My son gave me a wonderful Christmas gift, in a wish to support and recognize my practice. He often does so, which also challenges my practice as well This after all is the the boy whose first tattoo was the quote from Buddha placed on his forearm just below the crook of his elbow: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future. Live here, live now!” He said the grandkids had chosen the gift, but it bore the marks of any boy’s choice. It was a 6 inch figure of Hotei, which he explained excitedly, “Glows in the dark, too!”
It looks like a jade figurine. Charge it up under the light, and it glows that bright, oddly comforting radium green, like the pop up traveling alarm clock my grandmother would have in the bedroom when I’d visit her as a young boy. But without the loud tick, tick, tick. I roll over in my sleep and see him there, quietly watching over me with his bag.
I’d always just thought of Hotei as that figure that people would say, when hearing I am a Buddhist, “Oh, that laughing guy with the big belly?” And I’d dutifully explain how he is not the actual Buddha. So I did a little more research on him that I had now that I have him next to my bed. I was surprised to find he’s not just a mythical bodhisattva figure, but based on an actual Zen monk. According to Chinese history, Budai was an eccentric Zen monk who lived in China during the Later Liang (907–923 CE). He was a native of Fenghua. His name means “Cloth Sack.” His Buddhist name was Qieci (literally: “Promise this”). He was considered a man of good and loving character. He is also associated with Maitreya Buddha, and yes, because of his association with giving gifts and food, is often displayed in restaurants and stores. In that bag he carries candy and food for children, though it was also said later in keeping with his Zen practice, that the bag is empty.
And getting him at this time of year I was struck by how similar he is to that other Bodhisattva who carries a bag and is always ready to give time and attention to children. I introduced them to each other amidst my holiday decorations, though I feel they already know each other
I was also pleased and surprised to find there is a koan that Budai is found in. Budai is said to travel giving candy to poor children, only asking a penny from Zen monks or lay practitioners he meets. One day a monk walks up to him and asks, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Budai drops his bag. “How does one realize Zen?” he continues. Budai then takes up his bag and continues on his way. Certainly a good koan, and a good model for how to practice in this new year.
Happy New Year to all. Picking up my bag…