monk in Fenghua County, near modern Hangzhou, China in the ninth century. He received ordination and spent some time in a monastery before becoming a wandering monk, begging for food and sleeping wherever was handy. He was unkempt and cheerful and loved by children, much like the poet Ryokan in Japan. He was homely and his clothes were always in disarray—and he was fat.
In those times, portliness was a sign of health and security. He was reputed to be able to predict the weather and people’s fortunes, and he was magically protected from harm. With his jokes and tricks he became part of the Crazy Wisdom tradition in Zen.
Budai/Hotei died in 919, leaving a poem behind:
Maitreya, true Maitreya
His thousands, hundreds, and tens of thousands of manifestations
From time to time appear among his fellow people
But remain unrecognized by his fellow people
Because of this, he is sometimes considered an embodiment of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future.
Budai was adopted by the Daoists as a god of happiness, and he became one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japan, where he is the guardian of children and bartenders (interesting combination!) and provides good fortune from his sack. His virtues are contentment, magnanimity and happiness.
So, this is the story of the “Laughing Buddha,” a guy who probably got confused with Shakyamuni Buddha in the West because their names sound alike. Rather than being a trivial tchotchke on the shelf, he has a good deal to offer us.
Hotei is all about good cheer in the face of whatever comes. Can we do that? No matter how disheveled we are, how ugly and inadequate we feel, can we be comfortable in our skins, forgetting self and reaching out to others? Perhaps remembering homely, laughing Hotei can help us with that. Contentment is accepting what we have and seeing what we can do with it rather than seeking for something else. This saves us a lot of time and energy, and we’re much more effective in our lives.
Hotei had no possessions or wealth, so his magnanimity was from his heart.
It’s the magnanimity of forgetting self and being there with what others need. Sometimes, when everything seems to be falling apart, this is hard. All we want is to collect the pieces and catch our breath, or just tell it all to the person in front of us, even though they probably can’t help.
Magnanimity is putting that aside for the moment and doing what the person in front of us needs us to do. Ultimately, this is what’s best for us as well. Not having invested energy in resentment and complaint, we’re better able to move forward and get ourselves back together. Having contributed something good to the situation gives us the good cheer to take care of all those pieces.
Doing this, we become naturally happy and, like Hotei’s, that happiness is contagious. Who knows what will happen because of it?
Zuiko Redding is the resident teacher at Jikyouji – Cedar Rapids Zen Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the United States of America. She began studying and practicing Zen Buddhism as a university student in Houston in the early 1960s.
In 1992, she left her career as a sociology professor to receive novice ordination from Tsugen Narasaki Roshi and and enter training at Shogoji Monastery in Japan. She received dharma transmission from Narasaki Roshi in 1996. She returned to the United States in 1997 where she and five other practitioners founded Jikyouji in April 2000.
Poem can be found in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 148.
*This article originally appeared in Cedar Rapids Zen Center’s Facebook post on February 6, 2022.
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