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Laughing Buddha

3 January 2007

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 lager bag is never exposed.

Laughing Buddha Qizi

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.

About a thousand years ago, there was an itinerant Buddhist monk named Qici (契此) wandering around in the area of Zhejiang Province, in China’s east coast where beautiful lake city Hangzhou is situated. He forever carried a cotton back over his shoulder containing inexhaustible supply of candy and toys for kids (Santa Clause of East?), 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).

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 whole heartedly, which is adorable; he also liked to talk, and talked like 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:


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

With that he passed away straightaway.

His finial theatrical act somehow convinced the people that he was in fact the earthly embodiment of Bodhisattva Maitreya.

Mr. Maitreya is believed to be a future Buddha, the first one to attain the perfect enlightenment on earth after historical Sakyamuni. At present he has reportedly rented a garden property in the forth Desire Heaven Tushita (兜率天) where he has set up a non-profit boarding school called Pure Land. With the help of numerous volunteers, he tutors the ascended souls on Dharma theories and practices. Among the list of honourable guest speakers, there are earsplittingly well-known names like Sakyamuni and Guanyin.

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

In fact, Pure Land is not the only Dharma school accepting enrolment applications on earth. There are other major Buddhist educational institutions opening to earth-bound students, notably Chan (Zen) School. Around the universe, the Dharma campuses offering enlightenment courses are allegedly as many as the sands on a beach. But Pure Land is one of those located reasonably near, just four celestial floors above us, and it has relatively low entry requirements.

According to the school program schedule recorded on various sutras, eventually the time will come for Mr Maitreya to open a temporary 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 with all those graduates.

Pure Land was one of the most popular destinations for the Buddhist followers, particularly in China and other northeast and southeast countries. 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 modeled according to his image which is now praised as being vertically approachable, horizontally expansible with a resourceful belly. His trademark grin makes him the best customer service personnel in China, and for this he is not only offered positions as receptionist in most Buddhist temples but also invited to restaurants and stores to greet costumiers.

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

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


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:


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 others.

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


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:


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 Happy Cloud Temple (凌云寺) in Mt Happy (乐山), Sichuan:


Laugh at the past, at the preset; 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:


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:


The belly is broad enough to melt any bitterness;
The laugh is gaily enough to dissolve all sadness.

A couplet at a temple in Taiwan:


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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