Hotei is originally the name of a legendary Buddhist monk who actually lived in Mingzhou (now Zhejiang Province, China) in the late Tang Dynasty period. He is a popular subject of Suibokuga (art painted with Japanese black ink) and expressed, in suibokuga, commonly as a paunchy Buddhist monk with a large bag on his back. Hotei is one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune of Japanese mythology.
Origin and history
While Hotei's real name was Shakukaishi, he was called as Hotei (literally cloth bag) because he carried a large cloth bag on his back at all times. Although some people say that he was born in Siming Prefecture, his real birth place and secular name are unknown. It is said that paunchy Hotei having an appearance similar to that of suibokuga did not live in a Buddhist temple, but roved. It is said that he carried a large bag (the best-known characteristic of him) on his back at all times, and accepted any kind of tithes including fish and kept some of them in the bag.
It is said that no snow accumulated on his body even if he lay down on the ground while it was snowing and that he could foresee other people's future, etc.
It is said that a rumor saying that Hotei is a Miroku (a bodhisattva) incarnate was spread because he left a Gemon (religious verse) starting with a phrase: 'Although people are not aware, I am Miroku bodhisattva.'
There is also a mysterious anecdote about his death, which is similar to Shikai (technique to cause the soul to leave the body) of Sennin (mountain hermit). It is said that even though he died and his body was buried in Hosen Prefecture in the Tenpuku era of the Tang Dynasty (the end of the 9th century), he was seen in other provinces later. There is a historical record showing that the pictures of Hotei were starting to be painted soon after his death, in the Chiang-nan region of China.
Although some people consider Hotei as a Zen monk, it is an idea additionally introduced later. In section "Shakukaishi of Hoka Prefecture, Mingzhou Province of Tang Dynasty (Hotei)" in the 21st volume (Kantsu) of "Biographies of Eminent Monks in the Sung Dynasty" compiled in the latter half of the 10th century, no relationship between Hotei and Zen is mentioned. Hotei was first described as a Zen monk in the 27th volume of "Keitokudentoroku" compiled in the early 11th century together with other eminent Zen monks such as Hoshi of Ryo (the south dynasty), Chigi, and Kanzan Jittoku.
Belief in Hotei in Japan
Hotei was imported as a subject of Zenga (Zen paintings) in the Kamakura period.
People believed in Hotei as one of the deities of good fortune, and Hotei was selected as a member of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune of Japanese mythology in the latter half of the Muromachi period. In Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji temple, the head temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Hotei is regarded as a family member of Sanpo-kojin (guardian deity of Buddha, the sutras, and the sangha). Hotei's fat appearance has been considered not only to represent his magnanimity and well-rounded personality but also to symbolize richness and prosperity. The large bag on his back also has been regarded as 'Kanninbukuro' (literally store of patience).
Belief in Hotei in China
Since the middle period, Miroku bodhisattva has been depicted with a paunchy appearance similar to that of Hotei in pictures and those pictures have been commonly placed in major Buddhist buildings of temples in China.
A similar image of golden Miroku bodhisattva with a paunchy appearance, together with images of Shitenno and Idaten, can also be found in Tennodo building between Sanmon-gate and Daiyuhoden building in Manpuku-ji temple, the head temple of the Obaku sect of Buddhism in Japan,
This image is called as Maitreya (Miroku) by westerners.