The chubby laughing Buddha is an icon frequently seen in gift shops and not so often represented in the Buddhist teachings, which to many people appear to focus extensively on topics like suffering, emptiness, and stillness. He may seem a hollow depiction to some, who prefer the solitary images of the Buddha in the Ox-herding pictures, or his image as a teacher, or even the sleeping Buddha, waiting to be awakened into the world.
But I have always loved the laughing Buddha, with a full belly and arms extended in celebration. To me he represents the end of the road, the freedom and fullness of being only what one is, fully present to the great mystery and the great joy of being alive.
Buddha, like Christ, is a symbolic name – both represent the pure essence within, the sense of knowing the completeness of a connection with what is infinite. In Buddhism this infinite source is nameless and without boundary; in Christianity it has come to be called God or the Father and personified in various forms. In Hinduism this infinite Oneness is known as Brahma, but there is no image – only a recognition of something whole, unlimited and the Source of all.
Buddha was known to begin his life as Gautama, a prince, who as a young man became aware of suffering in the world, and spent years seeking a way to end it. This is not so different from the rest of us – wouldn’t we all like to end suffering, and to live in a world that is free of this burden? Yet none of us know how to end it — not in the wider world, not even in ourselves. And because we all carry it we tend to inflict it upon others, and so there is a never-ending cycle in the human experience.
Gautama was born in India, and raised as a believer in Brahma, and in time became a teacher in the lineages of his day. He tried many approaches to transcendence out of suffering, hoping to discover Truth, just as many modern seekers do. Finally he sat under the Bodhi Tree and determined he would not get up until he realized the Truth. And then he awakened! And then he was labeled as Buddha – the awakened one.
The laughing Buddha represents the joyful being within us, released when we see the Truth of what we are, when we penetrate the emptiness, and see through the patterns of suffering that have held our minds for decades. He represents freedom, available to each of us, and the joy of letting go of attachment to personal identity. Many people have reported laughing hysterically for hours after seeing the Truth of pure Being. They laugh because the energy itself is joy. They laugh because the Truth was right in front of them all along. They laugh in relief as the dregs of being a spiritual seeker fall away. They laugh at their little self and how confused he or she has been.
Let the laughing Buddha be your inspiration and your hope. Find Truth within yourself and be willing to laugh at how you have been entangled in a dance that you thought was all there was, and enjoy the freedom of falling out of who you thought you were. And be willing to laugh as well when you return back into life, recognizing your role in the game unfolding before you.