Adventures : Japan Tales (20)

The Wonderful Dharma of the Daruma Doll

Hi ni! fu ni!
Fundan Daruma ga
Akai zukin kaburi sunmaita!

Once! twice!
Ever the red-hooded Daruma
Heedlessly sits up again!

– Children song from 17th century

One of the souvenirs I wanted to get when in Japan was a classic Daruma doll, because it personifies the important quality of rising after falling. I finally bought one in Tokyo near a temple. [The above motivational wooden sign was bought from the Japanese departmental store Daiso in Singapore. The words on it rendered in Chinese are 七转八起, which means ‘Seven falls and/but/yet eight rises’. ] For those unaware, it would be seen as just a particularly Japanese roly-poly tumble toy, but it has greater significance than that. Daruma (Damo 达摩 in Chinese) is the shortened Japanese rendition of the name Bodhidharma in Sanskrit. He was the 28th Indian Patriarch of the Zen tradition, and became the first Patriarch of the Chinese Zen (Chan) lineage between 475 to 520 AD. As gathered from, here are some interesting semi-legendary(?) factoids about him… [My comments in square brackets.]

Likely the most notable of such events is that of Bodhidharma’s nine year meditation in which he faced a rock wall, possibly of a cave. Sitting and gazing for such a prolonged amount of time, Bodhidharma consequently struggled against fatigue and drowsiness. In a fit of frustration, Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids to remain awake. [Kiddies, don’t try this at home!] It is believed that the first tea plants grew at the place where his eyelids fell. From then on, monks, as well as the rest of Asia, would have tea as a means to resist lethargy and aid in meditation. [Tea as a caffeine fix came from Buddhism!?]

Another important aspect of Bodhidharma’s meditation explains the form he is presented in today. Because Bodhidharma remained motionless for such an extensive period, he eventually lost his arms and legs as they withered away [atrophied]. Nevertheless, Bodhidharma was still able to remain upright. Especially for Zen followers who believe that one’s personal energy [chi probably] resides right below the navel, Bodhidharma’s achievement has been attributed to his discovery of inner strength.

Bodhidharma’s prominent presence at the Shaolin Temple has also influenced the belief that he founded a type of martial art now known as Shaolin kung-fu (Chinese) or karate (Japanese). Some affirm that during the T’ang dynasty, 618-097 A.D., the Shaolin Temple gained fame for the group of monks trained as warriors to fight with only sticks and their bare hands. Holding that Bodhidharma was indeed of the Kshatriya [warrior] caste [before becoming a monk], having been trained himself in martial arts, it is plausible to see why some believe Bodhidharma to be the first teacher of these warrior monks. [But how could he had trained them if his limbs wasted away?] An additional claim holds that Bodhidharma’s teaching of kung-fu was another means of combating the lethargy that monks commonly encountered during meditation and other practices requiring one to be motionless.

The most notable use of the Daruma [doll] is that of a symbol of good luck and fortune. [Daruma is usually portrayed with stern bulging eyes and brows, a prominent nose, a down-turned mouth, heavy beard, and a cloak (mostly red) which only reveals his face.] One of Daruma’s first uses was as an amulet to ward off illnesses from children, particularly smallpox. Red was said to be the favorite color of the god of small pox [seems more demonic than godly?] and so Daruma’s predominantly red cloak appeased him. One of the most common Daruma forms is the okiagari (self-righting) Daruma. This rendition of Daruma is that of a tumbler doll – armless and legless – alluding to the popular story [above]. These Darumas are weighted at the bottom so that anytime it is knocked over it always returns upright. This characteristic of the okiagari Daruma is obviously symbolic of the feat Bodhidharma achieved, remaining upright as he gazed ceaselessly. Bodhidharma’s nine year meditation and Daruma’s ability to get back up both entail the values of perseverance, determination, [concentration, self-discipline, strength, patience…] and success. As strongly held cultural values, the Japanese instill these in their children; the okiagari Daruma has long been a popular children’s toy with which parents have used to accomplish this.

Another of the most popular forms of Daruma is that of papier-mâché me-nashi (eyeless) or me-ire (put-in-the-eyes) Daruma. A variation of the okiagari Daruma, and almost always red, this Daruma features blank white circles in place of the eyes. The purpose for this lies in the belief that when a wish or prayer is made, one of the pupils is to be painted in; if the wish comes true, the other pupil is then painted in. [It’s also a simple tool for remembering to complete a task if the doll is placed prominenty! Some dolls have written characters on the cheeks about the wish in mind – such as protection of loved ones. The surname of the owner may be written on the chin. As it is usual to own one Daruma at a time, could this symbolise prioritising in goal-setting?] This traditional practice is attributed to the Buddhist rite of kaigen kuyo (opening-the-eyes-ceremony) in which a Buddhist image is given religious qualities [via consecration using chanting]. In the making of such an image, the eyes are left as the last to be constructed; the completion of the eyes is seen as giving the image its spirit. The sizes of this type of Daruma are also used in accordance with the significance of the wish or prayer. A small Daruma for small wishes, and large Darumas for more serious needs. Such Darumas are often accumulated over several years in which small wishes can be turned into bigger ones.

Called a “political rite of passage,” the eyeless okiagari Daruma is also widely used during elections. From local officials to the Prime Minister, candidates typically paint in one eye of a giant Daruma in hopes of winning an election, often doing so in large ceremonies. Consequently, the winning parties hold even bigger ceremonies featuring the completion and painting in of the other Daruma eye. The presence of Daruma also stems into shrines, markets, and festivals which are all in honor and celebration of Daruma. The Daruma Ichi (markets) are usually held with the New Year season, beginning in January and lasting until March. As the Daruma represents good luck, the New Year is the most popular time they are given as gifts. In addition to the okiagari Daruma, many other forms of Daruma can be purchased at the Daruma Ichi such as the Daruma ema. Ema, or votive tablets, crafted as Daruma, are used to write one’s name and wish and then taken to a Daruma temple.

One of the most spectacular Daruma festivals is the Dairyu-ji, the annual burning of used Daruma figures. Held around January 18th, a giant bonfire is made in which thousands of Daruma figures are thrown. [Burning is done as a purification ritual to show that the wisher did not give up on the wish, but is on another path to make it come true.] Whether a Daruma has lead to the fulfillment of a wish, there is a general assumption that the good luck of a Daruma (particularly the paper-mâché okiagari type) lasts for just a year. [Sounds a tad superstitious? See my thoughts on burning stuff at] Daruma has developed into a widely spread element of Japanese culture. But whether used for religious, political, or cultural beliefs, the Daruma always conveys a positive meaning.

Nanakorobi yaoki
Jinsei wa kore kara da.

To fall seven times,
To rise eight times,
Life starts from now.

– A Daruma doll saying

Related Links:
Video of an inspiring human ‘Daruma doll’ (Nick Vujicic, who has no arms and legs)
‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’… & Other Fortunate Events

Next Adventure :
Previous Adventure :

1 thought on “Adventures : Japan Tales (20)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.