According to Gordon Luce, writing in his book “Old Pagan”, the Fat Monk image is a wide spread and ancient type of image frequently found in old relic chambers at such well known sites as Sriksetra, Rangoon, Pegu, Mandalay and Pagan of Burma and in ancient cities of Thailand such as Chaing Mai, Sukhothai and Mon based Hariphunchai.
The Fat Monk is invariably depicted with a bulging belly, always sitting cross legged with both hands supporting his belly. His statuettes were placed near by the Lord Buddha’s Statues on the family alters in Asian Homes to bring in Luck and Abundance.
Luce’s book “Old Pagan” contains pictures of ten different images of the Fat Monk together with an account concerning them. The Fat monk is considered as the Pot –bellied Jambhala or Kubera, Lord of the Yakasa and as such the Supreme Lord of Extreme Wealth. There is also the theory that the Fat Monk represented Gavampati, the patron saint of the Mons of lower Thailand as his images are found since 10-13 century in Mon based Hariphunchai.
In Thailand, Fat Monk is mentioned as Phra Sangkajai or Phra Sangkachai.
According to paleographical consideration, oldest statuette of Fat Monk found in Asia was dated around the beginning of the Christian era. It was found in Vaisali of India. The image is 4.4 inches high, 2.3 inches wide and0.9inches thick. The Fat monk is depicted in sitting posture with a back slab behind him. At the back of the slab behind the image there was an ancient script in Brahmi and the line can be translated as Saccakaparlbajaka (ji) na.
Saccakaparibajaka was a Nigrantha Jina ascetic. He lived in Vaisali during the lifetime of the Buddha. He possesses immense wealth since birth and later became a philosopher and teacher. He has many followers seeking wealth. Due to his immense wealth and abundance of food and grains, he looked after the poor orphaned children of Vaisali. He was said to have challenged Mahavira and the Buddha to a discussion with him about whose philosophy was the best. At the end of the debate he had to bow down to Buddha and acknowledge the Buddha’s superiority.
Even after he became a normal monk in Buddhism, his fame of being the harbinger of extreme wealth and abundance made him followed by too many worshipers, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. It was to the point where his popularity was annoyed and jealous by much of Buddha’s other follower monks. To compensate the tension among his monks, Buddha had to explain about the origin of Fat Monk Saccaka’s immense wealth and popularity by telling a story of his previous life. 25 worlds ago, at the period of Kaukaukthan Buddha, there was a big flood and his native country was flooded. Many people were starved. The hungry and starved people called Kaukaukthan Buddha for help. Even though he can make food for people with his own powers, Kaukaukthan Buddha asked for help from the people who could donate food for the poor instead. Saccaka at that time was a great merchant and as being a devoted follower, he donated 500 ox-carts full of grains for the hungry people. Therefore the Kaukaukthan Buddha had granted him a promise that he will be extremely rich and abundant for number of lives equal to the number of grains in his 500 ox-carts and his wealth would be immense and uncountable like the number of grains that he had donated for the people. Since that time for 25 worlds, he was always immensely wealthy and abundant in each and every of his life.
Lord Buddha had praised the Fat Monk Saccaka for his excellence in explaining sophisticated dhamma in an easily and correctly understandable manner. The Fat Monk Saccaka also composed the Madhupinadika Sutra or the first Pali Grammar.
One tale relates that when he was young, he was so handsome that once even a man wanted him for a wife. To avoid a similar situation, the Monk Saccaka decided to transform himself into a fat monk. Another tale says he was so attractive that angels and men often compared him with the Lord Buddha. He considered this inappropriate, so disguised himself in an unpleasantly fat body.
Since his wealth and abundance is mainly on food and grains, many farmers in Asia regard him as the Lord of the Abundant Grains. Every year, at the start of the rainy season, before starting the farming, his image was taken to the paddy fields and worshipped with flowers, food and water. Then farmers pray at his statue for great yield of paddy for the year.
The Fat Monk Saccaka’s image are generally found in statuettes form only as needing to make the bulging belly require three dimensional effect. His image is rarely found in normal tablet form of general Amulets. However, in Asia, his statue is put on the family alter near the Buddha image, to bring wealth and abundance to home. His statuettes, always small (up to 9 inches in height) are made from many kinds of material including stone, bronze, silver-gilt, bronze-gilt, plaster, terracotta and even un burnt clay, sometimes lacquered and gilded.
Confusion with Chinese Laughing Buddha “Budai”
In Thailand, Fat Monk Saccaka or Phra Sangkajai is sometimes confused with Chinese Laughing Buddha Budai. Although both Budai and Phra Sangkajai may be found in both Thai and Chinese temples, Fat Monk Saccaka or Phra Sangkajai is found more often in Thai temples, and Budai in Chinese temples. The points to distinguish them from one another are:
- In some images Fat Monk Saccaka or Phra Sangkajai, he has some trace of hair like Buddha images. Budai images are totally bald.
- Fat Monk Saccaka or Phra Sangkajai wears the robes in Theravada Buddhist fashion with the robes folded across one shoulder, leaving the other uncovered. Budai wears the robes in Chinese style, covering both arms but leaving the front part of the upper body uncovered.
- In almost all Fat Monk Saccaka statuettes, he sits cross legged and his bare hands support his belly. Budai images sometimes stand and often has mala beads string or gold bullion in his hands.
- The big wide laughing smile is the icon of all Budai Images. The Fat Monk images bear only a faint smile.
According to Chinese tradition, Budai was an eccentric Chinese Zen monk who lived during the Later Liang Dynasty (907 – 923 CE) of China. He was a native of Fenghua, and his Buddhist name was Qieci (Qieci; literally “Promise this“). He was considered a man of good and loving character. Budai in folklore is admired for his happiness, plenitude, and wisdom of contentment. One belief popular in folklore maintains that rubbing his belly brings wealth, good luck, and prosperity. In Japan, Budai is in folklore as one of the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin) of Taoism.
I have a small plasta statuette of Fat Monk Saccaka or Phra Sangkajai Extreme WealthAmulet (A28)in my store section for sale to the collectors.