Who is that smiling, cherubic Buddha? Is he really a Buddha at all? A favorite symbol of Asian culture even to this day, the Laughing Buddha is really a 10th century monk who roamed China nearly a thousand years ago. His name was Ho Tai (Hotei) and he as thought to be a saintly, an enlightened being and possible a Bodisattva, or one who has attained enlightement as a Buddha.
Many thought he was a Maitreya, a Buddha who will arrive someday in the future. His rotundness and jolly demeanor have earned him the names “laughing Buddha” and “happy Buddha.”
Look in the temples, businesses and restaurants across Asian neighborhoods and you will find plenty of representations of the laughing Buddha. He is a deity that signifies wealth, prosperity and good fortune. Look closely and you will probably see a sack on his back. It’s believe this sack carries either candy for children, rice that symbolizes a bountiful harvest or “the suffering of the world.” Parallels between Ho Tai and Catholicism’s St. Nicholas are easy to see as this happy Buddha is also the patron saint of children and the disenfranchised.
A laughing Buddha statue usually shows a chubby, bald man with a large potbelly pushing out of his flowing robes. His girth symbolizes good fortune and plenitude and his smile reflects optimism in the face of adversity. Most happy Buddha statues will have him carrying a crooked walking stick, his sack of goodies slung over his back.
The laughing or “happy” Buddha is often on display in the homes of Easterners providing a symbol of prosperity. He may be sitting, standing or reclining with each posture having a certain connotation. The reclining position is inspired by the last moments of the “historic Buddha” who gathered his disciples and shared his insights reclining in a garden just before he passed on into Nirvana. Other statues of the laughing Buddha portray a cheerful, stout man with a broad smile who may raise his two hands filled with gold or sit atop a mound of gold coins. The laughing Buddha on a dragon throne is another popular statue which represents strength and power.
Other accoutrement often seen in sculptures and statues of the happy Buddha include a rosary necklace symbolic of prayer, a begging bowl associated with the laughing Buddha’s lack of worldly possessions or an oogi. The oogi is a Chinese “wish giving” fan used in the past by Chinese aristocracy as an affectation to demonstrate that their wishes would be granted.
In western culture, the laughing Buddha is often referred to as the “fat Buddha.” As a jolly fat man who frequently distributes candies and presents to children, Ho Tai most closely resembles what Westerners think of as Santa Claus. However, his tidings of good fortune can be enjoyed year round.
Rub the belly of a laughing Buddha if you wish to summon good fortune and prosperity. A common superstition of the Asian culture. Ho Tai is also a patron to those in the food service industry, especially bartenders. When someone overindulges, the indiscretion is often attributed to the laughing Buddha, Ho Tai.