A statue of the Laughing Buddha (Image by Draco)

Hotei, a cheerful Buddhist monk, where just his appearance can have the ability to cheer anyone up from a bad day. His largely exposed, belly stomach protrudes in front of him as he continues to laugh through never ending time. This familiar looking figure is known as the "Laughing Buddha".

The image of Hotei is almost always seen carrying a cloth or linen sack. It is usually filled with many precious items, including candy for children, food, or the woes of the world. Sometimes it can be filled with children, as they are seen as some of those precious items of this world. In some scenes he may be found sitting on a cart drawn by boys.

The large, fat belly is a symbol of happiness, luck, and generosity.

The name Hotei actually means "cloth bag" or "glutton." A legend has it that if a person is to rub his belly, it brings forth wealth, good luck, and prosperity.

The Laughing Buddha, also known as Hotei in Japan, Pu-Tai in China, embodies the ideals of the good life: health, happiness, prosperity and longevity.

Monks and commercial travelers spread the Buddhist message throughout the East, northward into Afganistan and Tibet, eastward to China and Japan, as well as south into Ceylon and Indonesia. As with any religious message, changes in the nature of Buddhist practice and understanding were inevitable as the religion was absorbed within different cultures.

Scholars have long commented on the contrast between India’s penchant for lofty idealisms as against the Chinese focus on the practicalities of the here-and-now. Over the centuries within China, Buddhist notions of happiness based on self-mastery and enlightened insight were fused with popular Chinese life-ideals of happiness through material prosperity.

Iconographers in the 10th century summed up these various elements of happiness in a representation of the fat Laughing Buddha, clutching his prayer beads in one hand and with a bag of gold in the other. The large number of children usually surrounding him illustrates another Chinese virtue - a large family consisting of many children.

Moreover, there is belief, that the Laughing Buddha is in fact modeled on an historical figure, a fat wandering Zen monk named Pu Tai, who possibly claimed to be an incarnation of the future Buddha Maitreya (Chinese Mi-lo-fo; Japanese Miroku). One poem attributed to him reads:

Mi-lo, true Mi-lo
Reborn innumerable times
From time to time manifested to men
The men of the age do not recognize you

All sources describe him as obese, with wrinkled forehead, and a white protruding belly, which he left, uncovered.

There was another feature of his bodily appearance that captured attention. Wherever he went, he wore a pu-tai (Japanese Hotei) or cloth-bag. Thus he came to be known as Pu-tai Hoshang or hemp-bag monk. Some sources claim that he carried this bag over his shoulder on a stick as he wandered through the hamlets of rural China.

It seems, also, that Pu-tai’s weather predictions contributed to his popularity. He gave them by word of mouth or indicated them by his behavior, and they were considered infallible. When rain was expected he wore wet sandals. On the contrary, when seen wearing wooden sandals or sleeping on the town bridge in a squatting position, warm weather was to be expected.

PuTai left several enigmatic poems. One discusses the nature of the mind enlightened through meditation:

The ten thousand dharmas, how are they different, and the mind, how is it distinguishable?
What is the use of searching the meaning of the religious texts?
The mind-king in its original state severs the manifold knowledge,
Only he is wise who understands the state of non-learning

Another one describes his wandering lifestyle:

From one bowl I eat the rice of a thousand families
All alone, I wander ten thousand miles
Those who find favour in my eyes are few
Among the white clouds, I search for truth

A portrait of Pu-Tai was still extend in the early twentieth century on the eastern side of the great hall of the Yueh-ling-ssu temple Checkiang province where he died. Early sources relate that people in the belief that Pu-Tai was in fact an incarnated form of the Buddha Maitreya worshiped portraits of him. Imported into Japan along with other elements of Chinese Buddhism, Pu-Tai became Hotei, one of the 7 gods of good luck.

For us today, the Laughing Buddha image is a reminder of our own capacity to achieve happiness and life satisfaction of our capacity to achieve and enjoy the good life.