Was Buddha really that fat?

Aha! Th amsters have eaten the OP again.

Questions about the Buddha and his common representation in art have come up several times on this Board. Suffice it to say that nothing in the story of the Buddha sufggess he was fat. Quite the opposite – at one point he had almost wasted away. In fact, there is a tradition in Asia of “emaciated Buddhas”. See Alice Getty’s indispensable book ** The Gods of Northern Buddhism**, a sort of “Field Guide to the Buddhas”, now in print by Dover.

Getty’s book doesn’t explain the “fat Buddha”, though. I came across a explanation in the book Chinese Mythology, published by Paul Hamlyn books, in which it is explained that the “fat Budha” is a combination of the Maitreya Buddha (the Buddha yet to come) with the God of Wealth (who is portrayed in Getty’s book), and possibly yet another tradition (since neither of the above is particularly fat). Thi figure was called “Mi-lo-fo”
If you search the archive, you’ll find the other threads.

Very little is known about the historical figure known as Buddha, which is merely a title meaning Enlightened One. Various legends grew up around him after his death, and these legends were changed as they passed from culture to culture. The image of a fat Buddha that you remember is roughly based on the Chinese depiction of Buddha. Images of the Buddha from Tibet and India are generally not fat.

A different legend you might remember tells the story of Siddhartha Gotama growing up as an Indian prince, shielded from the outside world in accordance with the wishes of his father. Escape from this gilded cage gave Siddhartha a glimpse of the world as it really was, in stark contrast with the artificial paradise his father had created for him. Siddhartha searched for escape from this world of apparent suffering, first by following the path of the hedonists, attempting to find happiness by satisfying his material desires, and later by following the ascetics, attempting to find happiness by denying himself the satisfaction of his material desires. In this latter path it is said he took one grain of rice per day as his only source of solid food, which would lead to a very emaciated Buddha, as CalMeacham pointed out. Finding that neither path adequately resolved the problem of dukkha, Siddhartha meditated and discovered the Middle Path (Magga, the Fourth Noble Truth), which provided the method involved in the cessation of dukkha. (That dukkha exists is the First Noble Truth; how dukkha arises is the Second; and the possibility of its cessation is the Third.)

Here’s one of the older threads:
Why is the Buddha portrayed as a fat man?

Other names for the Laughing Buddha are Hotei (in Japanese) and Pu-Tai (in Chinese). Most of the legends place him in about 10th century China. He is not to be confused with Gautama Buddha, born in the 6th century BC in what is now Nepal.

Is that the fat Buddha you’re talking about?

I think I have yet to see a depiction of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, that could be considered fat.

You have to remember that very few depictions of Buddhist characters are meant to be realistic. The fatness that you find in some Chinese art is meant to symbolize spiritual wealth.

For instance, take a look here at the ten ox-herding pictures, which represent the ten stages of enlightenment in the Zen tradition. In the last picture, the character is always represented as obese. This is to show his deep enlightenment, and his boundless compassion and generosity.

He was just big-boned.

Yes, Buddha is said to have fasted nearly to death at one point, but following his enlightenment, he rejected the doctrine of extreme denial. In fact, he is said to have become a great lover of pork and indeed his death was caused by overeating. Whether or not he was actually fat, I don’t know.

I have also been told that the “happy man” depicted in Chinese iconography was not originally intended to be a representation of Buddha. Somehow the two got merged.

This is wrong. If you bother to peruse the Tipitaka, you’ll find that “moderation” means really very little food. Just more than a few grains of rice a day, though. Read some of the guidelines for eating here.

Siddartha died not because he ate too much pork but because it was spoiled. The source of the story is the Maha-Parinibana Sutta, available here.

Every interpretation I’ve read of this passage is that he knew the meat to be bad and that’s why he didn’t want others to have any of it. Why else would he have it thrown away?

Incidentally, early depictions of Buddha did not show him in any human form.

It was not until the Macedonians (Alexander the Great) reached the Indus river in the fourth century B.C. and brought their Classic Greek culture to India, which included anthropomorphic depictions of the gods in art and sculptures.

I have it here somewhere. Do I have it, do I have it? Where is it… yes!

“Prior [to the Macedonian invasion]… Buddha had been portrayed mainly indirectly, through symbols such as footprints or empty thrones. Nowm sculptors began to work more elaborately in stone, with greater attention to the human form. The result was a major change in artistic-religious expression, affecting not only India but also China and other Asian regions where Buddhism later penetrated.”

It continues the paragraph mentioning a Greco-Indian school of sculpture incorporating Greek costumes and hairstyles while representing Hindu religious motifs.

There’s more in there, which mentions Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Axum (Aksum), the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism into China, the first translations of Buddhist texts in China and the significance of that especially on gender roles, but I’ll try to skip to the chase.

