When westerners think of "Buddha," usually they don't visualize the Buddha of history, meditating or teaching. Instead, they visualize a fat, bald, jolly character called "The Laughing Buddha." Where did he come from?
The Laughing Buddha emerged from Chinese folktales of the 10th century. The original stories of the Laughing Buddha centered on a Ch'an monk named Ch'i-t'zu, or Qieci, from Fenghua, in what is now the province of Zhejiang. Ch'i-t'zu was an eccentric but much-loved character who worked small wonders such as predicting the weather.
According to tradition, just before Ch'i-t'zu died he revealed himself to be an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is named in the Tripitaka as the Buddha of a future age. Ch'i-t'zu's last words --
Maitreya, true Maitreya
Reborn innumerable times
From time to time manifested among men
The men of the age do not recognize him.
Pu-tai, Protector of Children
The tales of Ch'i-t'zu spread throughout China, and he came to be called Pu-tai (Budai), which means "hempen sack." He carries a sack with him full of good things, such as sweets for children, and he is often pictured with children. Pu-tai represents happiness, generosity and wealth, and he is a protector of children as well as of the poor and the weak.
Today a statue of Pu-tai often can be found near the entrance of Chinese Buddhist temples. The tradition of rubbing Pu-tai's belly for good luck is a folk practice, however, not a Buddhist teaching.
An Ideal Enlightened Master
Pu-tai also is associated with the last panel of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures. These are ten images that represent stages of enlightenment in Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. The last panel shows an enlightened master who enters towns and marketplaces to give to ordinary people the blessings of enlightenment.
Pu-tai followed the spread of Buddhism into other parts of Asia. In Japan he became one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Shinto and is called Hotei. He also was incorporated into Chinese Taoism as a deity of abundance.