The laughing Buddha is a familiar icon with one of the most well-known traditions being to rub the belly of his statue for good luck. But there's more to the legend of the laughing Buddha than his current kitschy image. If we look deeper into his story, we find a long historical and cultural tradition stemming from Japan and China.
He is also known as Hotei in Japanese and Budai in Chinese and is one of the seven gods of good fortune who have origins in Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. Even though he is believed to attract wealth, his legend begins in the 10 century as somewhat of a hobo Buddhist monk who was known for traveling the countryside spreading his Zen attitude.
He carried a bag with him everywhere he went. Some legends say he filled it with whatever he found in his travels while others say his bag was empty. But his full bag is what may have led him to be seen as a symbol of prosperity and luck. In the 15 century, the seven lucky gods became popular with Japanese merchants and his association with business has continued to this day.
He's been depicted in various art forms often as a cheerful, rotund, barely robed, balding man either seated or standing with his bag over his shoulder. He's said to be the incarnation of the god Miroku Bodhisattva, a deity who among other titles is called the Lord of Tusita Heaven who will bring salvation to all sentient beings.
But why does he laugh and is that part of his luck tradition? He laughter may be due to the fact that he's also the god of contentment and happiness. His happy-go-lucky Zen hobo/monk identity certainly fits here. His bag is always full of food for the needy and he's forever cheerful and laughing. He's a guardian of children and sometimes he would give them other treasures from his bag besides food. He's sometimes seen holding a fan, which is said to grant wishes. His image is very popular as a garden statue to attract happiness and good fortune to the home.
Today, you may see a laughing Buddha statue sitting near the door or in offices of businesses placed by people who revere him as a god or teacher, as well as those without any ties to Buddhism. He's known as the patron saint of restaurant owners and bartenders which is why you'll often see him in these establishments, even as a tiny little statue tucked away by the cash register. Much like other luck symbols from different cultural traditions, this jovial fellow made his way into the stable of icons that gamblers, business owners, sweepstakers and anyone who believes visual charms give them a lucky edge like to keep on hand to increase and maintain their flow of prosperity and happiness.
Hotei. JAANUA, 2001. http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/s/shichifukujin.htm
Schumacher, Mark. Hotei - God of Contentment & Happiness. GODS of Japan, A-to-Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist and Shinto Deities, 1995-2013. http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/hotei.shtml