One Of These Buddhas Is Not Like The Other…

At a local gardening store, I saw a collection of Buddhist states like so:

Of these four statues, only two of them are actually statues of the Buddha, but people (including many Buddhists) frequently confuse which ones are the Buddha and which ones aren’t.

The Buddha,1 that is the historical figure and founder of Buddhism religion, was, if nothing else, an ascetic, meaning that he lived a strict, spartan lifestyle devoted to meditation, training his mind, and personal conduct to avoid harming others in speech, thought and deed. This is why he is often depicted like so:

The Buddha is depicted as:

  • lean
  • seated in meditation
  • possessing a “third eye” on his forehead signifying wisdom
  • having curly hair (explained in detail here)
  • having a lump on his head (signifying enlightenment)
  • wearing simple hand-me-down robes.

By contrast there is the “fat Buddha”:

Despite the name, the “fat Buddha” or “chubby Buddha” isn’t actually a Buddha. It’s a local folk legend from Chinese culture named Budai (Hotai in Japanese), where he like a Santa Claus type figure. From a purely artistic standpoint, notice that he does not have the same features as the other Buddha statue: no curly hair, no lump on his head, no third eye, etc. Buddhist art tends to be heavy in symbolism, similar to Orthodox Christian artwork, so the differences can mean a lot.

Further, the fact that he is called the “laughing buddha” in Chinese as well has probably lent further confusion in translation. Further this use of “buddha” as a loaded-term for any saintly figure isn’t limited to just Chinese language. In Japan, anyone who has passed away is also referred to as a buddha (hotoké 仏), presumably due to the assumption that they will be reborn in the Buddha’s Pure Land (and therefore will inevitably become a fully-enlightened buddha at some point). So even in Buddhist cultures, the term “buddha” gets applied to many popular culture usages that aren’t strictly “Buddhist”.2

All of this is hard to explain in translation, especially to a culture that isn’t historically Buddhist. Also, any Buddhist art that inspires people or brings peace of mind is still something positive, but for clarity the fat buddha is not actually a buddha.

1 Another thing lost in translation. “Buddha” is a title, not a name, like the Pope, the President, etc.

2 The term “Zen” is another overloaded term that gets misused all the time in English-speaking cultures.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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