Hōtei (Chinese: Budai), a popular figure in the Zen pantheon, is often depicted as a chubby, good-humored monk carrying a large sack. A semihistorical figure, he is believed to have lived in southern China in the late ninth century and was eventually recognized as a manifestation of Miroku (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future.
The inscription is excerpted from a eulogy for Budai by the Song-dynasty Daoist master Bai Yuchan (1194–1229), who integrated Chan (Zen) teachings of enlightenment into his philosophy. The inscription was transcribed in bold, cursive, and highly expressive calligraphy by Tetsuzan Sōdon, a leading Zen monk-scholar who served as an abbot of Myōshinji in Kyoto. The inscription reads:
Hotei’s sack encompasses the Great Emptiness.
Holding a staff, he tramps around 3,000 worlds.
Miroku claps his hands, and laughs—ha, ha!
The bright moon shines, the wind disappears . . .
The above poem is by the master of Sanyian Monastery,
brushed by Tetsuzan Sōdonsai, aged 85, at Dairyū in Temple in Kyoto.
—Trans. John T. Carpenter
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York