Since all that construction on Tamiami Trail just north of downtown Sarasota took hold, I’ve favored its north-south traveling counterpart just one block east. Cocoanut Avenue is now my trusty go-to for avoiding terrifying turnabouts and molasses traffic. It’s fun for the eyes, too.
The Florida cracker and single-story concrete block homes are often colorful and stand out one from one another like a tapestry. And a 6-foot-tall, 4-foot wide golden Buddha is the tassel hanging from them. At the corner of 12th Street and Cocoanut Avenue, diagonally across from the basketball court at Pioneer Park, you can’t miss his sheer size, massive smile and jolly belly.
Laughing Buddha brings good luck and protection.
In July, when gunshots were fired at the park, concerned nearby homeowner Samuel Ray—who owns Tsunami Sushi & Hibachi Grill in downtown Sarasota—thought it could use a watchful friend. No one was hurt in the incident, but one of the bullets got lodged in Ray's home. The next week, he installed Buddha outside to “share good vibes,” he says.
“He’s the guardian of the neighborhood," he explains. "I’m trying to make it a happy place for the kids to enjoy being outside and make it safe. That’s why he’s looking toward the park.”
Ray, 30, was raised Christian but has embraced Buddhism for roughly five years. He says “it’s not a religion, it’s a practice." That practice is largely based on doing no harm, and doing unto others as you would have done to you.
This Buddha isn't the kind that's stocked at a store. It's a “it came from a friend of a friend”-type story. After 47 years in business, a retiring restaurateur needed help closing and emptying a Chinese buffet in Brandon. Ray was interested in some aquariums the owner were selling. “But Buddha caught my fancy right away,” he recalls.
When the restaurant owner asked Ray what he intended to do with Buddha, Ray said, “I’ll put him in a happy place," and accepted it as a gift.
He strapped Buddha on top of his Jeep and drove him to Sarasota. "I’ll never forget the looks we got as we were driving the car down I-75 with a 4-foot wide, 6-foot tall Buddha on top of it. People took pictures and bowed at us,” he says.
And the laughing Buddha gets the same attention in the Central Cocoanut neighborhood. Ray once lent him out for a photo shoot for an upcoming new restaurant location and received 17 voicemails from concerned neighbors who wanted to know what happened to it.
Ray moved to Sarasota from Texas 10 years ago and bought the home roughly a year and a half ago to house the chefs who work at Tsunami. He lives in the neighborhood, too, and wants to uplift the area in the ways he can. He painted the home a bright, cheerful blue and added flower beds. He knows a dozen neighbors by name and installed solar-powered outdoor lights on four of their homes, free of charge. Buddha is a central figure of the neighborhood now. Passersby stop to take photos and dogs lead their walkers to him daily.
Ray hopes to continue bringing good vibes to the neighborhood through investment. He has his eye on the duplex across the street and the big purple house across from his.
"I love it here but it could be better," he says. "I'm starting a property management business to have income properties so I'll continue to improve on the neighborhood. It benefits all of us who love it here."