In the Tang dynasty there was a stout fellow who was called the Happy Chinaman, or the Laughing Buddha.
This Hotei had no desire to call himself a Zen master, or to gather disciples around him. Instead he walked the streets with a sack on his back full of candy, fruit and doughnuts – which he gave out to the children who gathered and played around him.
Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: “Give me one penny.” And if anyone asked him to return to the temple to teach others, again he would reply: “Give me one penny.”
Once when he was at his play-work another Zen master happened along and inquired: “What is the significance of Zen?”Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.
“Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of Zen?” At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.
Laughter is the very essence of religion. Seriousness is never religious, cannot be religious. Seriousness is of the ego, part of the very disease. Laughter is egolessness.
Yes, there is a difference between when you laugh and when a religious man laughs. The difference is that you laugh always about others – the religious man laughs at himself, or at the whole ridiculousness of man’s being.
Religion cannot be anything other than a celebration of life. And the serious person becomes handicapped, he creates barriers. He cannot dance, he cannot sing, he cannot celebrate. The very dimension of celebration disappears from his life. He becomes desert-like. And if you are a desert, you can go on thinking and pretending that you are religious but you are not.
You may be a sectarian, but not religious. You can be a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Mohammedan, but you cannot be religious. You believe in something, but you don’t know anything. You believe in theories. A man too much burdened by theories becomes serious. A man who is unburdened, has no burden of theories over his being, starts laughing.
The whole play of existence is so beautiful that laughter can be the only response to it. Only laughter can be the real prayer – gratitude.
This Hotei is tremendously significant. Rarely has a man like Hotei walked on the earth. It is unfortunate; more people should be like Hotei, more temples should be full of laughter, dancing, singing. If seriousness is lost, nothing is lost – in fact, one becomes more healthy and whole. But if laughter is lost, everything is lost. Suddenly you lose the festivity of your being; you become colorless, monotonous, in a way dead. Then your energy is no longer streaming.
Laughter is a flowering. If Buddha is the seed, then Hotei is the flower on the same tree. If Buddha is the roots, then Hotei is the flower on the same tree. And if you want to understand Buddha, try to understand Hotei. And it is right that people used to call him the Laughing Buddha. Buddha has come of age in Hotei. Buddha has laughed in Hotei. Enlightenment has come to its very crescendo.
But it is difficult to understand Hotei. To understand him you will have to be in that festive dimension. If you are too much burdened with theories, concepts, notions, ideologies, theologies, philosophies, you will not be able to see what this Hotei is, what his significance is – because he will laugh looking at you. He will laugh because he will not be able to believe that a man can be so foolish and so ridiculous.