Thursday, 22 December 2016

Christmas Koan

Pictured: not the Buddha.
Ask a random Westerner to describe the Buddha, and you're likely to hear something about a "big fat laughing guy." I once heard a radio preacher sneer down my entire religion as "people who think you kin git ta heaven bah prayin' to a big, fat Byoo-dah."

(By the way, if he happens to read this, may I suggest you refrain from commenting on others' beliefs until you know, at minimum, whether they pray, and if so, to whom.)

We Zenners find this nonsense especially grating since we barely even acknowledge the figure they're referring to.

For the record, the dude in the above photo is Hotei (Budai, Pu-Tai, 布袋, Bố Đại...). Not the Buddha. Not a buddha. Not even a significant legendary figure, like Fudo or Kanzeon. Just a rankless Ch'an monk of the Liang Dynasty.

Not that my brother Hotei didn't have his noteworthy points. First off, unlike most Buddhist monks, he was fat. (Note that the actual Buddha once starved himself nearly to death, and then adjusted his practice to embrace, shall we say, non-stupid asceticism. That's why he's usually depicted as sensibly slim, and occasionally as terrifyingly emaciated, in admiration of his earlier, if misguided, conviction.)

Hotei's girth was all the more miraculous because he was a begging hermit. (High five to the Homeless Brothers!) How you maintain such a waistline on handouts is one of the mysteries of his practice.

Especially since he gave away everything he got. Hotei carried this dimly-sourced loot in a bag over his shoulder, which, upon deposition, turned out to be mostly filled with sugary treats that he handed out to children like… (Sorry. Even I can't go there.)

You see this coming, right?

Not yet?

OK, dig this: the central practice of Hotei's monastic rule was laughter. He was always cutting loose with a big, jolly laugh that announced joy and peace to the world, as he humped a bottomless bag through town on his fat back, doling out presents to every child...


Oh, come on! Now you're just trying to piss me off.

The reason you see more statues of Hotei than Gautama in Asia is the same reason you see more Santas than Jesuses at Christmastime: he's more fun, less threatening, and doesn't remind people of suffering.

And it's that last bit I like to meditate on.

Hotei is unpopular among modern Zenners because he's embarrassingly emotional, dangerously untamed – wandering around teacherless, eschewing all acts of devotion save his self-authored laughter practice – and worst of all, he does that annoying Bodhidharma thing of preaching no-key enlightenment.

Don't waste time bowing and chanting and folding things just so and being obedient to this and that, says Hotei. Especially, don't confuse misery with discipline.

Bodhidharma said "just sit." Hotei says "just laugh."

And that's what offends us. Because if Bodhidharma crapped on social ambition and Confucianism and gracious deference to hierarchies, at least he wasn't ho-ho-ho-ing it up in the town square, rubbing our pious faces in it.

"You're in pain?" says the fat old hobo. "I hate it when that happens. But don't sweat it, because sooner or later, one way or another, your problems are doomed. Hey, they can't survive without you, can they?"

And then he laughs. Because that's freakin' hysterical.

Therefore, in honour of Christmas, and to bow in ironic deference to my unpretentious brother, I offer fellow seekers the Koan of Hotei. To my certain knowledge, it's the only nod to the Buddhist Santa Claus in our entire canon. It's also my favourite koan. (A distinction it shares with all of them.)


A monk asked Hotei, "What is the meaning of Ch'an?"

Hotei put down his bag.

"How does one realise Ch'an?" the monk asked.

Hotei threw his bag on his back and walked on.

Happy holidays, brothers and sisters. See you on the road.

Emaciated Siddhartha Fasting Gautama Buddha
Jolly old Gautama.

(Photos courtesy of Helanhuaren [Hotei figurine], Akuppa John Wigham [emaciated Siddhartha statue], and Wikimedia Commons.)
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