Who is this fat guy? A Buddhist Monk that travels around with a cloth bag over his shoulder and gives out candy to children. Is it Santa Claus? In Japan he is known as Hotei.

He is an enlightened person that has gained a large belly, like the fat-bellied buddhas you may have seen in Chinese restaurants. 

Hotei (this is the Japanese form of the name) has been one of the favorite figures of East Asian popular religion for almost 1000 years; he is known everywhere and to everyone.  Entering Chinese Buddhist temples today,

Hotei’s biographies report that he lived in the first half of the tenth century.  He had no home; he lived as a wandering monk.  Most sources describe him with a round head and an obese, uncovered belly.  The name “Hotei” literally means “hemp-bag”, but was also slang for a glutton. 

Some sources state that he carried a hemp bag over his shoulder.  When he received food by begging, he would immediately taste it and put the leftovers in the bag.  The bag also apparently contained various rubbish, bricks and stones.  Crowds of children would often crowd around him, drawn especially by curiosity about his bag.  Sometimes he would spread out the miscellaneous contents of the bag on the ground, pick up one object at a time, saying “Look here, look here.  What is this?  What is this?”

A particularly famous story about him:  He met a stranger on the road who asked him, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”  (Since Bodhidharma came to bring the Zen lineage from India to China, the question is code for; “What is zen,” or “What is truth.”

Hotei said nothing; he put down his bag and crossed his arms.  The stranger said, “Is there nothing else to it?”   At that Hotei picked up his bag and walked off.  (See if you can understand this presentation.  Clue:  Think wisdom and compassion; think letting go/taking on the burden.)

Hotei may be a composite figure, based not so much on one historical person as much as a type of person, an eccentric or “mad monk,”  who wandered without practicing any obvious discipline or meditation. 

The function of Hotei in East Asain popular religion can be compared in several ways to the function of Santa Claus in American Christianity.  Both figures mediate (create a living connection) between popular values in the society on the one hand and ideals of the greater tradition elite on the other. 

 Santa Claus arrives, like Jesus, on Christmas day; like God, he knows who has been naughty and nice, so you better watch out for Goodness sake.  He embodies a spirit of selfless giving, or charity to all, the core spirit of Christian values. his robust appearance and loud and contagious laughter are trademark for a jolly spirit with Santa Claus as well as Hotei. 

Likewise, Hotei has obvious connections to Zen.  His habit of pointing out objects and asking what they are is a Zen technique; his robes are Buddhist; and there are specific Zen stories about him, he enters the marketplace with helping hands, mixing with fishmongers and barmaids and dirty street kidsTo the Chinese, his fat belly clearly suggests material abundance and prosperity, while his laughing smile is much more inviting than the stern rebukes of a Zen master. 

Santa Claus and Hotei:  They both carry big bags over their shoulder, and in both cases children are eager and curious about the contents of the bag. So I derive that Santa Claus was/is a zen master. Perhaps he drifted to the north pole with elves, grew a beard in order to deal with the cold and set up shop. Over the years he has acquired reindeer and a broader audience and instead of giving out candy, he now gives out toys. Hey, it could be!

have a happy and jolly holiday

 Merry Christmas