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Budai figurine

The Laughing Buddha: The Eccentric Monk, God of Plenty and Patron of Bartenders


Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was born in 6 BC, in what is now modern Nepal. He lived the comfortable life of a young prince until one day he ventured out into the world and was confronted with the reality of the inevitable suffering of life. He left his kingdom to lead an ascetic life, submitting himself to rigorous ascetic practices for the next six years, refusing food and nearly starving himself to death.

Buddha undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment.

Buddha undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Realizing that physical austerities were not the means to achieve liberation, he soon turned to the Middle Path—a path of balance rather than extremism. He attained enlightenment, and for the remainder of his eighty years, the Buddha taught other sentient beings reach enlightenment.

In trying to conjure an image of the Buddha after hearing this story, one might picture a simple, contemplative man with a serene smile and, especially after his time as a starving ascetic, possibly slightly malnourished.  Indeed, in India, Nepal and throughout Southeast Asia, Buddha is commonly depicted as tall, slender and serene. However, we are also familiar with the image of the “Fat Buddha”, “Laughing Buddha” or “The Happy Chinaman” – a short, well-fed, jolly man whose belly one can rub for good luck. This figure is popular in China and those areas to which Chinese cultural influence spread. Artwork of him from past to present shows him laughing gleefully – a stark contrast with the legendary Buddha. The Laughing Buddha is often conflated with the historical Buddha in spite of the distinct visual differences in their depictions.

This figure is known as Budai, said to be based on an eccentric Chinese monk who lived in 10 CE, sixteen centuries after the life of Siddhartha Gautama. His life, or rather what little we know of his life, has become a popular subject in Chinese folklore, and his image is well-known as the representation of abundance and contentment.

Sculpture of Budai.

Sculpture of Budai. ( Public Domain )

The Buddhist Monk and the Uncertain Time of the Five Dynasties      

The original stories of the Laughing Buddha centered on a monk named Ch'i-t'zu, or Qieci, who lived on Mount Siming in Mingzhou, Fenghua during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923 CE), the first in the period of unrest called the Five Dynasties. The Five Dynasties is a period of time between the fall of the Tang Dynasty (907 CE) and the founding of the Song Dynasty (960 CE) when five would-be dynasties in Northern China followed one another in rapid succession.

Five Dynasties Ten Kingdoms Period 923 CE.

Five Dynasties Ten Kingdoms Period 923 CE. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The first of the five dynasties was the Later Liang Dynasty, which was established by the rebel leader Zhu Wen after he usurped the Tang throne in 907 CE. Zhu was murdered five years later and the Later Liang was overthrown by one of its generals, Zhuangzong, who established the Later Tang Dynasty in 923 CE. Zhuangzong and his successors ruled relatively well for 13 years until the dynasty fell when one of its generals, Gaozu, overthrew his master with the aid of the Khitan, a seminomadic people of Inner Asia. Gaozu established the Later Jin Dynasty which ruled for the next decade.

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Top Image: Budai figurine ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Martini Fisher

Comments

Gautama was not born in 6 B.C; he was born somewhere between the mid 500's and 480 B.C.

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