Fat Buddha, Skinny Buddha, Laughing Buddha

By | October 30, 2008

Fat Buddha, Skinny Buddha, Laughing Buddha

Budai (Hotei)

Budai / Hotei

A Listener Phoned In
(to 937-660-4949 where you can call in your questions too!)

What’s the deal with the big fat Buddha statues? He’s got fancy robes and stuff all around him and looks very greedy. What’s up with that?

And my response:

Whenever you mention Buddha to a non-Buddhist american (maybe all Westerners, I’m not going to presume), the guy in the picture on the right springs to mind.

He’s fat. He’s jolly. The Laughing Buddha is fell-fed and looking happy. Rub his belly for luck!

The thing is, that’s not really Buddha; his name is Hotei. He’s a deity of contentment and abundance, originally based (the statue anyway) on a real Chinese Zen monk named Budai who lived in the early 6th century. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname in Chinese, the “Laughing Buddha.” He’s also sometimes associated with Maitreya, who is a Buddha who will appear in the future.

Emaciated, Starved Buddha

Emaciated, Starved Buddha

Remember the original story of Siddhattha Gotama (The ORIGINAL Buddha). The prince left the city to go live in the wilderness for six years. While he was out there, he lived the life of an ascetic, refusing food and nearly starving to death. He probably looked something like the statue on the left. Afterwards, he turned to the Middle Path, avoiding all extremes, such as eating too much or too little. After recovering from his time as a starving ascetic, the real Buddha was almost certainly a normal-sized man, not fat like Hotei. The style of statue on the bottom-right is probably a lot more realistic.

Realistic Buddha

Realistic Buddha

But if you’re running a restaurant or public business, which one looks happier? Which one would you want advocating your product? Yes, in the capitalistic Western world, fat & sassy wins out over quiet and contemplative every time. Eventually people just started calling the fat man “Buddha,” possibly due to the similarity with the name Budai.

We even had a story here in the Koan section about Budai/Hotei: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/162

9 thoughts on “Fat Buddha, Skinny Buddha, Laughing Buddha

  1. Colin

    Hi there

    My first image of Buddha was the Buddha from the TV series Monkey, and I feel that seeing the Buddha in that image made it easier for me to understand alot more about Buddism than just reading aobut it…

  2. Angela

    I found this a really fun question. Google the image of buddha and it is amazing the styles that come up! I’ve seen laughing buddhas, weeping buddhas, reclining buddhas, buddhas with eyes open/eyes closed, buddhas with wavy lines for hair in a Japanese topknot, buddhas with little points all over the head where the hair would normally be, buddhas with hands in the lap, buddhas with one arm raised…I spent an entire morning online just comparing all the differences (just for the fun of it, not for any specific reason)!

    The smiling, pointy-head buddha with eyes closed seems to appeal to me the most because it always brings to mind the message, “Go within.”

  3. orange juice

    you spelled siddhartha gautama wrong

  4. Brian Schell Post author

    Actually, not necessarily.

    Siddhartha Gautama is my preferred spelling, but it’s been published many other ways. Siddhatta, Siddarta, Gotoma, Gautaum, and many other variations. The thing is that it’s not originally an English name, and the sounds that make up that name are not precisely translatable into phonetic English. Depending on the country of origin of whatever writer is talking about the Buddha, there are various ways to spell the name, all more or less acceptable.

  5. Abe Simpson

    Keep in mind the image of Buddha is only a recent development and is highly influenced by local custom and artistic style.

    The statue of the Buddha is a reminder. We have a great Budai statue with children climbing all over him to remind us of the importance our child has on our lives and our practice.

  6. candace

    Growing up, I knew of Buddhism but nothing more than the history of Buddha and meditation (thanks to public school :P). At some point several years ago, I purchased a tiny figure of a fat, happy buddha(who i now know as Budai) and kept it on a shelf. I remember a time when I stayed the night at a friend’s house, her mother had a couple Buddha statues. She told me that her mother said that if a Buddha’s statue is turned around, you will get pregnant (or something humorously similar). Recently, I rediscovered Buddhism and wanted to explore more. I still had the little figure and then realized when I woke up one morning, there was Budai grinning at me while I brushed my teeth. 🙂

  7. Roger Sanchez

    I have collected a rare pair of dark hardwood lauphing Buddhas that have white teeth and some eyes made of either ivory or white jade. They stand about 10-12 inches high and have laughing Children climbing on them. Collected from Okinawa in 1944. Can anyone tell me about them.

  8. Anonymous

    It is merely a misconception about Buddha. The real Buddha is totally different from this monk. Buddha was sublimer, with a perfect body and hair on the head. Buddha did not laugh although he occasionally smiled at his disciplines to show his opinion on something. Buddha also wore the golden robe, without exposing any part of his belly. On the other hand, he neither wore any beads around his neck nor counted beads.

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