“Thanks for that image, Jeff. All afternoon I’ve been envisioning a Buddha jiggling and bouncing down a wooded trail.” This is a comment I got on a recent blog post about trail running. In this post, I included the popular Buddhist quote ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’
This response surprised me. First off, I almost never get blog comments. And more importantly, I don’t ever think of the Buddha as fat. In America, the prevalent image of the Buddha—sitting cross-legged, smiling, his ample belly hanging over his thighs—is a cartoon. It’s the Buddha I grew up with in the sixties and seventies. My conservative parents, both raised and identifying as Christian, had a wooden Fat-Buddha on our fireplace mantle. At parties, their friends rubbed the huge belly for luck. This happened so frequently, the varnish was rubbed off.
But my parents and their friends didn’t grasp the importance of what Gautama Buddha achieved. To them, he was just a happy-fat-luck-granting-guy. When I think of the Buddha, I envision the ascetic Buddha. The man who starved himself to the edge of death as he attained enlightenment. To me that’s the real Buddha. All of the Buddha images in my own house are Skinny-Buddha.
This topic came up in a conversation with my son Eli the other day. The original context of the discussion doesn’t matter, because like so many conversations in our house this one quickly free-associated onto a completely different path. Fat-Buddha/Skinny-Buddha, blah, blah, blah. We quickly moved on to another great deity who gained a ton of weight: Elvis. I’m a Skinny-Elvis fan. So much so that I’ve never been able to understand the appeal of Fat-Elvis.
Susan has a better take on this. She grew up in a house where people actually listened to Elvis. Her parents are a decade or so younger than mine. After Fat-Buddha, the next hippest thing in my parents’ house was a Herb Albert album belonging to my dad. I don’t ever remember that album being played, but because the album cover was a naked woman covered with whip cream, and all of the kids in our house were boys, the album was out on top of the hi-fi pretty much all the time. Susan tells me Fat-Elvis’ appeal is his flash. His awesome jumpsuits, his over-sized glasses. By the time Elvis was fat, he was an entertainer, resting on his laurels. And his charisma. He was the over-large embodiment of a legend. He helped other aging, overweight people think they were still cool.
Five years ago we went to Niagara Falls, Canada on a family vacation. We went to the Canadian side instead of the New York side because we were certain it would be more mellow, low-key. We got this wrong. Niagara Falls has to be the only place except Tijuana where town across the U.S. border is tackier and cheesier than its American counterpart. In a four square block area, Niagara Falls channels all of Las Vegas save the gambling.
In the center plaza of Niagara Falls, there’s a guy who sets up shop every night: Golden-Elvis. He looks just like Elvis but he is head to toe gold—sparkly gold. His blazer, trousers and shoes are shiny gold; his hair is gold; his glasses frames are gold; even his skin is gold. Sitting all alone on a pedestal in the center of the plaza. Permitted a reverent fifteen-foot radius by the tourists gorging on their ice cream, pizza slices and sodas. The deal is that you pay Golden-Elvis some money, and you can take your picture with him… with your own camera.
If you step anywhere inside Elvis’ natural radial void, you’re committed. The crowd hoots, and Golden-Elvis rises off his platform. It’s all too showy for a family like mine. We don’t crave the lime-light. We didn’t take a photo. At the time it seemed like a silly embarrassment and a waste of money. If I could go back in time, I would have paid whatever Golden-Elvis charged—which I think was a buck. I doubt a month goes by when someone in my family doesn’t mention Golden-Elvis. He’s a bonding family story—except we didn’t get the photo.
Golden-Elvis wasn’t fat, but he captured the Fat-Elvis essence perfectly. So flashy he sparkled. Fat or skinny, when people think of Elvis, they think of his flair. And that skinny kid in jeans and a blazer dancing with his guitar, that isn’t flair. Flair is the honky-tonk jumpsuit, the great big glasses and the huge Evel Knievel collar. This style started when Elvis was still skinny, but it is the image associate with Fat-Elvis.
After Eli and I exhausted the topics of the Buddha and Elvis, we moved on to Jesus. (No, I don’t know how our conversation took that turn.) For the most part, we have only one image of Jesus. Skinny-Jesus. He didn’t have time to settle into his ministry, grow it from a desk, hob-nob at political dinners, reap the worldly benefits of his popularity. Jesus was killed before he was able to get fat. And I respect him for that. We don’t need to pick the Jesus image we prefer. There’s only one image, one Jesus, and he’s uniformly thin. Historically-accurately thin.
Of course we have no photos of Jesus, no surviving portraits, but we know how a man from Bethlehem two thousand years ago was likely to appear. This is generally ignored. The popular Jesus image is white and European. And almost universally sexy! The Christian homeless-shelter-slash-thrift-shop in my town has a painting of Jesus behind the cash register. I’ve admired this painting since I first walked into the thrift shop eleven years ago. It never fails to catch my attention. It looks like an artist asked a Jesus-model to sit for a portrait. Who’s the model? Well, I’m pretty sure it’s Matt Dillon—Sexy! Flair! The picture isn’t for sale, I’ve asked.
In the list of skinny people who packed on weight as they achieved fame, I always align with the skinny version. Jim Morrison, Babe Ruth, John Travolta. I’m certain this discourse makes me seem anti-fat. And while I’m not pro-fat, I really don’t consider any of the people I’ve mentioned (except the Buddha image, which, based on his teachings, I’m certain is inaccurate) as actually fat. This is just the label assigned to these people after they gained weight—after their clearly skinny start. By today’s standards, these people actually look pretty normal, and some might even seem fit. In America today, we’re all fat.
Really, this is metaphorical: Skinny = Hungry, Fat = Complacent. The fresh version, the skinny version, is always hungry to achieve greatness, or fame, or accolades, or righteousness. The fat version, the seasoned veteran, the hard work is done. Coasting downhill. Not much effort, along for the ride. A chance to bask in worldly luxury and excess calories.
Jesus never hit this point. Unlike so many modern televangelists who made it into the big-time, who became a household name, a global phenomenon by forty. Jesus worked hard his whole life. Always in a growth phase. He never hit that point where he could coast. Put his feet up on his desk and let his disciples do the work. He didn’t get to see the IPO. By then he was done. Long dead. He never turned into the CEO he was meant to be. Decades ago, Neil Young offered some sage advice. It’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Most of us want to remember the shiny version. The flash, the flair. Before it tarnishes, bloats and wears out. No one wants to be forced to choose between the skinny and the fat. The lasting life lesson? Stay hungry or go away.