Laughing Buddha Returns
I didn’t know about the Laughing Buddha prior to my first trip to China. Back in the late 1980s I used to escort tour groups to China. It was a very different place then, definitely a third world country. But in a very short time it has evolved into arguably one of the most modern nations on Earth.
International tourism to China was relatively new back then, infrastructure was poor; and most people, men and women, wore standard blue Mao jackets. Many of the local Chinese I met had been forced to participate in the Cultural Revolution; and had very bad, sometimes tragic, memories of that time. Mao’s regime had tried to stamp out religion completely, and many temples were either destroyed or put to other uses. With Mao’s death in 1976, religious tolerance became more common, and Buddhism began its resurgence.
I was a much younger man then, tall and slightly stout. Even then my head was mostly devoid of hair, so I did bear a strong resemblance to a young Buddha. Because I smile a lot, I was often told that I resembled the Laughing Buddha; the Buddha of abundance and happiness. It is believed that the Laughing Buddha brings wealth and prosperity, which explained why so many strangers came up to me to pat my stomach. They were doing it to bring luck upon themselves. Often, they would ask to have their photo taken with me; and I always agreed.
One time I was walking through a popular Beijing park and noticed that many wedding parties had adjourned there for photos. Those who spotted me politely asked if I would have my photo taken with the happy couple, and I gladly obliged. On a few occasions I was asked to join the group for their wedding feast, but I politely declined as I did not want to impose.
Three decades on and I am a much older man, still the same height, but even more stout than before. I now resemble a much more authentic Laughing Buddha, and discovered on recent trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, both predominantly Buddhist countries, that I still have what it takes in the tummy patting and photo posing departments.
Whereas in the West I can be an object of mirth – being obese is not cool; apparently – when I travel through much of Southeast Asia I am almost revered and certainly made to feel welcome.
My most recent trip was to Myanmar, a country where Buddhism is, by far, the most popular religion. In Myanmar, Buddhism is on show just about everywhere, with pagodas pretty much wherever you look.
In Myanmar, or Burma as it also commonly known by outsiders, they practise a form of Buddhism called Theravada which is based on Buddha’s oldest teachings. I am certainly no expert on the various schools of Buddhism, but from my observations and experiences travelling throughout Asia for many years it appeared to me that the people of Myanmar seemed to be particularly devout. There is no scientific evidence for my view, simply a conclusion drawn from the sheer multitude of pagodas (known as payas), together with the number of monks and nuns on the streets, and the crowds of worshipping locals I encountered as I travelled through the country by both road and rail.
Myanmar has a mainly agrarian economy. Many decades of military dictatorship ensured that the country received little foreign investment, so to travel to Myanmar is a little like stepping back in time. You still see bullock carts travelling by the side of the road, and water buffalo used to plough fields. The countryside is lush and beautiful, and pagodas dot the landscape, sometimes within a relatively small area, usually located on tops of hills, making them easy to spot.
Even in the smallest communities a paya could be seen. Many were painted in gold, and in some cases, genuine gold leaf was used to decorate them. Others were painted white, and some very old payas were made of a red brick and lacked much decoration. Yet, they all had significance and all were used.
Laughing Buddha Lookalike
I was on top of Mandalay Hill, admiring the magnificent views of the city, the nearby hills and the extraordinarily-wide Irrawaddy River, when I was asked if I would have my photo taken with a local family. Naturally, I agreed and dutifully posed for a group shot. Then they wanted cuddles all round. My tummy was patted, which I expected, but a couple of times as individuals, men and women, put their arms around me they pinched a bit of my side fat. This wasn’t painful, merely unexpected, and I think they just wanted to make sure that the lard was real, as if to guarantee that I was a genuine Laughing Buddha lookalike.
During my stay upon Mandalay Hill I became the attraction as dozens of people asked me to pose with them for photos. It was very friendly, there were no demands, just polite requests, and I had a lovely afternoon having my photo taken with dozens of people.
This attention continued for most of my stay in Myanmar, not only at pagodas, but anywhere, even as I walked down the street. That’s not to say that I was mobbed wherever I went. The Myanmar people are very respectful, but I was often asked to either pose for a photo or to allow them to rub my belly, and I was certainly stared at wherever I went.
I never minded being an object of interest; for one thing, it kept me safe. A Buddha-like behemoth towering above the locals with so many eyes on me was enough to dissuade pickpockets and other petty criminals looking for easy targets.
Although an outsider, I definitely felt an affinity with the Myanmar locals through the many interactions I had with them. Being rubbed, pinched, hugged and photographed with so many people gave me the opportunity to positively communicate with lots of individuals. To laugh with them, because each connection was always pleasant and sheer joy. I revelled in my shared experiences and grew to admire the spirit and optimism of these folk whose country is finally being accepted as a democratic nation from which prosperity will surely follow.
It’s said that most people have a double somewhere. If mine is the Laughing Buddha I consider myself extremely fortunate.