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Hotei - The Laughing Buddha
The Laughing Buddha or the smiling Buddha is a stout smiling bald man carrying a sack. He is dressed in long loose robes with a nice round pot belly exposed. This is the celestial Buddha named Hotei or Pu-Tai whom we best know as the Laughing Buddha. In China, the laughing Buddha is known as the Loving or Friendly One.
The legend of the laughing Buddha dates back to a wandering Chinese Zen monk who lived over 1,000 years ago. He became a significant part of the Buddhist and Shinto culture due to his benevolent nature. He was regarded as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva who will be Maitreya or the Future Buddha. His large protruding belly and jolly smile got him the nickname "Laughing Buddha." ‘Budai’ in Chinese and ‘Budai Luohan’ in Japanese, this pot bellied bald figure with a smiling face is linked to a nomadic ‘Chan’ monk who lived in the time of Liang Dynasty in China.
The monk dressed himself in a cloth-bag that is known as ‘pu-tai’ in Chinese and ‘Hotei’ in Japanese. Hence the local folks called him ‘Pu-tai Hoshang’ or ‘hemp-bag monk’.
Legends say that the monk carried delightful gifts for children in his linen sack.
Most Buddhist shrines grace the statue of ‘Budai’ in the entranceway. With an impish grin and a protruded tummy the robust monk is found in various poses. Sometimes he is seated on an elaborately inlaid pedestal or at times on a a cart drawn by children. At times he is seen waving a hand –fan also known as the ‘ogi’.
The ogi or hand fan is a symbol of aristocracy and is believed to fulfill the wishes of those who carried hand held fans.
‘Budai’ statues with small children at his feet represent Hotei’s fondness and love for the children.
The Pu tai or Hotei is found at the entrances of many temples and restaurants as well as on amulets. He symbolizes contentment and abundance. The image of Hotei is almost always seen carrying a cloth or linen sack that is always full. It is filled with items that include rice plants, candy for children, food, etc. He is the patron saint of the weak, poor and of course, children. Hotei was himself a great Zen master. This jolly saint wandered from place to place and in every town, people assembled at the Town Square and gathered around him. His funny looks and large hearted smile attracted large crowds
He distributed sweets and small toys to all children who gathered around him. Then, he would keep his bag down, look up at the sky and would just start laughing. He used to laugh insanely irrespective of if others around him laughed or not. Soon, his infectious laughter got contagious and all those who had gathered around him forgot their worldly sorrows and started laughing along with him. When the entire town was in splits, Hotei would slowly pick up his bag and leave for the next town.
He thus spread joy as he visited each town. This century old figure of the Buddhist religion has now intermingled with the Chinese ideals of life and happiness which has transformed completely from the previous Buddhist ideals and values. Today, happiness has become tantamount to material affluence and riches. Hence, our modern laughing Buddha is revered as a god of material plentitude and good fortune in life