When Did the Buddha Become Fat?

Images, especially of faces, are a powerful way to communicate.

Posted Jul 17, 2012 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

There is a blue one who can't accept the green one … for living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one, and different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on … I am everyday people. — Sly Stone (1968)

I recently visited Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan. In all three places, statues and images of the Buddha were everywhere, some more than one thousand years old. I confess that I know little about Buddhism and even less about the Buddha, but I seemed to notice that the depictions of the Enlightened One took all sorts of different forms, including a very chubby and smiling version popularly known as the Fat Buddha (and occasionally as the Laughing Buddha). From what I know about Buddhism and its central tenet of the Middle Path, the Buddha himself should not be depicted as fat* (or skinny for that matter). To my simple-minded view of things, the Buddha should be average** in build and stature.

I asked a friend in Jeonju, South Korea, when and where the Buddha became fat. He said, tongue in cheek, “In China, of course. All that fried food.”

We chuckled, but I was inspired to learn more, and since my return home to the United States, I have been poking around to get the rest of the story. It turns out that my friend was partly correct because the Fat Buddha was first depicted in China. However, my friend was also incorrect because fried food played no special role in his appearance.

Rather, in traditional China (and elsewhere, including once upon a time Europe), a chubby person signified good fortune and wealth, for reasons that make sense. Before there was a 7-Eleven or Piggly-Wiggly on every corner, those with a surplus to eat were, of course, doing well. Why not depict someone who was enlightened as fortunate and wealthy, i.e., fat and happy? Alas, in the modern world in which we all live, being overweight is a sign of poor health and a reason for scorn. Oh well, I accept the modern connotations, and I visit a gym regularly, where most people scowl, including me.

Another notion I encountered is that the Fat Buddha is simply a case of mistaken identity. Budai is a deity in Chinese folklore, with an occasional presence in Japan and Vietnam. He is invariably depicted as a fat and smiling guy, and people may have Budai and the Buddha mixed up.

Be that as it may, depictions of revered religious figures for whom there is no photographic record always vary by time and place, not just in East Asia. They do so in ways that speak, as it were, to people in these times and places.

Those of us in the Western world know that images of Jesus Christ look very different from one another, including some that show him as blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a historical implausibility. Paintings of St. Peter sometimes show him with a full head of hair and sometimes bald. Sometimes he has a beard, and sometimes he is clean-shaven. And I for one cannot think of Moses without having an image of him as the pre-NRA Charlton Heston, at least until other images intrude, like the one suggested by Michelangelo’s statue. Even the much more recent Joseph Smith (1805-1844), who founded the Church of Latter-Day Saints, looks very different from picture to picture. Check out Google images to see what I mean.

Images, especially of faces, are a powerful way of communicating, and it is no surprise that they figure so prominently in how we think about — and imagine — revered figures. Indeed, there is a part of the brain, in the right temporal lobe, responsible specifically for facial memories. This fact is interesting to me because, in general, I have very poor visual imagery, except for faces. When I remember people, I can call to mind lots of facts about them and things that they have said. But the only visual images I usually have are disembodied faces floating somewhere in my mind, kind of like the Cheshire Cat, described by Alice as a grin without a cat.

Regular readers of my blog entries know that I write from the perspective of positive psychology, so you will not be surprised that I now turn the focus of this essay to iconic facial images associated with positive psychology.

A while ago, with too much free time on my hands, I used a facial merger program I found on the Internet to meld photographs of the various members of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee assembled a decade ago: Marty Seligman, Mike Csíkszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, George Vaillant, and me. The resulting composite looked more-or-less like Captain Kangaroo. That’s interesting.

Out of respect for my colleagues and friends, I do not include that image here. In any event, I doubt that an image of Captain Kangaroo as the face of positive psychology will ever catch on. We can all be grateful.

But what we seem to have instead struck me as even worse. When positive psychology is featured in the popular media, it seems that no one in charge of layout can resist accompanying the story with a clichéd smiley face***, beaming at everyone in its jaundiced glory. This iconography is terribly misleading because it equates positive psychology with the study of happiness and indeed with a superficial form of happiness.

All other things being equal, smiling is, of course, pleasant to do and pleasant to observe, but a smile is not an infallible indicator of what makes life most worth living. When we are highly engaged in fulfilling activities, when we are speaking from our hearts, or when we are doing something heroic or good, we may or may not be smiling, and we may or may not be experiencing giddy pleasure in the moment. All of these phenomena are central concerns to positive psychology, and they fall outside the realm of happiology. None of them is captured by a smiley face.

I invite readers to suggest a better icon for positive psychology.

* What seems to be generally agreed is that the original Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, was born in either India or Nepal some 2500 years ago. The son of royalty, he renounced his wealth and position and lived as an ascetic. After six years, enlightenment (aka awakening) occurred, and the Buddha’s realization was that the right path was one that followed neither renunciation nor indulgence. So, he was likely increasingly lean while seeking enlightenment but likely not afterward. There is no reason to think he was ever chubby.

** Buddhist lore enumerates features associated with the Buddha’s “striking” physical presence, like his 40 teeth, deep blue eyes, long ears, and arched insteps.

*** A not well-known story is that the smiley face icon was created for a life insurance company in 1964 by Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts graphic artist, who was paid $45 for his creation. Neither the insurance company nor artist Harvey Ball copyrighted the symbol, which has — perhaps as a result — become extremely popular.