I just got an email from one of our readers asking us the following question: "My daughter has a homework question that she needs help with. Why are there both "skinny" and "fat" Buddha statues. Who is the Laughing Buddha?" Now while most of you on a spiritual journey will probably know the answer to this, let me explain it here to those who may still be wondering about this.
Firstly, the "skinny" Buddha referred to is the historical Buddha, known as the Shakyamuni Buddha (Shakyamuni means "Lion of the Shakya Clan" with Shakya being the clan name). As you probably know, the historical Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha, raised and lived in opulance, and left it all behind so as to discover the meaning of suffering and ultimate liberation. When gaining this knowledge, he was called a Buddha by his followers, since that means "an enlightened one."
When people call themselves "Buddhists," they follow the teachings of the historical Buddha, and these collective teachings are often referred to as the Dharma (with a capital "D"). The two major schools of Buddhism, Mahayana and Therevada, are based on the Dharma with varying amounts of other beliefs included in their teachings. For more information, please see our Introduction to Buddhism page and our What Is Dharma page.
The Laughing Buddha the email asked about is known in China as Ho Tai (or as Mi Lo Fa) and is not direclty related to the historical Buddha. Ho Tai was, according to one legend, a monk who would always carry a bag full of candies, which he gave out whenever he met up with children. He was always joyful (hence he is referred to as the Laughing Buddha). And because he was a monk, and because some Asian languages use the same word for monk as they do for Buddha, there has been confusion that he is a form of the historical Buddha.
Another theory has it that he was originally a fertitlity God, or a God of Prosperity, and his round belly was a symbol for a bountiful harvest. As Buddhism spread into China from India, the local population accepted him as a saint, or a manifestation of the Future Buddha (Maitreya Buddha). In Japan he is known as Hotei and is considered one of the Seven Gods of Fortune.
READER COMMENTS ABOUT THIS ARTICLE:
Correct me please, is this a Monk or is considered a Buddha?
Some people has told me is a Buddha.
- Emily A.
Hi there, Emily, and thanks for writing and sending the photo of the statue.
That looks to me to be a statue of The Happy Buddha (Ho Tai) who was actually a revered monk, not the Historical Buddha. A quick way to tell the difference is that monk's have shaved heads, while the Buddha had curly hair.
- The Buddha Garden
Laughing Buddha is believed to bring happiness and prosperity in Chinese Buddhism. My mood always immediately changed whenever I see laughing Buddha which I kept in my room.
According to my knowledge, Hotei or Laughing Buddha attained enlightenment when he started laughing thus Laughing or Happy Buddha was named after him. It is said that he laughed for 30 years after attaining Enlightenment.
- Peter V