Budai (Chinese: 布袋; pinyin: Bùdài), pronounced Hotei in Japanese, Bố Đại in Vietnamese, is a Chinese folkloric deity. His name means "Cloth Sack," and comes from the bag that he is conventionally depicted as carrying. He is usually identified with (or as an incarnation of) Maitreya Buddha, so much so that the Budai image is one of the main forms in which Maitreya Buddha is depicted in East Asia. He is almost always shown smiling or laughing, hence his nickname in Chinese, the Laughing Buddha (Chinese: 笑佛; pinyin: xiàofó). Many Westerners confuse Budai with Gautama Buddha.
Budai is traditionally depicted as a fat bald man wearing a robe and wearing or otherwise carrying prayer beads. He carries his few possessions in a cloth sack, being poor but content. He is often depicted entertaining or being followed by adoring children. His figure appears throughout Chinese culture as a representation of contentment. His image graces many temples, restaurants, amulets, and businesses.
According to Chinese history, Budai was an eccentric Chán monk (Chinese: 禅; pinyin: chán) who lived in China during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923 CE). He was a native of Fenghua, and his Buddhist name was Qieci (Chinese: 契此; pinyin: qiècǐ; literally "Promise this"). He was considered a man of good and loving character.
The term buddha means "one who is awake", connoting one who has awakened into enlightenment. Over the history of Buddhism, there have been several notable figures who would come to be remembered as, and referred to as, buddhas. Later followers of the Chan school would come to teach that all beings possess Buddha nature within them, and are already enlightened, but have yet to realize it. This teaching would continue into Zen.
Amongst those new to Buddhism, or otherwise unfamiliar with its history, Budai is often conflated with (or simply replaces) the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, in spite of the distinct visual differences in how each has been depicted. In India, Nepal, and throughout southeast Asia, Gautama (who lived during the 6th c. BCE) is commonly depicted as being tall and slender in appearance. In contrast, in China and those areas to which Chinese cultural influence spread, the depiction of Budai (who lived during the 10th c. CE) is consistently short and round. Both depictions are the idealized results of the religious, cultural and folkloric traditions which evolved in the centuries after their respective deaths.