One sunny day Hotei came to a small village. Now there was nothing Hotei liked so much as to give the little children sweets and trinkets to play with. He looked in his cloth sack and – nothing! ‘How can this be? I was sure I had something,’ Hotei thought. The children were going to be disappointed. This thought saddened him. He must not let that happen but what could he do or what could he think of to prevent unhappy, sad faces? Should he even venture into the village empty-handed? So, it was that Hotei turned abruptly on his heels, his belly wobbled as he did so, and started back on the path he had been following for many months.
It was not long after this that he met a monk on the dusty road who recognized the illustrious wanderer and saw his chance to ask him some exacting questions. Hotei knew what was coming and smiled a very happy, knowing smile, and awaited the question. ‘What is the meaning of zen?’ the monk inquired, perhaps even thinking that he would be the first to stump the master. Hotei merely dropped his bundle to the ground without uttering a word. Seeing no verbal answer was forthcoming the monk ventured another poser, ‘How does one realize zen?’ Hotei retrieved his belongings from the ground and went on his way.
It was his custom to charge a penny’s worth from those practicing zen, be they lay or monk, for any preachment he might make but on this occasion it was not warranted. Still, he thought how he might scrape enough coins together to buy some sweets for the children of the village he had to avoid for the time being. He was sure an opportunity would come: people delighted in sermons and words, and they were of great benefit to others.
Tired from so much walking Hotei rested under a large shady tree on the roadside. Other travellers had put together a crude stone table and seats so he was thankful he didn’t have to sit on the ground. He looked into his sack and retrieved a morsel of rice cake and nibbled on it. Now you might wonder how such spare dining could result in so ample a waistline as he so obviously possessed. Some believe his appearance was a form of supernatural disguise to prevent people from assessing him on his erstwhile good looks but it’s more likely the welcoming feasts at almost all the villages he passed through were the real cause of his having put on so much weight. Still, for all that he was quite fit from all the walking and could move as nimbly as any man should it be required of him; for example, if he quickly had to get out of the way of a rushing carriage.
He admired the tree under which he was sitting – it put him in mind of the tree under which the founder of Buddhism had so long ago first attained enlightenment. Hotei had a special fondness for trees. He really could sit for hours in contemplation of the beauteous trees he encountered on his travels, and in fact, he often did. His water bottle was nearly empty and it was time to find a stream to replenish his supply. He got up and walked until he came to a stone bridge. Before crossing it he went to the river’s edge and filled up his water bottle, then he returned to the bridge to cross it but lo and behold there was a creature there that blocked his way. It looked fierce and wore a nasty expression. ‘Er, may I pass?’ inquired Hotei.
‘You may not unless you pay the toll!’ it demanded.
‘What is the toll?’ asked Hotei.
‘500!’ the clawed hand of the half-human half-monster gestured.
‘500!’ blurted Hotei.
‘Yes, or 300 and 2 rice cakes.’
‘I don’t have anything right now,’ Hotei explained.
‘Then you cannot pass!’ the creature retorted.
Normally a very happy person Hotei felt a tinge of unhappy confusion. He could not go forward since he had no money and he could not go back to the village children empty-handed. It was useless to explain this to this hard-hearted savage-looking thing. He had no choice but to turn around and head in the direction of the village again.But he thought - happy once more - perhaps I will encounter some people on the road with charitable natures?
And under the very tree he had rested at earlier on that day he spied from a distance that there were a few people gathered. He rejoiced and quickened his pace. Soon he was among them and they were pleased to see him and offered him food and drink. There were even a few children with their parents and the children pressed close upon him basking in his friendly radiance and he delighted in speaking with them about things that would usually have their parents’ ears close ere long. He had no sweets for them but they didn’t seem to mind and so he took heart that the village children might be the same. All was working out so well he found himself laughing happily out loud which made the children laugh too, and even their parents laughed and a merry time was had by all even as the sun was setting and the fires were lit for the night.
This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.