City Walks – Hotei


A Famous Buddhist

When is a Buddha not The Buddha? When he’s Hotei.

The rotund, smiling, bald Buddha figure you see all over represents a different person from the serene, composed figure you also see. In this photo, you can see both.

Hotei and Buddha statues

The fat figure represents a legendary Chinese monk named Budai, or Hotei in Japanese. He was said to live in the 900s, centuries after The Buddha, who lived and taught in India and Nepal.

What makes it more complicated is that Budai/Hotei is often said to be a manifestation of an incarnation of the earlier Buddha.

Hotei statue

Although sometimes he is thought of as an entity in his own right. Buddhism is a much less doctrinal religion in general than Western monotheistic religions, and you’ll see huge variations in how it is practiced. Sometimes he has supernatural powers attributed to him, othertimes he’s a simple folk figure.

Hotei statue

The iconography is extremely consistent. His bare belly is often rubbed for good luck, and he shares the prominent earlobes seen on statues of The Buddha. The meaning of those earlobes varies — sometimes they are taken to represent The Buddha having given up earrings when he surrendered his earthly possessions, other times they suggest an ability to hear the feelings of all beings, other times they’re just a general representation of wisdom and compassion.

Often Hotei is shown with a sack, like the figure below holds in his right hand. Sometimes he was said to hand out treats or gifts from his sack, making him a bit of a parallel to Santa.

Hotei statue

Other times, the sack apears to be missing.

Hotei statue

And below you can see him with beads, which sometimes suggest meditation and other times wealth or good fortune, and sometimes the beads are replaced with a ball which often suggests even greater wealth.

Hotei statue

And while the Hawaiian shirt wasn’t what the original monk wore, it seems appropriate here.

Hotei with Hawaiian shirt


  1. …many moons ago I went to a great exhibition at the british museum (a temporary one sort of not unlike the time the terracotta soldiers went on tour) that was just statues of buddha… including a bunch that had been carefully decapitated & equally carefully buried by monks during something akin to “the reformation” in the christian church

    …I forget exactly how it worked but the thing about the wars reminded me that apparently to some people those also.can tell you a whole bunch about the timing or tradition that produced a particular depiction…not unlike how fat/thin he is & various aspects of posture (standing/sitting & such) & the posing of the hands a tend to hold fairly specific connotations

    …it’s all pretty fascinating, any road…so tha is for this

    • It’s an interesting parallel to Christian imagery, which has gone through permissive and restrictive periods, and had lots of fights over specific attributes for images. Grist for lots of doctoral theses.

  2. My old boss brought back a Hotei from Vietnam, and it sat in our office (this was years ago). He correctly knew it was Hotei, but little else about how it related to Buddha. I finally spent some time researching it because people kept asking about it. “Is that Buddha?” “No, it’s Hotei.” “Are you sure?”

    And off we’d go. He died years ago and I wonder occasionally what happened to Hotei. I’d ask his wife or daughter but I think I’d be upset if I found out he got thrown away.

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