The Story Behind The Many Different Buddha Statues

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If you’ve ever seen a statue of the Buddha in a Chinese restaurant, chances are he had a big smile and an even bigger belly.

You may find it hard to justify this image of a life-loving, indulgent man with stories of the Buddha’s famous restraint and disdain for desire. Museum-goers may have even seen statues of an emaciated Buddha meditating while he starves.

Buddha statue head with shadow behind
olaf scheffers on Unsplash

So, what gives? Was Siddartha Gautama a yo-yo dieter, or does everyone just portray him the way they like to envision him?

The answer is pretty simple: There’s more than one Buddha.

Siddartha Gautama is the founder of Buddhism and the figure known as the current Buddha.

Scholars disagree on exactly when he lived, but most believe he was born in fifth or sixth century B.C. A soothsayer told Gautama’s father that the boy would grow up to be a king or a homeless monk.

Statue of Siddartha
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From that point, the father did everything he could to raise Gautama in luxury and shield him from the unpleasantness of life. Nevertheless, Gautama ventured alone into the city. Without his father’s staff to hide the sick, elderly, and dying city residents, Gautama finally got a glimpse of reality, living off a single grain of rice per day and eventually becoming the emaciated figure associated with some sects of Buddhism.

When using the word “Buddha” to refer to a single individual, most Buddhists are referencing Siddartha Guatama. However, any sufficiently enlightened individual can become a Buddha.

Most Buddhists recognize from 26-29 individual Buddhas.

Note that these are simply the named Buddhas; a fundamental belief of Buddhism is that all individuals hold the capacity to attain enlightenment, even if they don’t choose the exact path of the original Buddha. 

Laughing Buddha statue
Josch13 on Pixabay

Budai, known as the Laughing Buddha and pictured above, was beloved for being a poor but content monk.

According to legend, he gave candy to poor children and begged for small amounts of money to survive. He lived life without desire and exemplified Gautama’s “Middle Way,” a method of attaining enlightenment that rejects extremes and encourages moderation.

Buddha statue with blue sky
Manfred Richter on Pixabay

The people revered Budai so much that they identified him as the Maitreya, or “the Buddha who will come in the future.” He had few possessions, which he carried in a cloth sack, and he was said to be extremely content with his simple life.

Over time, statues of Budai became a popular part of Chinese and Japanese folklore, as they’re said to invite peace and prosperity into an establishment. To enjoy those benefits, however, business owners have to rub the statue’s belly (hey, good luck isn’t free).

Green laughing Buddha statue, surrounded by green leaves
Felix Lichtenfeld on Pixabay

Guatama and Budai aren’t the only Buddhas, of course, and statues of the other named Buddhas certainly exist. Still, they’re two of the most influential and popular figures in the religion, so when you see a Buddha statue, you’re probably looking at one of the two.

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