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Hotei as Maitreya

In China, Maitreya is associated with the tenth-century Chinese Zen monk Budai, whose Japanese name, Hotei, may be more familiar in the West. Chinese images of Budai, or Hotei, are frequently labeled simply Maitreya (Milo in Chinese). Hotei is legendary as a wandering sage with supernatural powers who spent his time in village streets rather than in the security of temples. His image is recognizable as the disheveled, fat, laughing Buddha, whose statue is seen in Chinese restaurants and Chinese Buddhist temples.

Hotei's name means "cloth bag," because he carried a sack full of candies and toys to give to children. This scruffy Buddhist Santa Claus expands our view of Maitreya's warmth and loving-kindness. Hotei's fat belly and affinity for children reflects Maitreya's depiction in popular folk religion as a fertility deity. Maitreya was sometimes prayed to by those who wanted children, especially in Korea.

The ten ox-herding pictures in the Zen tradition describe stages of deepening practice and awakening in terms of the metaphor of searching for and then taming an ox. The final picture, after the ox has been forgotten and spiritual practice is integrated with caring for the world, is called "returning to the marketplace with empty, bliss-bestowing hands." Most versions of the tenth picture show fat, laughing Hotei, with his sack over his back, greeting a townsman.

In one story about Hotei that attests to his wisdom, he was stopped on the street by a monk of more orthodox appearance, who questioned Hotei as to the fundamental meaning of the Buddha's teaching. Hotei immediately dropped his sack. The monk then asked about the actualization of the teaching. Hotei picked up his sack and went on his way.

It is said that just before he passed away, Hotei recited a poem that expressed his regret that even though Maitreya sometimes appears in the world, he is unrecognized by people of the time. This led to the association of Hotei with Maitreya that has endured ever since.