Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.
Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life.
Those comments called to mind the itinerant monk Hotei (pronounced HOH-TAY), who did indeed keep laughing, at least in Buddhist legend. Popularly known as the Laughing Buddha, Hotei was a tenth-century century Chan (Zen) monk, who roamed the Chinese countryside carrying a bulging linen bag over his shoulder. Children loved Hotei, and no wonder: along with his personal belongings, his bag contained candies, fruit, and other goodies, which he freely gave away. Over time, the historical Hotei, whose name in Japanese means “cloth bag,” became a Buddhist deity, a god of contentment and a guardian of children. He also became a popular figure in Zen brush-paintings, where he is portrayed as bald, fat, disheveled, and jolly. Justly dubbed the Asian Santa Claus, he wears an open robe, which exposes his chest and his ample belly.
Stories featuring Hotei abound, but the one most often cited in Zen literature concerns a random dialogue between Hotei and an old Zen master whom he meets on the road. “What is the essence of Zen?” asks Hotei’s interlocutor. Rather than reply in words, Hotei puts his bag down. “And what is the realization of Zen?” the master further inquires. Again without a word, Hotei picks up his bag and continues his life’s journey, begging for pennies and distributing his gifts to the children of the world.
Over the centuries, interpretations of this encounter have varied in tone and emphasis, but most commentators have viewed the story as a parable of Zen practice. Although Hotei might be described–or dismissed–as a happy hobo with a generous heart, he is in fact an enlightened Buddhist monk–a Zen master himself–whose silent responses to the master’s questions exemplify two fundamental aspects of Zen practice.
In response to the first question, Hotei puts his bag down. By so doing, he performs a kind of charade, enacting in external form the inner shift that occurs in Zen meditation: a shift from ego-centered thinking to selfless awareness. Eihei Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, called this shift the “backward step.” In Dogen’s famous formulation, “body and mind fall away,” as do views, opinions, and attachments, returning the practitioner to a state of open awareness. By putting his bag down, Hotei demonstrates an understanding of this process.
By picking his bag up again, however, Hotei enacts a complementary aspect of the practice, namely the reentry of the enlightened practitioner into ordinary life. Hotei is a wandering penniless monk, who has fully accepted the realities of impermanence and radical uncertainty. By once again shouldering his bag, he resumes his role in life and his life’s work, which consists of helping people in general and children in particular be a little happier. In the language of Mahayana Buddhism, Hotei is a bodhisattva, who brings the mind of wisdom and compassion into the messy, uncertain, ordinary world. By picking up his bag, he becomes who he is, and he gets on with his work.
But why is he laughing? What’s so funny? In his article “The Laughing Buddha and Human Pomposity,” Dr. Philip Woollcott suggests that the celebration of Hotei and the “boisterous Zen humor” he represents came about as a healthy reaction to pious dogma and a calcified religious bureaucracy. “Enlightenment,” Dr. Woollcott notes, “is the burning up of ego, the release from self-deception, and a new beginning; hence its connection with the child.” All too often, however, the experience of enlightenment leads to self-importance and grandiosity. The presence of the Laughing Buddha subverts “hierarchy and pomp.” It “collapses hierarchies and separateness among people.” In contrast to scornful or supercilious laughter, a good belly laugh is a “sign of sanity.” It rejoins us with the human family.
Perhaps that’s why Allegra’s spontaneous, volcanic laughter was such a delight and wonder to behold. A moment of Zen, one might be tempted to call it, had Jon Stewart not patented the phrase.