Many folks who encounter Buddhism, often times see this happy fellow:
I’ve seen people ask on online forums why Buddha is fat if he supposed to live a simple, humble life. This requires some clarification on what the “Fat Buddha” is. The “Fat Buddha” is actually not the Buddha, but a character named Budai (boo-dye) in Chinese, or “hotei” in Japanese. Budai is seen as a characterization of a different Buddha named Maitreya, who is the next Buddha to come. Click on the link for more information.
Since Maitreya is not yet a Buddha, and won’t be a Buddha for millions of years in the future, these statues portray Maitreya in a past life as a happy-go-lucky monk. Budai is said to wander around China, feeding children candy, and sometimes the children tickle his tummy so he would drop his gifts. The legend of Budai is only found in Chinese Buddhism,* so it’s not exactly part of the canonical Buddhist teachings. It’s something that’s arisen over time in China. Did Budai really live, or is it a legend? I don’t know, and it’s not really that important anyways. Budai the “fat Buddha” symbolizes the joy of generosity toward others if nothing else.
So now the question is: was the real Buddha fat?
No. If you look in the Buddhist texts, the Buddha frequently taught moderation in eating. In one episode, he met with his disciple King Pasenadi of Kōsala, who was overweight. He encouraged the king to pay attention to his food and stop stuffing his face absentmindedly. The King paid a servant a daily wage to remind him to eat mindfully each meal, and before long he was slimmer and in better shape.
In the Buddha’s monastic community, he often promoted the benefits of eating fewer meals a day. This was because monks depended on donations for food (alms), and the Buddha didn’t want to drain all the resources of the lay-community, as well as leave more time for practice and study. So, the monastic rules, called the Vinaya stipulated that monks could not eat a meal after noon-time. Monks can drink tea (without milk) or plain vegetable broth, but generally the tradition is to avoid snacks or real meals after noon-time. This also shows up in the eight moral precepts that lay followers take on special occasions.**
So that’s the story behind the “fat Buddha”.
* – And by extension Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhism.
** – The Eight Precepts are intended only for special retreats and times of practice. For day-to-day stuff, practicing the Five Moral Precepts (same link above) is enough to keep anyone busy. The Buddha stated that anyone who could follow the Five Precepts correctly was said to have genuinely noble character (āriya in the old Pali language).