History of the Happy, Laughing Buddha
[Page Updated 2 March 2019]
For many non-Buddhists the image that pops into their minds when the word ‘Buddha’ is mentioned is that of a happy fat man on a Buddhist amulet. In English this iconic image is usually referred to as the ‘laughing Buddha’ or ‘the happy fat Buddha’.
What most non-Buddhists fail to realize is that this image is not a depiction of the historical Buddha who is credited with created the religion now known as Buddhism. The confusion occurs because the word ‘Buddha’ simply means to be ‘awakened’ – it is an honorific title that can apply to anyone who has managed to achieve enlightenment. The most famous person to carry this title is Siddhattha Gotama Buddha because his teachings have reached every corner of the globe – this is why he is referred to as The Buddha. The image of the happy fat man is actually a depiction of Maitreya Buddha. His followers believe that he will one day come to Earth in order to provide a new set of teachings that will allow humans to escape suffering.
History of the Happy Fat Buddha Amulets
It is believed that the image of the happy fat Buddha is based on a character from Chinese folklore known as Budai – this name can be translated into English as ‘cloth sack’. He was a Buddhist monk who, despite living through extreme poverty, managed to remain constantly happy. He is said to have lived in China at some point around the Liang Dynasty (502-557 CE) – this is well over a thousand years after Siddhattha Gotama Buddha came to be known as The Buddha.
Budai was viewed by his contemporaries as somewhat of an eccentric. He believed that possessions could be a real stumbling block to achieving Nirvana. He kept all of his belongings in a simple cloth sack, and this was more than enough to keep him satisfied. Budai was once asked by a junior monk about the nature of Nirvana, and he responded by putting down his sack. Without saying a word he indicated how achieving this state was just about letting go. When the monk asked for further clarification on how to achieve Nirvana the monk Budai simply picked up his sack and walked into the forest – this was his answer for the novice monk. Many Chinese Buddhists believe that Budai was an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha, and it is for this reason that his amulets remain so popular.
Importance of Maitreya Buddha
When Buddhists show devotion or respect to a happy fat Buddha statue or image, they are directing this towards Maitreya Buddha and not Siddhattha Gotama Buddha. Maitreya is a special type of enlightened being known as a Bodhisattva. He has already achieved his own enlightenment but has decided to postpone final Nirvana so that he can help all humans achieve this state. It is common for Buddhists to believe that he will return to Earth at some future date in order to provide humanity with a new set of teachings that is more appropriate for modern times. There are even some Buddhists who believe that he might already be here on the planet.
The predictions about the arrival of Maitreya Buddha suggest that he will appear after the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama Buddha have been completely forgotten. This would suggest that it might be some time before Maitreya returns. Other Buddhists would argue that the original teachings have become so watered down that that the time for a new teacher is already here.
Happy Fat Buddha Amulets
Amulets that contain an image of the laughing Buddha are popular in China and South East Asia, and they are becoming increasingly sought after in the west. Maitreya is believed by traditionalists, to currently reside in Tusita heaven, and he will remain there until the time has come for his return to Earth. It is said that he spends most of his time sending blessings and reciting mantras to help the people who have yet to awaken. The laughing Buddha amulets are not only a reminder of the goodness of this Bodhisattva, but it is also claimed that they bring the wearer good fortune. It is also hoped that his followers who die before his arrival on Earth will get to wait with him in Tusita heaven.
We have a small number of Laughing Buddha amulets here on-site, and we are always looking for more. They are quite hard to find in Thailand, and not as popular as they are in China, for instance. At the moment we have some lovely jade laughing Buddha pendants – it seems that we sell all we get. I think we have about 3 left. If you want one, just email us quickly.