A couple of years ago I was told in a dream that Buddha was not fat. I woke up curious to know what that was about. I did some research only to find that there is a widespread confusion, especially in the West, about two different figures: Siddhartha Gautama — The Buddha — who lived 2,600 years ago in India and the Laughing Buddha — Budai or Pu-Tai or Hotei — who lived 1500 years ago in China.
Said dream reminded me of a fun childhood memory from when I was 10-years old and went with my grandmother to visit my aunt in Los Angeles during the summer holidays. After a few weeks there, we flew to Hawaii for five days. We were staying at the Sheraton and, as I remember, all I wanted to do was to play Street-fighter arcade games.
Naturally, being tourists, and being with them, meant that we visited lots of shops. This is where something began to repetitively happen. As my grandma, aunt, and uncle went about the stores, many of the Asian store sellers would come closer to me, hold one of my earlobes and start rubbing it gently as they smile and say “Ahhh, Good Luck. Good luck” with their distinctive English accent.
You know how you see a cute child and stroke their hair with your hand? Well in Hawaii, it was always my ears. As we all came to reckon, my full, meaty earlobe was indeed a sign of good luck as it was a reminder of the Buddha.
For the ancient Indians, I later learned, having large ears denoted that one is all-hearing and was attribute of a “Great Man”. The Chinese believe it to be a sign of vitality and independence; that such people have the courage to do whatever they want in life. That is why we find that in most statues, sculptures, and paintings the Buddha is depicted with peculiarly long, dangling earlobes.
This wasn’t the first time people notice or touch my earlobes, it was actually a known feature of mine within the family. In some later years, girls would jokingly tell me that if I were a girl, I would probably have many earrings.
|My earlobes and I having fun during that U.S trip in 1988|
Historically speaking, the ‘Buddhism’ Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born (likely in the fifth or sixth century BCE) a Hindu prince in Lumbini and raised in Kapilvastu — both located in today’s Nepal. The culture and tradition then and there was for men to display their wealth and prosperity on their ears. It is believed that he must have adorned large, heavy ear jewellery made of precious metals and stones, which may have resulted in stretching his ears.
After renouncing his royal hedonistic life The Buddha traveled throughout India, following yogis and gurus who taught asceticism. This included extreme exercise and self denial, which is how they quiet the urges of the body and master the mind into submission. He eventually surpassed all his teachers and starved himself for six years through deep meditations.
During that time he became almost like a skeleton, before renouncing extreme asceticism as well. He then sat down under a peepal (Bodhi) tree at Bodh Gaya and achieved Enlightenment. It is when he discovered the Buddhist Middle Way — a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification — which he began teaching. I hope more people would remember this whenever they feel inclined to reach any extremism.
As such, being fat doesn’t even make sense. The dangling ears are something but being overweight is something else.
So who was fat?
|Along with the statue shown in the featured photo (right), this is another Laughing Buddha I |
grew up seeing everyday at home. Thank you Mother for snapping those shots.
The chubby happy Buddha with the large belly, as well as the even bigger earlobes, known as the “Laughing (Oriental) Buddha” we often come across in various places around the world is different from Siddhartha Gautama. In China this jolly figure is known as Pu-Tai or Budai, and in Japan as Hotei.
Nicknamed The Laughing Buddha, Budai is based on an eccentric Chinese Buddhist monk and Zen master who lived over a thousand years ago. He was a generous and jovial man who did not speak much. However, he remains exclusive to Chinese Buddhism as well as to Shinto culture. In Chinese folklore Budai was later upgraded to a deity. And again, being fat represents wealth, prosperity, and good luck.
While “Buddha” means “The Awakened One” or “The Enlightened One”, “Budai” humbly translates into “Cloth Sack”— reference to the one he would wear, from which he pulled rice plants, other food, and candy for children.
Now the next time you’re in a Chinese restaurant and find a statue or an illustration of The Laughing Buddha, remember that he’s not The Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist philosophy. Don’t forget to touch his earlobes for good luck, though. Or I can let you touch mine if you can show you have good intentions.
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