Of all the representatives of religions and spiritualist philosophies, without a doubt the one that usually has a more sympathetic and fun iconographic representation is Buddha. That smiling, happy, carefree appearance, with his characteristic plump figure – bare chest and belly out plus shaved head – is pleasant, almost an invitation to follow his doctrine. However, the character we have just described is not Buddha, despite the fact that this is often believed. It is actually Hotei, a 10th-century monk whose life mixes history and legend. And, yes, he was a Buddhist.
Buddha was a Sakya prince, an Indian clan that ruled the independent state of Sakya Ganarajya, with its capital in Kapilavastu, near Nepal. His real name was Siddhartha Sakiamuni (also Siddhartha Gautama), since Buddha is a word that means “enlightened”, alluding to the renunciation he made of his comfortable position after discovering the reality of human existence that his powerful father had tried to hide from him. Since then he led an ascetic and mendicant life, dedicated to a deep meditation that allowed him to find, after seven days of fasting under the tree of the bhodithe nirvana or state of peace and spiritual liberation.
There are no exact dates for these events, calculating his birth between 563 and 483 BC, while his death would have occurred between 483 and 368 BC, when he was already in his eighties, his legend growing from then on. On the other hand, Hotei lived many centuries later, being born in an indeterminate year of the 9th century and dying around the year 916 or 917 AD. Furthermore, he was not Indian but Chinese, his chronological context being the period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms, a stage of political instability in which, as the epigraph indicates, several minor mandates succeeded each other, serving as a bridge between two important dynasties, the Tang and the Song.
Little more can be added biographically, since practically everything is ignored and only one Zen text survives, dating from 988 AD, which describes him as an eccentric monk who traveled from one place to another with a cloth sack (which in Chinese simplified is said precisely hotel, hence its name), placing it in the coastal kingdom of Wuyue (which included the current province of Zhejiang, where Shanghai is), whose capital was Hangzhou. In this city, in the Great Hall in the Yuelinse Temple (Fenghua district), an embalmed body is preserved and exposed to the public that tradition identifies with Hotei.
Something curious if you take into account the legends that circulate about his appearances post-mortemsurely originated by the narration of the Ching-te ch’uan-teng-lu (The Transmission of the Lamp), a book written by the monk Shi Daoyuan in the 11th century: “From time to time, appearing among men, he proclaims the Truth to the men of that time, but naturally they do not recognize him”. In fact, what has survived of him is a set of anecdotes and legendary stories, probably all apocryphal, to the point that other versions say that he was a nomadic priest called Ch’i-t’zu Qici (Keishi for the Japanese) who lived in Song times, which would delay its chronological location until the passage from the 9th to the 10th century.
And what information is that that has been passing over time? In the first place, the one referring to its appearance that we mentioned at the beginning. Bald, chubby, jubilant and seated, although sometimes he is represented dancing or walking with his bundle, in which he carries various gifts for the poor (coins, fans, flowers or boat-shaped gold ingots) or wielding a ruyi (lucky scepter) and an oogi (wishing fan). He is always attired in a ridiculously open (or paunchy) monk’s robe, which is why he appears half-naked, earning him the comedic nickname Cho-Tei-Shi (or Ho-Tei-Shi), that is. say, “bag of old clothes.”
This iconography and personality traces its roots back several centuries, it seems, although it has changed somewhat over time and the spread of Buddhism in the Far East. The latter is interesting, since Mahāyāna Buddhism (one of its two main branches, the other being Theravāda) had an important school in China, Vietnam and Korea from the 6th century, the Chan. It was the one that took root in Japan seven hundred years later, under the adapted name of Zen, due to the prior syncretic work of masters such as Dahui Zonggao and Hongzhi Zhengjue, who had the idea of introducing extravagant but sympathetic figures to popularize the Chan school.
The Japanese thus adopted Hotei, whom they called Budai, incorporating him into the group of the Seven Gods of Fortune (seven, let’s clarify, was the number of good luck) along with Ebisu, Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten, Fukurokuju and Jurojin, all of them from diverse currents such as Shintoism, Taoism or Hinduism. The members of that pantheon were distributed to be divinities of wealth and prosperity, each one in a certain field (business, agriculture, longevity, etc). Hotei was the patron of fortune tellers and tavern keepers, guardian of childhood, and deity of popularity. His vagabond behavior was revealed contrary to the established norms, which gave him a certain picaresque character.
Starting in the 13th century, the Zonggao and Zhengjue strategy took strong root in Japan as their teachings merged with local folklore. Of course, the classic image of Budai, the Japanese Hotei, was not established until the Edo period (which corresponds to the Tokugawa shogunate, between 1603 and 1868, the year that ended due to the Meiji Revolution) and it did so thanks to a legend , according to which before the arrival of Zen Buddhism there was a priest with an outlandish appearance who laid the first doctrinal foundations. This character was a manifestation of Miroku, the saint who saved those who could not be saved through the beliefs of the Buddha, and Hotei was assimilated to him.
