My Laughing Buddha is smirking

Extinguish desire? What a joke. This fat man just wants a belly rub and a chortle.

By Andrew Leonard
May 1, 2008 4:45PM (UTC)
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The heads of the children climbing all over my Laughing Buddha keep breaking off.

This is causing me some distress.

I've been hanging out with this Buddha for a while. I'm not a man of great faith -- this is about as close as it gets. And let me make clear right off that I have little patience with those who claim that the Laughing Buddha is not the "real" Buddha, but merely a legendarily congenial Chinese monk of the ninth century who became associated in the popular folklore with the Maitreya Buddha, that transcendently promised bodhisattva destined to succeed the historic Sakyamuni Buddha. Let's not get bogged down in theological hairsplitting. If you are at all familiar with Chinese culture, you know whom I'm talking about: the enormously fat guy with the ear-splitting grin, often depicted with delighted children hanging off every roll of blubber. His belly is there for all to rub -- not for enlightenment, but for good luck, for fertility, for the simple joy of it.


Almost 20 years ago, my then girlfriend, now ex-wife, bought me this Buddha in Shanghai, and I backpacked his not-insignificant weight all the way to Berkeley, Calif., where he has accompanied me through thick and thin and thicker. I couldn't tell you with authority whether he's built from jade or soapstone or marble, but he's big, he's heavy and he's fat, and he makes me feel good when I catch him grinning at me out of the corner of my eye.

A few years ago, I set up a shelf in my kitchen devoted solely to cooking ingredients meant for Chinese cuisine. As I was arranging my bottles of soy sauce and rice wine, it occurred to me that my Buddha, who for years had been consigned to relative obscurity, engulfed in a philodendron plant that I took as a proxy for Southeast Asian jungle wilderness, would feel more comfortable next to the Chinkiang black vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns. I was correct in this assumption. As soon as I lugged him into place, his grin amped up about 12 notches. He approved of his new surroundings, and when I realized he was exactly at eye level to me when I was washing dishes, and I could rub his belly morning, noon and night, I started giggling too.

But then my coffee maker alarm clock broke.


The Buddha took this earthquake with equanimity, but it caused me some distress.

I'm the kind of person who takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in those mornings when I naturally wake up just before the sound of my coffee maker kicking into action grinding the beans that I loaded in place the night before. I take just a fraction less enjoyment when it is precisely that ear-shattering sound of shattering beans that breaks my slumber, instead of the much less amenable sound of the bedside alarm clock set to erupt five minutes later. And even on those all too frequent occasions when it is the piercing howl of the upstairs alarm that stirs me from bizarre early morning dreams, I'm still a self-satisfied freak, because I know that by the time I stumble downstairs, my coffee will be ready. You want efficiency? I want hot coffee before I have to form a conscious thought.

All this usually happens very early in the morning. If you want to pay attention to what people are doing on Wall Street but you live in Berkeley, it is helpful to make a habit of getting up before dawn, especially if there are children who need to be fed and scooted off to school just as the markets are beginning to go ballistic over whatever economic indicator has just exploded, like a hand grenade, in the warm embrace of the financial press. I've attempted explaining this sad fate of mine to the Laughing Buddha on those difficult mornings when I have failed to properly set the coffee alarm the night before and I am struggling with that awful existential bootstrap paradox of having to make coffee before I've drunk any coffee, but he just blows me off with his iridescent twinkle. Rub my belly, he beckons. Wall Street can wait.


I do like my coffee maker, very much, but it is unfortunately constructed out of a large number of plastic parts that break on a regular basis and are not easy to repair or replace. One such part was a kind of spring-loaded clasp that had to be firmly in position, held down by pressure from above, or the coffee maker would not start, at all. I discovered, after some trial and error, that if I placed a reasonably heavy weight on top of the coffee maker, the broken clasp would hold. And since the nearest heavy weight at hand was my Laughing Buddha, I have gotten into the deranged habit of setting my coffee maker alarm with a 5-pound piece of jade, or soapstone, or whatever. People think I have some strange Asian affectation when they see me carefully place the Buddha on top of the coffee maker. It's usually too much trouble to explain the horrible truth.

It should not come as much of a surprise that the constant hefting of the Buddha has put the little stone kiddies who adorn his massive belly in some jeopardy. He was not meant to be a barbell. Over the years, not one, not two, but three of the five children have been decapitated by chance collisions with the Chinese ingredients shelf.


When I'm in a bad mood, I find that the sound of a Buddha-baby head bouncing off the Laughing Buddha and clattering onto the kitchen counter below is disconcerting. Distressing, even. I think bad of myself, especially on mornings when I haven't had enough coffee. I find myself thinking that my life is out of whack, and that my karma has some "issues." The next step is do a little pseudo Freudian-Buddhist self-inflicted psychotherapy, and wonder if the Buddha is trying to send me a message: Maybe I shouldn't be getting up so early? Maybe, just perhaps, I'm a little too addicted to caffeine? Maybe, just maybe, I should think about getting a new coffee maker instead of putting into peril the precious scalps of little children gleefully clambering across a fat man's belly.

Or I should just move to New York City if I really want to pay attention to high finance? Sleep in, dude. You live in California!

On occasion, I recall that the Buddha lectured his followers that happiness lies in the extinguishment of desire (although this clearly does not include, in the case of the Laughing Buddha, cutting back on fatty foods), and I contemplate the possibility that my hunger for caffeine is a symbol of my inability to live in harmony with the universe without the help of stimulants or other crutches. Let it go! Just let it all go!


And then I notice, out of the corner of my eye, that the Laughing Buddha is laughing his goddamned ass off at me.

And he's got a lot of ass.

And I go look for some Krazy Glue.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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