I had always believed that Buddha was a large fat bald smiling man whose stomach Chinese people rubbed for good luck. I would see statues of this man often in Chinese restaurants. It wasn’t until 2012 that I realized this man was not Buddha, but actually a famous monk — Hotei.
Back in 2012 I was invited by my then student, Jiho An, to visit the Unmunsa Temple near the city of Gyeongsan. Jiho, whose title is that of ‘sunim’ because she is a Korean monk, welcomed me to the temple where I stayed overnight. Templestays are common in Korea and this was my first time doing one.
While there I marveled in the Buddhist artwork especially the many depictions of famous monks and Buddha. Once I saw the statute of Buddha with his hair styled similarly to the fashion I had styled my hair around 1998/9, I understood something that had had happened to me years before in university.
Around 1998/9 I visited my sister in Atlanta and while there I had my short afro twisted hair styled in a new way. Upon returning to Los Angeles with my new hairdo, a couple of Chinese classmates commented that my hair reminded them of Buddha. However, I had no idea what they meant by this. As I mentioned earlier, I envisaged Hotei as the Buddha. In that moment, there was no similarity between me and a fat bald smiling man.
It was during my visit to UnMunSa that I noticed for the first time statues of Buddha that had hair styled in a fashion similar to the one I sported over a decade prior. At that moment, I understood what my Chinese classmates meant.
What I had no idea about was how pervasive this hairstyle was. For example, while visiting Ethiopia in 2017 I found a similar statue at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Additionally, while on a trip to Egypt I saw an Egyptian statue with a similar hairstyle.