Why did the Buddha get fat?
When did the Buddha get fat?
There is a blue who cannot accept the green ... because he lives with a fat man who tries to be thin and different strokes for different people and so on and so on ... I'm an ordinary person. - Sly Stone (1968)
I recently visited Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. In all three places statues and images of the Buddha were to be seen everywhere, some more than a thousand years old. I admit 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 forms, including a very chubby and smiling version popularly known as the fat Buddha is (and occasionally) called 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 thin). In 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 got fat. With an irritated tongue he said, “In China, of course. All of the fried food. "
We giggled, but I was inspired to learn more, and since returning to the US, I've looked around to find out the rest of the story. It turns out that my friend was partly right because the fat Buddha was first depicted in China. However, my friend was also wrong because fried food didn't play a special role in his appearance.
Rather, in traditional China (and elsewhere, including once in Europe), a chubby person meant happiness and fortune for meaningful reasons. Before there was a 7-Eleven or Piggly-Wiggly on every corner, those with an excess of food were of course fine. Why not portray someone enlightened to be happy and rich; d. H. Fat and Happy? Unfortunately, in the modern world we all live in, being overweight is a sign of poor health and a cause for contempt. Well, I accept the modern connotations and regularly go to a gym where most people scowl, including me.
Another notion I've encountered is that the fat Buddha is simply a fallacy in identity. Budai is a deity in Chinese folklore, with an occasional presence in Japan and Vietnam. He is invariably portrayed as a fat and smiling man, and people may have mistaken Budai for the Buddha.
Be that as it may, depictions of revered religious figures for whom there are no photographic records always vary according to time and place, not just in East Asia. You do this in a way that speaks to people, so to speak, in these times and in these places.
Those of us in the western world know that images of Jesus Christ look very different, including some showing him as blonde and blue-eyed, a historical implausibility. Paintings of St. Peter show him sometimes with full hair and sometimes bald. Sometimes he has a beard and sometimes he's clean-shaven. And I can't imagine Moses without a picture of him as Charlton Heston in front of the NRA, at least until other pictures come in, like that suggested by Michelangelo's statue. Even the much younger 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 comes as no surprise that they are as important as how we think about and imagine revered characters. In fact, there is a part of the brain in the right temporal lobe that is specifically responsible for facial memories. This fact is interesting to me because I generally have very poor visual imagery, with the exception of faces. When I remember people, I can remember a lot of facts about them and things they said. But the only visual images I usually have are disembodied faces floating somewhere in my head, much like the Cheshire Cat, which Alice describes as a grin without a cat.
Regular readers of my blog posts know that I write from the perspective of Positive Psychology, so you won't be surprised that I now focus on iconic facial imagery associated with positive psychology.
Some time ago, with too much free time, I used a facial fusion program I found on the internet to merge photos of the various members of the Steering Committee on Positive Psychology put together a decade ago: Marty Seligman, Mike Csíkszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, George Vaillant and me. The resulting composite looked more or less like Captain Kangaroo. That is interesting.
Out of respect for my colleagues and friends, I am not including this image here. In any case, I doubt that an image of Captain Kangaroo as the face of positive psychology will ever prevail. We can all be grateful.
But what we seem to have instead seemed even worse to me. When positive psychology is mentioned in popular media, it seems that no one in charge of the layout can resist accompanying the story with a clichéd smiley face *** that lights everyone up in their jaundiced glory. This iconography is terribly misleading because it equates positive psychology with the study of happiness, with some superficial form of happiness.
Of course, when all other things are the same, smiling is pleasant to do and pleasant to watch, but a smile is not an infallible indicator of what makes life most worth living. When we are very committed to fulfilling activities, when we speak from our heart, or when we do something heroic or good, we may or may not smile, and we may or may not experience dizzying pleasure in the moment. All of these phenomena are central concerns of positive psychology and do not fall within the realm of happiology. None of them are caught by a smiley face.
I invite readers to suggest a better positive psychology symbol.
* It seems generally accepted that the original Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, was born in either India or Nepal some 2500 years ago. As the son of the royal family, he renounced his wealth and position and lived as an ascetic. After six years, enlightenment (also known as awakening) occurred and the Buddha realized that the right path was neither renunciation nor forbearance. So he was probably getting slimmer while looking for enlightenment, but probably not for it. There's no reason to believe he was ever chubby.
** Buddhist tradition lists features associated with the Buddha's "conspicuous" physical presence, such as his 40 teeth, deep blue eyes, long ears and arched instep.
*** An unknown story is that the smiley face icon was created in 1964 by Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts graphic artist, for a life insurance company and received $ 45 for its creation. Neither the insurance company nor the artist Harvey Ball copyrighted the symbol, which - perhaps as a result - has become extremely popular.
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