In over ten years of this business, the confusion about what Buddha actually looks like has come to my attention many times. It appears that most people think that the large, laughing, bald monk seen in many Chinese restaurants is Buddha. In essence this could be correct, but in actuality it is incorrect.
The laughing, or happy, Buddha was actually a monk who lived after the time that the original Buddha did. Buddha lived approximately 563 BCE – 400 BCE while Hotei lived approximately 830 CE – 902 CE. So, historical evidence shows that Hotei, the popular, big bellied monk, lived over a thousand years after Buddha. The name “Buddha” however, means “enlightened one”, and this is why it is not completely incorrect to call Hotei a Buddha as he was definitely enlightened. Although not the original Buddha, he is considered to be an incarnation of Buddha or a Bodhisattva. This particular monk’s statues show him perpetually smiling. This is the way the people remember him, always laughing or smiling. In fact he laughed all the time at seemingly nothing at all. He never needed anything to start his laughter as it is said that his happiness came from the joy of life itself and the great contentment he felt. It is indeed difficult to keep from smiling when one looks upon the happy likeness of this ever popular monk.
One of the best stories I read many years ago about Hotei still sticks with me. I believe it is because it held such a strong message but was so very simple. From where I first read it, the story goes along the lines of the following; Hotei always carried a large bag with him. It was considerably heavy with items he distributed to the poor. When the question was posed to him, “What is the essence of Zen?”, the enlightened monk simply put his bag down on the ground. When asked the second question, “What is the actualization of Zen?”, the monk smiled a great smile, bent over, and picked the bag back up. I am not sure if my take on this is the lesson that he meant for us but I feel the story is symbolic of carrying all our joys and sorrows, or life in general. When we put down our load, we free ourselves from the world around us and become what we were in the beginning and we can just be. But to truly be of service and learn on our passage we must become a part of life and pick up what we have chosen to carry. So the actualization is in experiencing the journey, while the essence is allowing ourselves to just be.
I just read a quick comment recently about why the chubby Hotei is seen in restaurants in the western world instead of the original likeness of the actual Buddha. It said that it was an advertising or promotional ploy as much as anything. The gentleman goes on to say, “why would a restaurant choose a meditative, normal size man in a robe with his eyes closed over the abundant bellied monk who has an everlasting smile on his face”? So surely we correlate having a big belly with lots of food? And a smile with a big belly means lots of GOOD food? There is no saying this might be the case with some but there are other reasons we see him in so many restaurants.
As mentioned previously, Hotei always carried a very large bag with him and his name means literally ‘cloth bag’. This bag is said to have never emptied no matter how much food and drink he pulled from it to feed the hungry and thirsty. And his bag always had treasures and candy for children. (So he was a plump, jolly fellow who carried a bag full of gifts for children…Hmmm?) He has just recently been called the patron saint of restaurateurs and bartenders. Along with the legends that rubbing his belly or having his likeness around brings good luck and prosperity, I would be more inclined or prefer to think the restaurants have him out in front for these reasons.
Whatever the reason, this symbol of contentment, prosperity, hope and happiness is well worth having around as who couldn’t use someone around who reminds us that laughter is so very important?! Hotei may not be the actual Buddha but he is certainly a symbol of the contentment that Buddha sought for all people.