In the Edo period, the iconography of Hotei was enriched with a detail: always appearing surrounded by children, of whom he was a protector, often sheltering them under an umbrella or helping them to wade across rivers on his shoulders, which is why together with them he was look even happier, whereas when he is together with the other six gods he seems rather serious or sad. The thriving Japanese art of those times took advantage of his plump figure to adapt it to handicrafts (for example, incense burners and perfume bottles), animals (it gives its name to a type of fish, the smooth lump) or portraits (smoking a pipe from which smoke comes out in the shape of a round humorous mask with a forced expression: crooked mouth, half-closed eyes…).
Second, in addition to that burlesque appearance, there is the historical data. As we said before, in reality they are not such but an accumulation of vague fables: that if he lived on Mount Siming (near Fenghua, in Zhejiang province), that if he was able to forecast the weather accurately (perhaps because he reached the nirvana in the middle of a storm), that if he spent the night outdoors in any place because his mystical powers protected him from inclement weather, (he even slept on the snow); that if he ate with as much relish as excess; that if he never washed or touched the water; that if he used laughter as a pedagogical method in his teachings (although sensu stricto did not preach)…
The question is how could a character so different from the Buddha come to be identified with him? Above all, there is the cacophonous confusion that occurred in Japan between the names of Buddha and Hotei, there renamed Budai as we saw. Likewise, in the times of the Lang dynasty it was proposed that Maitreya Buddha had to be a benevolent character (that is what the Sanskrit word means maitrī), Hotei’s generous belly being a good symbol of this for two reasons: one, that due to its capacity it could hold a big heart (hence, it became an unofficial custom to stroke its belly to obtain fortune); two, those characteristics made the authorities not consider him dangerous.
On the other hand, there was an old proverb that was attributed to him at the time of his death and led to the belief, despite an imperial prohibition, that he was the expected reincarnation of Gautama Buddha. An expectation that Buddhists longed for and that had already been wrong centuries before by assigning said reincarnation to other historical figures, including Empress Wu Zetian and Master Yunmen Wenyan, for example. The proverb in question went like this:
Maitreya, the true Maitreya / has been reincarnated billions of times. / People are often shown at that instant; / in others they do not recognize it.
Therefore, after his death, several thinkers (such as Xiyan Liaohui, a Chan master from the 13th century, or Gesshū Sōko, a 17th century poet) considered it reasonable to deduce that Hotei was a reincarnated Buddha. As Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia, it is not surprising that it did so already influenced by these alterations and adopting local variants. In China itself, the plump, bald, smiling, and bundled appearance of Hotei was used to represent Angida, one of the Eighteen Arhats, that is, the Arhats. luohans or original disciples of the Buddha (initially reduced to ten by the Chinese, but later increased) who attained nirvana. Angida, cheerful and immortal, she hunted poisonous snakes to prevent them from biting people, keeping in her bag the secrets of Heaven and Earth.
In Mongolia, Hotei was also renamed, in this case with the name Enkh Amaglan Khan, which was how Kangxi, the fourth emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, was referred to in their language (in reality he was called Xuányè, but referring to an emperor by his proper name was considered disrespectful), causing confusion between the two. In Thailand there is also a mistake and on top of that it becomes even more complicated, since the frequent statues and images of Hotei-Buddha assimilate him to a third character: Phra Sangkadchai, a monk who knew Siddhartha personally and who was famous for his simplicity when teaching .
Tradition has it that he was so beautiful that men proposed to him and for this reason he preferred to change his appearance, developing his typical fatness. Another version says that he did it because of his beauty they compared him to Buddha, something that he judged inappropriate. In any case, despite the resemblance, there are two iconographic elements that distinguish Phra Sangkajai from Buddha: the first is not completely bald but retains a little hair and wears a robe typical of Theravada Buddhism (the oldest and most conservative school), leaving one shoulder uncovered, while the second wears the china, covering shoulders and arms, and exposing the chest.
The icing on the cake of all this mess was put by the Western world, when it began to receive the philosophies of the East and applied a secular, worldly patina to them, reducing Hotei to a mere object of consumption and taking the confusion with Buddha to the extreme.
Giuseppina Sechi Mestica, Akal Dictionary of Universal Mythology | Reiko Chiba, The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan | Jerry Vedder, The 7 Propitious Gods: Hotei is okay by me (in Vegder’s Blog) | The Laughing Buddha (in Religion Facts) | Wikipedia