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Budai (Po-tai) "The Laughing Buddha" (Jp.: Hotei)

Budai, the laughing buddha

Budai, the laughing Buddha

The Laughing Buddha - Budai - was a Buddhist monk and are seen as the "God of Contentment". In the Chinese Buddhist pantheon, he is a Bodhisattva of the ninth stage. Usually represented laughing, well fed and exposing his naked belly, sometimes with a sack at his side.

Popular subject in Chinese art, frequently encountered in porcelain decorated in famille rose enamels. Most of these porcelain figures dates to the 20th century. You can get a general idea of their age by the weight and the look of the hole in the base, if any. Light weight, thin, even inside walls, bright gold and enamels, no wear and an even, round and tidy hole in the base are generally - rule of thumb - after 1949 up until now. Older pieces are heavy and with dull enamels. The best pieces we can expect to find are from Early Republic period (1915-35), usually with an impressed mark on the base. Artistically the better figures expresses individuality in its facial features.

Generally the Chinese worship him for wealth and happiness and there are those who even believed strongly that he is able to bequeath them with children as one of his most popular forms is that with five children surrounding him. However the images of him that are found in the temples normally depict a fat genial laughing figure with a mountainous belly, in a sitting posture, and having a large bag beside him.

Because of this appearance, many people choose to call him 'The Laughing Buddha'. This portraiture of him came about as a result of one of his emanations in China by the end of the Tang dynasty. There lived a monk whom everyone addressed as Budai, meaning 'Cloth Bag', since he was always seen carrying a large hemp bag wherever he went. He was a native of the Chekiang Province. No one really knew his true name while people used to refer to him as 'the monk with the sack'. Here he appeared as one who is extremely kind, jovial and helpful and although he had no home or temple which he could call his own, he was always in a cheerful mood. He wandered about here and there to beg for food, giving advice and teaching to those who cared to hear him, or he could be seen collecting all kinds of things which he would put into his bag.

As the people got to know him better they soon discovered that he was also extremely good at reading their fortune and predicting the weather. Even by his daily actions they were able to guess the outcome of the weather conditions for whenever he was seen hurrying around in sandals, rain was sure to follow, and whenever he was seen wearing shoes and relaxing here and there, bright and sunny days would prevail. Budai was also seen sleeping comfortably on the snow during cold winters and resisted taking a bath during the hot summers. He died sitting in the corridor of a temple, leaving behind a verse which said:

Due to this verse, people began to see Budai as an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, which explains the name and appearance of the current day's depiction of him as a "Laughing Buddha"