Two images come to mind when someone mentions a Buddhist Idol, such as a statue or a piece of jewelry; one man is seen as skinny and somber, while the other is depicted as a fat, jolly man. What is less known is who these Idols are and what each one represents, both of whom were prominent men in the Buddhist religion but only one was actually a Buddha.
The fat Buddha, or The Laughing Buddha, is known by different names in different regions, Budai in China and Hotei or Qici in Japan, but he was not a Buddha at all. In China, Budai was a monk from Chinese folklore who is based on a real man, the same real man that the Japanese based Hotei on. Hotei is one of Japan’s seven lucky gods; the god of contentment and happiness, guardian of children, and patron of bartenders. His being is associated with luck and good fortune, and in some images he is carrying a chinese wish giving fan called an oogi.
The real person that both the Chinese and the Japanese have adapted into The Laughing Buddha was an eccentric monk who lived during the Liang Dynasty. He was a large man with a big belly who spent his life traveling from village to village bringing food to the poor and the needy, as well as candy, fruit and donuts to children. The Laughing Buddha’s image is usually seen with a large sack, filled with food, tossed over his shoulder.
While he traveled and proffered food, he would also spend time with the people. The monk never spoke one word, there was never any need to, he would only laugh and infectious laugh causing all those around him to begin laughing for no reason. This was his way to teach people enlightenment, he had no philosophies, ideologies, theories, or concepts to preach, just pure, undiluted laughter and joy. He is reported to having said that “when you laugh you are no longer in your head”, this is a form of meditation, which correlates to accounts of people who would feel lighter with sharpened senses after having spent time with him.
The Laughing Buddha’s goal was to spread joy throughout the world and in doing so he was teaching them the Buddhists way which led him to be admired as an exemplar of zen values. His enlightened innocence and teaching ways earned him the title of Priest Buddha although he was only ever a monk and never himself gained enlightenment.
The Skinny Buddha is a much more complex and dynamic story, as he is considered to be THE Buddha in Buddhism. He is most commonly seen in a sitting, meditative pose with a calming presence. This is Siddhartha Gautama.
Siddhartha lived such a long time ago that it is very difficult to know when he was born, but most scholars agree that he was born sometime between 490 and 410 B.C. in what is now Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya people making Siddhartha a prince, a young boy who lived an extremely extravagant life from an early age. While Siddhartha may have lived such a lavish lifestyle at home, he was ordered by his father since the time he was a child to live a life of seclusion, as a result Siddhartha never left the Palace walls. At the age of 16 he married a girl of his parent’s choosing and the two lived at the palace together, but it was never far from Siddhartha’s mind to wonder what life what really like out in the world. At the age of 29, all those years being kept in a luxurious prison, he decided to leave the palace and what he saw astonished him forever, shaping the way in which he viewed the life of all people of the world. He saw suffering in many forms; starvation, poverty, filth, and beggars, and Siddhartha began his own suffering knowing that he had not experienced any of these in his life. The very next day he gave up his life of a prince, left his wife and son behind and began a spiritual journey to find a way to relieve universal suffering. Siddhartha’s journey would last for 6 years while he lived as a beggar himself, living off of the welfare of others. He focused his time on learning more about how each person was suffering to understand more of the nature and connection between the human mind and the world in we are surrounded by. During his travels, meditation became the most important tool that he learned, learning from masters of every kind of meditation from different regions.
It was one night, in the home a young girl who was offering him a bowl of rice, that Siddhartha began to realize the heart and nature of human suffering. This particular young girl was very austere in her appearance as a way to show her dedication to her beliefs. He suddenly came to the conclusion that it is not in appearance or extremism that we gain liberation. It is through the balance of two extremes that gives us freedom and the ability to end all suffering, he called it The Middle Way.
That very night, at the age of 35, Siddhartha sat beneath the branches of the Bodhi Tree and was determined to meditate until he could find a solution to universal suffering. By dawn, Siddhartha had become enlightened, and thus the first Buddha that existed. Buddha translates to “enlightened one”, and Siddhartha ended his own suffering under that famous tree in India. The tree is so important to the entire religion since it played a key role in the shaping and foundation of Buddhism that today Bodhi trees are planted all around Buddhist monasteries.
Siddhartha spent the next 45 years of his life dedicated to teaching his ways to others as a means to end suffering. He formed a community with the people he taught and that community caught the attention of others and his community began to grow and spread throughout the land. When Siddhartha died, he left behind a strong following of people that were dedicated to his teachings and continued to practice his ways. These teachings became the doctrine is which Buddhists follow to this day, no matter what sect of Buddhism that you are a part of, the heart of it always starts with Siddhartha’s doctrines. that attracted others to Buddhism, gathering masses of people who continued to practice his ways after his death. Emperor Ashoka realized the importance of the religious-like movement that was growing in India and so he made Buddhism an official religion in India during his reign in the 3rd century.