“Initially, Chinese Buddhas were stiff, austere abstractions of the deity, but gradually Chinese commitment to human qualities altered the style toward plumper, more lifelike figures, more aligned with Chinese concepts of human beauty.”

Cite: “Culture and Politics in the Classical Period” Experiencing World History by Paul Vauthier Adams (Editor), Erick Langer, Lily Hwa, Peter N. Stearns, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks.

*They weren’t Greek, they were Macedonian. But they brought Greek culture to Northwestern India and allowed Indian philosophical ideals to be brought to the Western world. “How much Indian influences mattered in what came to be a dynamic religious environment in the Middle East is impossible to say, but they did encourage new ideas about a spiritual life after death, when souls might live happily until the full union of souls, and even the concept of divine saviors who might help elevate mortals through their love.”

I have also read that the familiar representation of the Buddha as a jolly fat man originates in the Hellenic province of Gondar (now Kandahar) in Afghanistan after the conquests of Alexander.

He wasn’t fat, he was festively plump!

Where have you read that? I have never seen any Buddhist sculpture that could be deemed fat or plump predating the spread of Buddhism to China. Furthermore, chubby subjects were certainly not the norm in Hellenistic art.

Second, every source that I am familiar with cites the Gandhara school (second century AD) as the source of the first depictions of Buddha as a human being. There were certainly very strong hellenistic traits to Gandhara art, but they were mostly brought in by the roman-trained artists hired by the Kushan rulers.

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’d really like to see images of Buddha as a man that predate the Kushan rule of Gandhara.

(It should also be noted that the conquests of Alexander (c. 327 BC) predate the introduction of Buddhism in modern-day Afghanistan, under the rule of King Asoka (273-232 BC))

Besides fat/thin Is there any descrption, or hint, as to what Budda looked like in real life?

Is that Q truly a highjack – if so lets imagine I did the <hijack, /hijack> semi-apologetic SDMB thingy OK? :wink:

You might find this article interesting.

You have to remember that even though the Tipitaka’s Sutta Pitaka (the part that deals with the Buddha’s life and teachings) was compiled with the help of eyewitnesses, the very subjective nature of the descriptions found might suggest that the authors were probably more trying to build a legend than to accurately describe Shakyamuni’s physical appearance.

  1. Blackeyes: Nice cite. Conze (1951) stated that the Buddha was not represented by any image for 500 years, though he didn’t know why. Instead Buddhahood was depicted as a tree, wheel, throne or perhaps footprints (Harvey (1990)). Harvey ties the change to the growth of Mahayana Buddhism (and “a change of mood affecting all Indian religions”) during the same period.

  2. Early images of the Buddha are shown here: http://www.buddhamind.info/leftside/arty/bud-imag.htm . Gotoma seems fairly slim, though not lacking in iconic elements: note the elongated ears, top-knot of hair and beatific/meditative expression.

  3. Burmese Buddha-images do not appear to be especially fat by my eye.
    http://seasiancrafts.com/spiritworld/burmesebuddha.htm . Nor do Thai Buddha-images. http://www.buddhaet.net/budart/

Oops, I should have read my own link!

Emphasis added.

That Buddha died of pork is hotly contested by the Buddhist community. Many Buddhists believe that a man who taught such compassion would never eat meat, and argue that the etymology of the deadly food is “pig-trod”, and thus it must have been a vegetable that pigs also like. Truffles killed Buddha?


Again, what is this representation? Is it the “happy man” you see at the entrance of Chinese restaurants? If so, then I would say that this is not “the familiar representation of the Buddha.” No Buddist temple I have ever seen uses such a representation.

And the Women’s Christian Temperance Union argues that when “wine” is mentioned in the Bible, it really means “grape juice.” The question is whether Buddha ever actually said that the Middle Way requires abjuring the eating of meat.


According to the various traditions, have there yet been other Buddhas (self-enlightened bodhisattvas) aside from Siddharta? I have heard about the arhats that Buddha prodded into enlightenment during his lifetime, but has anyone else come upon enlightenment by him/herself since then?

Evidently. See Robertson’s book Pagan Christs, where he discusses past Buddhas. The Buddha-yet-to-come, as I noted in the first post, is the Maitreya Buddha, called in some traditions Mi-Lo-Fo.

Articles, about meat and the early Buddhist community, some might find of interest:



http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/axismundi/An_Analysis_Of_Eating.pdf (warning: pdf!)

The rules were quite clear: it was okay for monks (and the Buddha) to eat meat if they didn’t know it had been killed especially for them. The reason given by Gautama was that it would cause too much problems for monks to start being picky about what people gave them for alms. Whatever they were given, they were to eat.