The Laughing Buddha in many Asian cultures has come to represent a Buddha of contentment and abundance. He does not have the solemn air of the historical Buddha. On the contrary, he has a very open and jolly demeanor. The statue of the Laughing Buddha is nearly always seen carrying a linen sack, which is always full, which signifies abundance, prosperity and good luck. The sack is usually full with many valuable items, such as the rice plants, indicating wealth, sweets for children, and other food items for the poor and needy.
In the her book “Laughing Buddha: The Alchemy of Euphoric Living”, Sakshi Chetana wrote : “More than a thousand years ago, there was a Zen monk who lived in a small province in China. His name was Quieci. He was affectionately called Ch’i-t’zu. Ch’i-t’zu was an eccentric but loved character who worked small wonders such as predicting the weather. He lived presumably around the eighth century. Some say that he lived in China during the Later Liang Dynasty (907- 923 CE). He was a native of Fenghua. He was considered a man of good and loving character.
This monk was extraordinary in that he did not bear the usual somber air of the monks or religious persons. He was very jolly, helpful, compassionate and almost always in a mood of joyful celebration of life. He was always found laughing; hence the name the Laughing Buddha. He taught people to live life happily, enjoying the simple moments of joys that the life brings. People loved and admired this joyful, almost always euphoric character. People used to call him “Budhai”, the word being derived from the “Buddha”, meaning the enlightened one.
In course of time, after his death, people forgot his original name, though they could not forget this simple, euphoric personality, who showed them the way to a joyful living. They used to remember him by the name “Budhai”. The story of the laughing Buddha “Budhai” spread across many countries in the Asia, including Japan and India. Budhai, in Japanese accent became “Ho-tai”. In many other accents he became Hotei or Pu-Tai.
After his death the laughing Buddha was proclaimed to be the re-incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, the enlightened one. Some Buddhist traditions consider him a Buddha or a bodhisattva, often identifying him as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is named in the Tripitaka as the Buddha of a future age.”
The identification of Laughing Buddha with the Maitreya Buddha is because of a hymn that he is said to utter just before his death.
“Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is manifested from time to time;
But people do not recognize him.”
Statues of Budhai or Budai form a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines, where he is usually referred to by the Sanskrit name Maitreya. According to I Kuan Tao, he represents many teachings, including contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kindheartedness. In Japanese folklore, Hotei came to be regarded as one of the seven lucky gods of Taoism.
He is the Buddha, who is always works for the benefit of the weak, the poor and children. He is said to help us realize our true essence within, which connects us with all beings.