Budai: Feeling lucky, punk?
Many Buddhists like to do stuff for luck. They wear amulets, consult oracles, or ask monks for lottery numbers. Some have statues like the one above and rub his big belly to bring good fortune. All this may be comforting or fun, but is it Buddhism? In other words, is it part of Buddhist practice as extolled by Buddha in the various texts attributed to him? Or, is it something added to these teachings, something that even contradicts or conflicts with Buddha’s instructions on how to live a Buddhist life? This author feels the latter is nearer the truth, and that believing in luck & seeking to be lucky is a distraction from real Buddhist practice.
The photo above is that of Budai, a popular Chinese character originating in Zen Buddhism, a common sight across the Far East, and now the West. He’s also been dubbed ‘the Laughing Buddha’ for his jovial countenance, and is called Hotei in japan. He is a kind of St. Francis of Assisi figure in that he was a poor monk associated with the welfare of children. He is said to have wandered around ancient China giving gifts to children and dispensing Zen wisdom, mainly through the example of his behaviour. More popularly, though, he is considered a source of luck, in that if you rub his large stomach it will bring you fortune, especially in the form of money.
Are you ready for the belly?
Budai can be appreciated for other qualities than bringing luck, however. He also symbolizes the pithy wisdom of Zen, and personifies a life of simplicity and compassion. Having an image of him can be used to remind us of these qualities in our lives, so that each of us becomes something of a laughing buddha ourselves. Such symbols, whether it’s Budai, Buddha, Guan Yin, et cetera, can assist & inspire our practice of the Buddhadharma. However, if we attach supernatural characteristics to these images that require us to treat them more than inanimate symbols, we risk replacing Buddhist practice with superstition.
This tendency to treat objects as having miraculous abilities isn’t limited to statues & paintings. As mentioned above, amulets are also widely believed to bring fortunes to those that wear them. In Thailand, where this author resides, superstitious beliefs regarding amulets is commonplace, and the trading of such items can be a lucrative business. Every so often, certain amulets will become the focus of a nationwide craze, people believing that these objects can bring wealth, virility, fertility, success, and even protect the wearer from injury or death. There news accounts to counter this latter belief where wearers of prized amulets have died in accidents in the belief that this couldn’t happen! This doesn’t deter people from putting their faith into protective amulets, however. It seems that people will believe anything given the right conditions for such irrational beliefs to arise.
Laughing with mindfulness.
Often, it appears that belief in luck replaces application of Buddha’s teachings in people’s lives. Linked to superstition and an overblown emphasis on merit-making, seeking luck concerns more people than studying Buddha’s teachings, behaving ethically, or meditating. Is it that rubbing Laughing Buddha’s paunch is easier than studying the Buddhadharma, that making merit is more convenient than keeping precepts, and that wearing an amulet is much less demanding than sustaining mindfulness? Surely, the answer is Yes. Walking Buddha’s path takes much effort & focus, whereas images, amulets and merit-making take up less of our time & effort. But which is of more benefit to ourselves and others? Which will help us to awaken to reality and alleviate suffering if not eradicate it altogether? Buddhists need to be clear what Buddha’s teachings are, and which he promoted – seeking luck or seeking awakening? When we find out the answer to this question, we will be ripe to practice Buddhism as Buddha intended, with or without a rub of Budai’s corpulent tummy.