Buddhism teaches that the Buddha can come to us in many forms. But when it comes to images, most Buddhas fall into two categories: depictions that represent the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or another ascetic Boddhisatva; or the laughing Buddha called Hotei (also spelled Po-tai or Budai). The latter form isn’t meant to look anything like the teacher who awakened in India 2500 years ago. Rather, the chubby, laughing one was a Chinese monk who lived around 1000 CE. Hotei is considered a form of the Maitreya Boddhisatva, also called the future Buddha.
Laughter was Hotei’s teaching. He would walk into a crowded marketplace with his little knapsack of worldly possessions and just start laughing. Others in the crowd, who a moment before had been hurrying off somewhere or caught up with business, would notice this strange little man. Maybe they would take a minute from their busy lives and stop to think why someone who obviously had so little seemed to be so happy. And maybe they’d even laugh along.
Hotei wandered from town to town teaching in this way, often with a gaggle of children following him down the street. His nickname simply means “cloth sack,” because he carried all his possessions in one small bag. (His real name was Qieci.) Though he was poor and homeless, he never wanted for anything. People were happy to give him enough food to maintain his pleasingly plump figure, and counted themselves lucky to do so, because Hotei’s good luck rubbed off on everyone he met. They said he could put people’s troubles in his cloth sack and turn them into good fortune, and even grant wishes. Hotei was an irresistible force of positive energy.
Even death couldn’t slow him down — the little monk lived on in stories and art. One story says a Zen master once came to him, asking, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Hotei put down his traveling sack. Then Hotei picked the sack up again, saying, “What is the practice of Zen?”, and walked away. The questioner, probably after a minute or two of scratching his head, got the message: To understand Zen is to let go of the burdens of life, and thus escape suffering; to practice Zen is to move on with life’s daily chores in such a way as to ease the suffering of others.
Another somewhat less spiritual tradition says that if you eat or drink too much in the presence of Hotei Buddha, you can blame it on him. “Buddha made me do it!”
In time, towns put up statues of the laughing Buddha, and families kept smaller statues of him in their homes. To this day, many people rub his fat belly for good luck. Some depictions, including many of the figurines we sell at Mimosa, signify various things through a variety of props and poses:
1. Buddha carries a money bag and gold ingot, representing wealth and luck.
2. Buddha stands with two balls over his head, one for riches and one for happiness.
3. Buddha sits on a big gold nugget, holding a smaller gold nugget to give away. He’s a symbol of abundance, and the wealth that comes through sharing.
4. Buddha sits under a fan hat or parasol, kicking back and enjoying the good life. Sometimes called the “Happy Home Buddha.”
5. Buddha stands holding the Ru-Yi pot (bowl of plenty) overhead, collecting abundance and good fortune from the universe.
6. Buddha carries a fan in one hand and the wu lou (bottle gourd) in the other. The gourd protects from illness, while the fan wards off bad luck. This is a Buddha of protection.
7. Buddha carries his cloth sack, taking away troubles and turning them into good fortune. Hotei used to beg pennies, then use that money to buy gifts for others — an active version of the Zen story mentioned above. Hotei is sometimes called the “Buddhist Santa Claus.”
8. Buddha with the bag of blessings in one hand and the fan in the other represents safe travels. Often he wears prayer beads as well. He gives protection and blessings during either regular or spiritual journeys.
9. Buddha holding a ball is a symbol of love. The ball may also symbolize a pearl of wisdom or a peach symbolizing good health.
10. Buddha sits on a bag of blessings, holding his Ru-Yi begging pot and a wealth ball or peach. This one is called “Long Life Buddha.”
11. A fan may represent the Oogi fan. In feudal china, when peasants went to their lord to ask for a favor, the nobleman would give his “yes” by waving his fan, presumably because he was too high and mighty to talk to the common folk. Hotei’s use of the wish-granting fan is a playful reference to this custom.
12. Buddha seated on dragon chair grants wishes and shares wisdom. The chair itself often has the Chinese characters for “good fortune and luck” on the back, and coins scattered around it.
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