“Fat Buddha”

The iconography of Buddha has developed alongside the religion’s globalization; with each new territory it travels to, the vehicle is transformed and adapts to its new environment.  It’s culture has a habit for hitting home with a diverse population, getting at the core of life’s meaning and philosophy of the way of life. Buddhist art is as representative of the teachings of Buddhist scripture and are intended for guidance in the pursuit of Nirvana.  Each country in which Buddhism has a major religious following, the image of Buddha has transformed to depict the new adaptation of the religion’s practice.

The original image of Buddha can be found in the massive statues throughout India, Southeast Asia, parts of China, and central Asia.  Depicted as a moderate figure sitting in the lotus position, usually clasping a begging bowl in one hand creating a gesture of fearlessness.  The original Shakyamuni Buddha was a man of a mere 85 pounds and a slim figure as would be the average for his time.  After his death, following schools created a hyperbolic statue standard in his image depicting the immensity of his knowledge. As this image grew and traveled around parts of Asia, one image became more heavily globalized and accepted, and that is the image of “Fat Buddha.”

The image of “Fat Buddha” originated in China with Zen Buddhism. The thing is, that’s not really Buddha; his name is Hotei. He’s a deity of contentment and abundance, originally based (the statue anyway) on a real Chinese Zen monk named Budai who lived in the early 6th century. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname in Chinese, the “Laughing Buddha.” He’s also sometimes associated with Maitreya, who is a Buddha who will appear in the future. Remember the original story of Siddhattha Gotama (The ORIGINAL Buddha). The prince left the city to go live in the wilderness for six years. While he was out there, he lived the life of an ascetic, refusing food and nearly starving to death. Afterwards, he turned to the Middle Path, avoiding all extremes, such as eating too much or too little. After recovering from his time as a starving ascetic, the real Buddha was almost certainly a normal-sized man, not fat like Hotei. The style of statue described earlier is probably a lot more realistic.

But if you’re running a restaurant or public business, which one looks happier? Which one would you want advocating your product? Yes, in the capitalistic Western world, fat & sassy wins out over quiet and contemplative every time. Eventually people just started calling the fat man “Buddha,” possibly due to the similarity with the name Budai.  Similar depictions of “Fat Buddha” can be seen in the company True Religion’s logo. It’s become accepted in the West that “Fat Buddha” sells both in restaurants and fashion.  Through its travel it has transformed to the capitalist culture of the West and has been “incorporated” into the consumerist lifestyles of capitalist countries.  Contrasting this with the original image and usage in the East, the globalization of Buddhism has taken on massive transformations.

This particular transformation could have occurred with China’s global emergence and economic surge.  As China took a forefront position in the global economy, the Chinese Zen “Fat Buddha” image became open to global trade and exchange.  It has now found its way to the West to be used as a selling point in a consumer society.

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