The big belly can contain, embracing matters difficult to withstand in this world. The smile is always there, laughing at those who are laughable in this world.
– Buddhist Saying (describing Maitreya Bodhisattva)
Perhaps as equally well known as Sakyamuni Buddha all over the world is who is often called ‘The Laughing Buddha’, the image of a jolly good fellow with a big belly, who grins joyously from ear to ear. Technically speaking, he is still a Bodhisattva, though the next Buddha in our world system (in some 5.6 billion years’ time) – as Maitreya (the one with loving-kindness). This popular depiction of Maitreya arose during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923) in China. Born in Fenghua, he once manifested as a monk called Qieci (契此: Promise This). He was nicknamed Budai (布袋: Cloth Bag, or Hotei in Japanese) as he was always seen with a big bag that promised goodies.
His always welcome expression speaks of many of his virtues, which we should emulate – of acceptance, understanding, kindness, abundance and contentment despite poverty, generosity, open-heartedness, magnanimity, patience, good cheer, humour… Somewhat like a Buddhist Santa, he would walk the streets and ask adults to spare him a penny each, with which he would buy gifts of candy and fruit for the bag slung over his back. Having filled it, he would go to the middle of the market place, where children would gather to play and share his goodies. In effect, he maintained a street kindergarten, where he would skilfully teach the Dharma. One day, a Chan (Zen) master encountered his good works and asked him ‘(1) What is the significance of Zen?’ Venerable Budai immediately plopped his bag down on the ground in silent answer.
‘Then’, asked the monk, ‘(2) What is the actualisation of Zen?’ Smiling as usual, he instantly swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way without a word. What did he mean? (1) The significance of Zen is to let go off all worldly burdens and be free without question. (To save oneself from suffering) (2) The actualisation of Zen is to pick up the burden of helping the world be free without question. (To save others from suffering). This perfectly exemplifies the Diamond Sutra teaching of ‘应无所住而生其心’ [To (actively) give rise to this mind (of Bodhicitta – to help one and all attain enlightenment) without abiding anywhere (due to attachment)]. Louder than any words, Master Budai thus departed with a powerful teaching – with his continual and non-hesitant acts of selfless compassion!
Maitreya, the true Maitreya, has thousands of hundreds of millions of manifestations, often instructing people of their time, even when they themselves do not recognise him.
– Master Budai (Wall verses hinting of his identity before his passing)
The Buddha’s Real Views on Meat-Eating