Tuesday, February 3, 2009


The figure of Maitreya Buddha is one of the most commonly occurring in shrines throughout Vietnam. His chubby form is always represented at temples and frequently can be seen in shrines in businesses and private homes. Known in Vietnamese as Di Lac Phat, Maitreya Buddha is the Buddha that most Westerners imagine when that word is mentioned.
Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, and in Buddhism's journey through Chinese culture he shifted from the slender, elegant figure that is still present in Tibetan Buddhism (see picture of Maitreya at Khuong Viet, the Vajrayana temple) and in the Japanese tradition. People's hopes for the future began to be embodied in Maitreya's iconic form, and so his fatness and patent happiness became symbolic of a wonderful future in which everyone was blessed with contentment and enough to eat. These allegorical representations increased until today we see pictures of Maitreya surrounded by quantities of children, or clutching gold bars! It doesn't have to be stated that such symbolism seems out of synch with the more pleasure-denying aspects of traditional Buddhist theology.
Apparently the present-day popular form of Maitreya is in part inspired by representations of a real-life monk of Chinese antiquity called Budai, but this is not common knowledge among the average lay Buddhists. Their devotion is to the fat, cheerful and barely-clothed Di Lac, whose shrine is normally the first you see at a Buddhist temple, acting as a kind of benevolent mascot for the more austere messages of the Buddhist faith.
My own likeness to the chubby Maitreya is frequently commented upon, and I know it is meant kindly though it always causes me a shudder of regret - I'd much rather be favourably compared to Brad Pitt, for example. But I know what a special place Di Lac Phat has in the hearts of most Vietnamese, so I take comfort in the fact that people are really paying me the most enormous compliment. Maitreya embodies the qualities of kindness, hope, prosperity and good luck. So if people look at me and are reminded of such good things, I really can't complain!
There is another big-bellied man in the Vietnamese pantheon who is probably even more ubiquitous - the all-important household God Ong Dia - but more about him later.