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Who is the Laughing Buddha?

Why is he sometimes depicted as chubby and at other times as thin?

I have, for most of my life, seen the Buddha depicted mostly as a cherub-like image of a laughing Buddha! But we know the story of “The Buddha” enough to know the he starved himself in order to reach enlightenment for the majority of his life, so how is he depicted as a laughing robust character?!!

Well…. This is most interesting! It turns out that the images of this round and cherub looking, laughing Buddha actually is not the Buddha! This came as quite a surprise to me as I am sure it does to many of you!

Let’s explore what happened.

Laughing Buddha, Smiling Buddha, Happy Buddha, Fat Buddha, Jolly Buddha, Lucky Buddha, Chubby Buddha … is not the Buddha! Well, at least not the Buddha that we associate with Buddhism.

The word Buddha actually means “Enlightened Being”, so all enlightened beings are called Buddha! We, not knowing any better, did not realize this and believed that the word Buddha pertained to the one and only! His name as a human man was Siddhartha Gautama, when he eventually attained a God-Realized state he was known as “The Buddha”.

Siddhartha had spent the majority of his adult life searching for the One Truth and finally attained it. This is who we know as Buddha. He had also spent his life in renunciation of many things, food being one of them.

Let.s explore the story of ‘skinny Buddha vs fat Buddha' with the skinny Buddha first.

The skinny Buddha is the historical Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama. Gautama Buddha, also called Shakyamuni Buddha, lived around 600 BC in Lumbini (which is today’s Nepal), and became Buddha or the ‘Enlightened One’. He was the spiritual leader according to whose teachings Buddhism was founded.

Siddhartha Gautama is usually portrayed as a thin Buddha as he was slim in appearance. Historical Buddha wasn’t fat. Prince Siddhartha Gautama left his place and went to live in the wilderness as an ascetic, fasting and meditating for 6 years, seeking the way to defeat life adversities (pain, sorrow, suffering, loss, sickness, death, impermanence…). Later he abandoned asceticism and found the ‘Middle Way’, avoiding all extremes (asceticism and hedonism) as the path to Enlightenment.

Unlike Christianity where is only one Christ, there are many Buddhas in Buddhism. According to Buddhism, every person has Buddha-nature and everyone who achieved enlightenment is a Buddha. Also, Bodhisattva is everyone who takes the path towards Awakening or Buddha-hood. And what’s more, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can have many different forms.

While historical Buddha is portrayed as contemplative, serene, peaceful, and skinny Buddha, the Fat/Chubby Buddha is pictured open-eyed and laughing. But, who is the Jolly Buddha if not Gautama Siddharta?!

The Laughing Buddha, or the Fat Buddha, was a Zen monk called Budai. He lived in China around the 10th century, about 1.600 years after historical Buddha.

Budai was a bold man with a big tummy, big smile, large ears, wearing a simple robe, prayer beads, and a large sack. The fat Buddhist monk was known as a good-hearted, happy, and content man of humorous personality, jolly nature, and eccentric lifestyle. Budai was nicknamed the Laughing Buddha because of his big smile and the happiness he was spreading around him. Furthermore, Budai (the Laughing Buddha or the Fat Buddha) became a famous character of Chinese folktales.

This wandering monk wandered from town to town with all his possessions in a cloth sack hanging on his back. People gathered around him because of his funny look and a big smile. He especially loved children and children loved him. In Buddhism, children are believed to have the nature of a god, as they live in the present moment, often smiling and laughing, with no ego and no judgmental mind. Budai gave children sweets out of his bag and taught ‘the giving with joy’, and the philosophy of ‘the more you give, the more comes to you’.

Budai is often depicted with a bag he was wearing. Even his name Budai means ‘cloth sack’ in Chinese. But, Budai’s sack has also a symbolic meaning. It symbolizes troubles. And although it is easy to solve the problems of others, it’s never an easy task to solve your own problems. That’s because people get attached to their problems and identify themselves with their problems.

Budai teaches us to ‘keep our bags down’, to detach from our problems, and laugh. In fact, laughter produces enzymes that change the chemistry of our brains and when you detach from your problems, you can easily find the solution for them. Budai’s jolly spirit and laughter made people around him laugh and while they laughed, they achieved Nirvana. In short, Budai was a Zen master of laughter.

Budai taught laughter, not only during his life, but also in his death. He asked his disciples to cremate his body after his death even though that wasn’t a tradition at that time in China. Before he died, he put firecrackers and fire rockets into his pockets. When his disciples lit the fire to burn his body, a firework show started. Budai was a Zen master of laughter, even in his death.

Budai was believed to have achieved Buddahood and has become a Buddha. He is believed to be a reincarnation of Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of a future age(this is for another blog post!).

So, if you have a chubby buddha on your mantel or not, its ok! He is still an enlightened being with a great message. When you pass him make sure to rub his belly for good luck! I always do, but I also rub the top of his head for some extra luck and then I smile!

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I love this Berta…. thank you. I just wrote in one of my reflections that your humor reminds me of the laughing Buddha. Now I know the story and appreciate Budai even more…. And you…😊

Mar 24, 2022
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Thank you 😊

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