So I was wondering the other day while I was brushing my teeth, why is the Buddha depicted as being fat and bald? Theologically, the primary goal of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, or reach nirvana; not to stuff yourself into obesity. I can see how having no hair, and not worrying about it, dovetails with the idea of the mind/sentience/enlightenment. But fat? So I had to find out what was up with the big fat dude that is probably the most recognized icon of Buddhism.
First, Gautama Buddha, the man who became “The Buddha,” was never fat according to the Pali canons, where he is described as being fit his entire life, about 6’1″ tall, and possessing a strong athletic build. Nothing chubby about him.
Second, the fat and bald icon commonly referred to (by non-Buddhists) is not “The Buddha,” but the Budhai. I’m sure the names sound exactly alike to Western ears, and I think that is where the confusion began.
Budhai is traditionally depicted as a fat, bald man wearing a robe and wearing or otherwise carrying prayer beads. His name is translated as “Cloth Sack” and he keeps all his worldly goods in one. So, he’s poor but content. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, which is how he got the Chinese nickname of the Laughing Buddha. He is often depicted entertaining or being followed by adoring children. In folklore, Budai is admired for his happiness, plenitude, and wisdom of contentment. One belief popular in folklore maintains that rubbing his belly brings wealth, good luck, and prosperity.
Budhai, once a monk, is usually identified with or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
So the next time you think you’re looking at The Buddha when see this dude:
the man you’re really thinking about looks more like this:
I’m thinking The Buddha probably brushed his teeth astudiously; Budhai, maybe not so much. If I were as content as Budhai, I might not get so worked up over brushing my own teeth!
And maybe the future Buddha will be a woman, who seems to embody the best of both of these icons. Hmm?