In Chan or Zen Buddhism, a Chinese School of the Buddhist Order, every human being is a Buddha awaiting Enlightenment. Some Zen thinkers contended that all human beings were already enlightened, though it took time for them to realise it. Whatever his names in the popular tradition : Budai, Qi or Qiecy, the eccentric Chan or Zen monk – meaning ‘Promise-this’, Laughing Buddha was like sixth century BC Siddhartha or Gautam Buddha, a historical person born at Fengua during the reign of later Liang dynasty ruling from 907 to 923 AD, though the two were conceived with widely different images or personalities in visual arts. As an individual he was a man of good loving nature, and as monk, represented happiness, plenitude and wisdom of contentment.
Budai did not take officially to Buddhist Order but renounced all possessions and wandered from here to there giving away what he got – material possessions or inner contentment and happiness. In routine, Budai with his cloth-sack on would move from one place to other and distribute candies or whatever in his sack to children that he met. He would ask Buddhist monks and lay-devotees he encountered for a penny and would distribute among children candies he bought by it. One day, a monk asked him, ‘what is the meaning of Zen?’ Budai dropped his sack; the monk further asked, ‘how one can attain Zen?’ Budai picked his bag and walked away. The meaning was obvious. One, who renounces, knows the meaning of Zen; and one who takes from the world after he has renounced it for others’ weal finds the path to attainment – the Buddhist Middle path. Symbolically under Budai-Zen system of thought children were symbolic of innocent or ignorant masses, and candies, of good and positive life which Budai extended.
A Feng Shui symbol assuring wealth, prosperity and good luck and every good in life and is the source of all positive energies, Budai is a highly venerated icon in Chinese geomancy : its system of astronomy. Feng Shui helps improve the quality of life by combining the laws of Heaven and Earth. Budai has both, positive and negative energies, though while he inhales the ‘negative’ within, emits the positive out. Budai is a sanctum image enshrining a number of temples, particularly in China and the Zen-Buddhism world; however, the presence of Budai is more markedly seen in restaurants, business establishments and houses of individuals across sectarian lines. Apart that for believers Budai is the most popular mystic component of an amulet guarding the wearer from all adversities to the common masses Budai’s overwhelming laughter, innocent smile and the entire form is a source of positive energies for even a look on the image generates a smile – extrovert or invert.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.