Laughing Buddha

A Monk with A Big Smile and A Large Bag

Wherever you go to a Buddhist temple in China, you’ll see a short fat bald guy with mouth wide open happily laughing. Sometimes he stands by the gate to be the first to greet you while laughing, other times he makes life easier for himself by sitting down in the doorway without crossing his legs, and laughing. His round belly is forever uncovered, but the hidden treasure in his large bag is never exposed.

A Laughing Buddha statue at Green Clouds Temple (碧云寺) in Beijing

Yes, he is one of the most beloved Bodhisattvas in China, known as Bag Monk (布袋和尚), also known as Laughing Buddha, a symbol of contentment and resourcefulness.

An ink painting of Laughing Buddha by a Ming Dynasty artist

About a thousand years ago, there was an itinerant Buddhist monk named Qici (契此) wandering around in the area of Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast. He forever carried a cotton bag over his shoulder containing inexhaustible supplies of candies and toys for kids, and whenever he spotted a grain of rice he would bend over to pick it up and put into his bag, for which he was nicknamed Bag Monk (布袋和尚).

A colour ink painting of Laughing Buddha by a Mind Dynasty artist

Bag Monk wasn’t a handsome guy; he was vertically challenged and horizontally advanced with a well-developed belly. His physical weakness was, however, well balanced by his spiritual strength. He loved to laugh, and laughed wholeheartedly, which is adorable; he also liked to talk, and talked like a comedian, yet behind the cracks and jokes there were prophetic messages, which is more than adorable but venerable. Then one day in 917, he pulled a straight face as he sat straight on a round stone and imparted his last oracular commentary:

弥勒真弥勒,
分身千百亿。
时时示世人,
世人皆不识。

One Maitreya Buddhi,
Billions of embodiments,
Living among ya’ll,
Ya dunno who he is.

With that, he passed away straightaway.

His final theatrical act somehow convinced mandy people that he was the earthly embodiment of Mile Buddha (also known as Bodhisattva Maitreya).

The Future Buddha and Enlightenment Schools in Heaven

Bodhisattva Maitreya was Buddha Shakyamuni’s disciple and is scheduled to be a future Buddha, the first to attain the perfect enlightenment on earth after the historical Sakyamuni. At present, he is running a training school in a garden property within the fourth Desire Heaven Tushita (兜率天), tutoring the ascended souls on Complete Enlightenment.

While he’s busily managing his full-time teaching work, he also travels around to promote his course. Among his countless visits here on earth, once he assumed, as it is said, a mortal appearance of Bag Monk.

In fact, the campus in Tushita is not the only enlightenment school accepting enrolment applications from the earth. There are other Buddhist educational institutions opening to earth-bound students, such as Pure Land. But Tushita campus, which mainly trains tutors and teachers selected from the moral world, is located reasonably near, just four celestial floors above us, while the Pure Land in a distant West offers the most favourable entry requirements to the eligible students from this world.

According to the school program recorded on various sutras, eventually, the time will come for Bodhisattva Maitreya to set up a workshop on earth, in which he is to personally demonstrate the actual process of enlightenment right from rebirth, awakening to nirvana. Then he will hand his school post to Guanyin and go beyond the universe.

Along with Pure Land, Tushita is one of the most popular destinations for Buddhist followers, particularly those from China. And its popularity has enjoyed a big boost from Monk Qici’s bag and laugher.

Since Qizi’s death (or nirvana), Maitreya’s statue has been modelled according to this bag monk’s image which is now praised as being vertically approachable, horizontally expansible with a resourceful belly. His trademark big smile makes him the best customer service personnel in China, and for this, he is not only offered positions as a receptionist in many Buddhist temples but also invited to restaurants and stores to greet costumiers.

Couplets on Laughing Buddha at Chinese Buddhist Temples

A stone carve of Laughing Buddha in a Chinese mountain

Below are some couplets at Chinese Buddhist temples that reflect the spirit of the Laughing Buddha.

A couplet at Tanzhe Temple (潭柘寺) in Beijing:

大肚能容,容天下难容之事,

笑口常开,笑天下可笑之人。

The belly is big, big enough to put up with anything;

The laugh is amusing, amusing enough to make everyone musing.

A couplet at Spirit Rock Temple (灵岩寺) in Mt Emei (峨嵋山), Sichuan:

开口便笑,笑古笑今,凡事付之一笑;

大肚能容,容天容地,与己何所不容。

Open my mouth to laugh at the past, the present and the self;

Broaden my belly to take in the sky, the earth and the people.

A couplet at Thousand Buddha Zen House (千佛禅院) in Hangzhou:

终日解其颐,笑世事纷纭,会无了局;

经年袒乃腹,看胸怀洒落,却是上乘。

Forever keep my grin, observing from sideways makes me wise;

Never cover my tummy, hiding nothing from others sends me free.

A couplet at a temple in Suzhou:

大肚能容,了却人间多少事;

满腹欢喜,笑开天下古今愁。

Puff up a big tummy to accommodate everything, then no conflict can’t be resolved;

Put on a cheerful face to approach everyone, then no misery can’t be dispelled.

A couplet at Reaching Cloud Temple (凌云寺) in Mt Happy (乐山), Sichuan:

笑古笑今,笑东笑西,笑南笑北,笑进笑出,笑自己原无知无识;

观事观物,观天观地,观日观月,观来观去,观他人总有高有低。

Laugh at the past, at the present; about the east, about the west; to the south, to the north. Laugh when I arrive, when I depart, at myself, hence I realise I am so ignorant;

Observe the events, the objects; observe the heaven, the earth; observe the moonlight, the sunbeams. Observe what comes, what goes, about others, thus I discover nobody is perfect.

A couplet at Thousand Buddha Temple (千佛寺) in Jinan, Shandong:

笑到几时方合口;

坐来无日不开怀。

Laugh, with open mouth, until eternity;

Sit, with exposed tummy, at total ease.

A couplet at Arhat Temple (罗汉寺弥勒) in Henyang, Hunan:

大肚能容,问人间恩怨亲仇,个中藏有几许;

开口便笑,笑世上悲欢离合,此处已无些须。

The belly is broad enough to melt any bitterness;

The laugh is gaily enough to dissolve all sadness.

A couplet at a Chinese temple on an island:

大肚皮,千人共见,何所有,何所不有;

开口笑,几时休息,无一言,无一不言。

The huge tummy, that is forever bare, yet not a thing to be seen, though nothing is hidden from the scene;

The big laugh, that never to halt, though not a word to be said, yet everything has been expressed.

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