The Laughing Buddha

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on April 4, 2016.)

The Laughing Buddha at Zhiti Shan Huayan Temple, Ningde, Fuzhou

The next building we encounter in our temple walkthrough is called the "Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings." But these are not the first figures we encounter.

That honor belongs to the jolly one many call "The Laughing Buddha." In this series, I have spoken previously of the character who stands behind him, the general named Weituo. But let's take a closer look at this friendly figure.

The first thing we notice is his large belly, a token of his benevolence and generosity. His huge welcoming smile is next, and then the bag by his side, said to hold good things (like Santa Claus).

His story is this: In ancient times, the historical Buddha discerned that his disciple Maitreya (whose name derives from a word meaning "friend") would be the next Buddha. He did not choose Maitreya, but rather recognized that his cultivation had put him closer to Buddhahood than any others'.

Thus, he is not properly Mi'lefo (fo meaning "Buddha"), but rather Mi'lepusa (Maitreya Bodhisattva). He will be the Buddha who comes when the teaching of the previous Buddha is lost to the world.

In some temples, instead of the fat funny figure, there is an elegant, slim bodhisattva. This is closer to the Indian form of Maitreya. So where did the Big Guy come from? A little over a thousand years ago, a Chinese monk named Budai ("Cloth Sack") roamed about, practicing Chan (Zen), playing with children, and spreading joy. When he died, he left a traditional "death verse" which is interpreted to mean that he was Maitreya, and this form, more than the other, has been popular in China ever since.

His departing message was:
Maitreya was a true Maitreya,
Appearing innumerable times,
Teaching across the aeons,
But no one has recognized him.

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