Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Body of a God

Several years ago I saw a T-shirt with this message:

I have the body of a god. Unfortunately, it's the Buddha.

This got me thinking. Why do people assume the Buddha was, shall we say, hefty? Because in the popular mind he is often confused with Hotei, the so-called 'fat Buddha" who is, in reality, one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese folklore. Like other religious traditions, when Buddhism moved into new countries it often incorporated the gods and goddesses of earlier religions into its own pantheon. The rotund Hotei was a symbol of abundance, of joy, of blessing; over time, naturally, he became mistaken for the Buddha.

Yet according to the stories of the various Buddhist traditions, young Siddhartha had spent six years engaged in the most sever austerities prior to his six days beneath the Bodhi tree. In fact, just before he embraced the middle way--not too hard, not too soft--he is said to have been subsisting on one grain of rice a day. That's why he is oftentime depicted as slender or, as in the Thai tradition, completely emaciated, so that one can see his spine through his abdomen.

Jesus, on the other hand, is usually popularly imagined as a slim, even gaunt, man, yet according to the Gospels he was accused of being a "glutton and drunkard." (see Lk. 7.34 and Mt. 11.19). Apparently Jesus never met a dinner party he didn't like.

So we have Buddha who is usually thought to be overweight yet was probably skinny, and Jesus who is thought to be skinny but may well have had a few extra pounds on him.

I don't quite know where to go with this--the issue of body image in Eastern and Western cultures?--but I find it fascinating. What do you think?

in Gassho,

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SisterCoyote said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with the conflation of Sidharta (sorry if my spelling's off) as Buddha and Hotei; I'm not sure that it's a cultural thing so much as the assumption that Jesus must have been an ascetic because that's the path most forms of Christianity seem to feel is best for their worshippers.

In my experience, anyway. Also, in this day and age in the West there's a lot of media-driven negativity about fat and how it must be the result of laziness and overindulgence; and sloth and gluttony are deadly sins. Not exactly the image one wants for one's messiah.

That said, I've always liked the t-shirt you're talking about. Even though it confuses Buddha with (a) God (which he most definitely was not), it reminds the viewer that (the) Gods came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, just like people do.

RevWik said...

I have to say, I like the shirt too. And it is interesting how the Western bias about "fat" is that it demonstrates laziness while in the East it demonstrates success.

Lizard Eater said...

And I've seen the female version -- "I've got the body of a goddess" with a picture of the Willendorf.

While pregnant, I searched in vain for a maternity version of that.

The Eclectic Cleric said...

There's a fascinating passage in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy about the relationship between spirituality and body type that is well worth looking at, even after all these years. Personally, I've always been more partial to the Classical Adonis v. Bacchus/Dionysus school of incarnational theology when claiming to still have the body of a Greek God....

James said...

I've always liked that T shirt, as well. Probably because I'm on the larger side...

Of course, one of Sister Coyote's points shouldn't be missed either. The Buddha of history, Siddhartha Gautama, wasn't a god. Never claimed to be.