For as long as I can remember my dad owned a Buddha. He still does. It is a little figurine the size of three standing packs of cigarettes with a green velvet covered bottom that, except for a chipped ear, managed to survive in one piece through our family’s different stages and events. Especially the movings. We moved a lot between the 70s and 80s and lost lots of cool stuff in between, but not that little golden statue, which usually was the first thing to find a place in each new home.
That place was either on the table next to the main door or on the table next to my dad’s side of the bed. Always surrounded by Venezuelan and I Ching coins he read every morning to peek into the kind of day he was about to face. That required throwing the I Ching coins and checking in a little book the meaning of heads or tails before the mandatory last step of the ritual: Rubbing Buddha’s distended belly for good luck.
I always found the scene curiously modern and wondered what would a XIX Century American slave owner think of it: A middle class Latin-American black man , dressed in European suits, practicing a Chinese superstitious ritual before heading to work in IBM.
The Buddha figurine is exactly the one you have in mind. Big fat laughing Buddha with long ears and even longer man-boobs. He’s sitting comfortably over his short and chubby legs. Not a care in the world except bringing luck to his believers like an Asian Santa Claus for adults.
So deep-rooted was this image of Buddha in my brain, that I almost chocked on Raisinets when Keanu Reeves played a 7% body fat Buddha in “Little Buddha”, Bertolucci’s mid 1990s semi-biopic. I saw it in Caracas with my girlfriend and her family at one of Concresa’s theaters and we all laughed at the ridiculous casting decision. Keanu? Please… Earthly venison-jerky man-God playing pre-enlightenment post-bacon heavenly-God? Inconceivable!
After the movie we sat at a cafe in Las Mercedes and talked about the movie over coffee and cigarettes. The decision was unanimous. Almost 10 years after “The Last Emperor”, Bertolucci sold out to Hollywood and miscast Keanu on purpose in search of another commercial and critical success. It was the only explanation possible. How else could someone ignore the fact that you needed at least 4 and a half Keanus to bake (or half-bake, as in the case of this movie) 1 laughing Buddha? Everybody knew that.
Or that’s what I thought. Until 20 years later yesterday. When I still waded in the most beautiful and blissful sea of Buddhist ignorance.
Except for his velvety bottom I knew little to nothing about Siddhartha Gautama before Bertolucci. And the needle didn’t move much after “Little Buddha”, as this was the first film in which I fell asleep. All I remember is Keanu covered in bronze Pan-Cake wearing a loincloth and stumbling out of a river. Or something like that. I really didn’t paid much attention because a) I was sleeping, and 2) I couldn’t get past the fact that Buddha didn’t weight 400 pounds.
Which is why yesterday, while arguing about my eating habits, I told my girlfriend that, for a big boned deity and all, Buddha’s pro-moderation and anti-self-indulgence advocacy was truly hypocritical.
Her reaction to my super awesome comeback was, in order of appearance, a blank stare, a frown, and a slow head tilting that, at first, I thought was the product of a brain hemorrhage caused by my life-changing seeding of nihilistic logic in her beautiful Taiwanese mind. But then it hit me. Her face didn’t display enlightenment, but a type of disgust that (according to some viral “listicle”) Germans call Fremdschämen. Literally, the horror after realizing someone is totally oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are.
I know that face because I flash it almost on a daily basis when dealing with strangers that, normally, also have what the ever-creative word-spewing Germans call a Backpfeifengesicht. Literally, a face begging for a fist. Which is probably what I had because my girlfriend’s hand turned into a fist as she said “Buddha is NOT fat. You’re talking about Budai”.
I’m sure my Backpfeifengesicht got even more Backpfeifengesicht-ish as I rushed to Google Buddha to show my girlfriend how it was universally known that Buddha was fat. But then my Fremdschämen levels reached an epic peak because, unexpectedly to me, most pictures of Siddhartha Gautama showed that he was indeed rather delicate. The fat man my dad caressed each morning wasn’t Buddha, but another deity called Budai, who in the West is normally confused with the enlightened Nepali.
“You see!” My girlfriend’s voice drilled my ears as I browsed through images that were more Keanu than Jonah Hill. “Say you’re sorry to Buddha!” She joked before kissing the face of her misinformed boyfriend and continuing watching a Taiwanese reality show on my iPad. I just grunted and accepted defeat.
Bertolucci was right, Keanu was right, my girlfriend was right, Google was right, and I was wrong. But in my defense, it was my father who created this deception that decades later made me look like an ass. Which is what I’ll probably be in the next life for calling Buddha fat without fact-checking first.
- Innocent mistake leads to reincarnation anxiety