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fat buddha or skinny buddha?

January 4, 2015

“How does a guy who weighs over six hundred pounds have the balls to teach people about self-discipline?”– Jack Nicholson, from the movie, “Anger Management.”

There’s a lot of confusion regarding Buddha statues and pictures. Sometimes Buddha is skinny, and is pictured in deep meditation.

The other popular image of Buddha is of a hugely fat Asian Santa Clause, with a big smiley face, bald head, massive gut and bag of gifts.

Many people will be surprised to know that the statue of the fat Buddha is not a statue of the historical Buddha. The historical Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion, was named Siddhartha Gautama. He’s the skinny Buddha in those statues.

Who then is the fat Buddha, also called the “laughing Buddha?”


Well.. the answer depends on who you ask. If you ask a Chinese person, you’ll be told he’s called “Budai.” According to Wikipedia, Budai was, “an eccentric Chán monk who lived in China during the Later Liang (907–923 CE).”

(Gautama Buddha was born around 500 years before Christ).

“Budai in folklore 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.”

So.. that’s the Chinese version of the fat Buddha.


The Japanese version is a little different. In Japan, the fat Buddha is called Hotei, and is considered one of the “seven lucky gods.”

According to a website called “onmarkproductions,” Hotei is “the god of contentment and happiness, guardian of children, and patron of bartenders. Hotei 布袋 has a cheerful face and a big belly. He is supposedly based on an actual person, and is widely recognized outside of Japan as the Fat, Laughing Buddha. He carries a large cloth bag over his back, one that never empties, for he uses it to feed the poor and needy. It includes an inexhaustible cache of treasures, including food and drink. Indeed, the Japanese spelling of “Hotei” literally means “cloth bag.” He also holds a Chinese fan called an oogi 扇 (said to be a “wish giving” fan — in the distant past, this type of fan was used by the aristocracy to indicate to vassals that their requests would be granted). Hotei is most likely based on the itinerant 10th-century Chinese Buddhist monk and hermit Budai.”

Phra Sangkajai.

To make things even more confusing, there’s a Thai Buddhist arhat “enlightened being/saint” named Phra Sangkajai. The statues of this man are practically identical to the statues of Hotei/Budai. Why is this man important?

According to Wikipedia, Phra Sangkajai “was a Buddhist Arhata (in Sanskrit) or Arahant (in Pali) during the time of the Lord Buddha. ”

(Let me pop in here a moment. “Lord Buddha” refers to the historical Buddha).

“Lord Buddha praised Phra Sangkadchai for his excellence in explaining sophisticated dharma (or dhamma) in an easily and correctly understandable manner. Phra Sangkajai (Maha Kaccana) also composed the Madhupinadika Sutra (Madhupindika Sutta MN 18).

One tale of the Thai folklore relates that he was so handsome that once even a man wanted him for a wife. To avoid a similar situation, Phra Sangkadchai decided to transform himself into a fat monk. Another tale says he was so attractive that angels and men often compared him with the Buddha. He considered this inappropriate, so disguised himself in an unpleasantly fat body.”

Thanks to Wikipedia.. I’m on that site practically every day.

Right then.. so..

In summation..

To call the fat Buddha a Buddha is actually correct. The Chinese believe Budai attained Buddhahood (the Chan/Zen school of Buddhism teaches that all of us have a Buddha nature, but most of us don’t realize it or attain it). Budai became a Buddha.

The Thai people believe Phra Sangkadchai attained Buddhahood as well. Both Sangkadchai and Budai are Buddhas, according to Buddhist tradition.

But neither of them is the person most people think of or talk about when they use the word “Buddha.” Neither of the fat Buddhas is the Buddha. That guy is Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. He’s the one who appears in pictures and statues as the skinny Buddha.  The screenwriter for “Anger Management,” who came up with the quote I used at the beginning of this post, was confused.

Now though, you are not confused. You, dear reader, have just learned that the fat Buddha statues do not portray the historical Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion.

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