This guy is not the Buddha. He may be a Buddha (because anyone has the capacity to become enlightened), but he’s not the Buddha. To me, he looks like a fat guy with a carrot hanging around his neck who forgot to finish getting dressed and is really stoked that he found these tennis balls in the bushes. Likewise the other images that folks refer to as “happy Buddhas.” You know the ones. The fat Asian-looking gentlemen with their shirts open to the naval, looking like they are auditioning for The Biggest Loser: Saturday Night Fever Edition, sitting in half-lotus, heads thrown back in uproarious laughter. Again, not the Buddha. The Buddha is not some kind of jolly, clean-shaven Santa Claus meant to make Westerners feel good about themselves. His head isn’t meant to be a lawn ornament. My Christian friends: imagine a world of gardens full of severed Jesus heads, parked between the rhododendron and the mums. My Jewish friends: think how you’d feel if you saw the decapitated noggin of Moses displayed in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx.
Maybe you’d feel the way I did when I snapped this pic in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx:
I’m really not as offended as I sound, even though the dharma teaches us that Buddhist images, for them to be authentic, must be made by actual Buddhists. Truth is, I’m a lazy Buddhist. To prove it, I just ate a delicious jambalaya for lunch. With chicken and andouille sausage. Definitely not allowed, especially since I’ve taken vows.
Maybe it’s for the best that all these images, false and pious, are floating around. Maybe just hearing the name “Buddha” will cause someone somewhere to become enlightened, or by reciting Buddha’s name, like the Pure Land school believes, we can attain rebirth in a place that will allow us to attain nirvana. Stranger things have happened, sometimes just by washing our breakfast bowl.
The truth is, I am a happy Buddha. I’ve spent many, many hours inside numerous zendos and meditation halls. I know firsthand that most Buddhists focus way too much on the “life is suffering” part of the Buddha’s teaching and not as much time on the Nirvana part. Buddhism asks us to constantly reflect on how we are keeping our mind at any given moment of the day. Are we being wise and prudent and slow to anger? Are we practicing non-attachment (which is totally different from not caring)? Are we using what the Buddha calls, wonderfully, “skillful means” to negotiate life’s daily difficulties?
Me, I try to keep my mind happy at all times, even though I know some days I’m faking it. Instead of waiting for enlightenment, I’m trying to make it happen, for myself and others, by actively engaging with the world. With its demons, and my own.
Someone once reminded me that in difficult situations, rarely do people find their courage, then act. Usually they act first, and in acting, find their courage. I try every day to keep my mind in a happy place, to not take things too seriously, to know that the universe has a way of allowing problems to work themselves out exactly as they should. Yes, life is suffering, as the Buddha taught. But that’s just the first truth of the Four Noble Truths. It’s not something to lose your head over.
And, BTW, here’s the real thing. Made of copper in Thailand by real Theravada Buddhists. It’s the one I keep on my dresser so I can see him every morning and remember the path that he blazed for all of us. Out of sorrow, laughter. Out of suffering, happiness. Nirvana.