Explorations in Japanese Culture
For as long as I have been interested in Japanese culture, I have seen the little daruma dolls popping up all over the place. I was never really sure what it was, and I never really saw much of an explanation of them. The daruma fall into the long list of things that are so common in the Japanese culture that everyone knows what they are, but few take time to explain them to the new learners. I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at these symbols of good luck and determination and provide a little bit of background of their origin.
Before I begin explaining the daruma doll, it makes more sense to first start by giving the historical background on the Buddhist figure that they are based on. The dolls are named/modeled after the ancient Indian Zen Master, Bodhidharma, who founded the Ch’an sect of Zen Buddhism. Born as the third son to the king of South India, he later left his home country for China where he gained noiteriatary for his practice of wall gazing. The legend is that he lost the use of his arms and legs to atrophy after sitting in meditation for nine years. Another popular legend is that after falling asleep during his meditation, Bodhidharma was so angry that he cut off his eyelids to prevent this from ever happening again. After throwing his eyelids to the ground, the first tea plant sprouted from them. The tea was then used to aid future monks in staying awake during their meditation.
The characteristics of the Bodhidharma are seen in the features of the daruma. The face of the daruma is bearded, just as many depictions of the Bodhidharma show him to be. One of the most important features however is the lack of limbs on the daruma doll. Just as the Bodhidharma lost his limbs after years of determined meditation, the daruma is modeled without them to reflect this level of commitment. The daruma represents determination in achieving your goals, seen also in the non-toppling design (darumas wobble, but they don’t fall down!) Daruma dolls are often depicted as wearing red robes, because this is the color worn by the Zen monks who have achieved the highest level of spiritual attainment. I have not read anything in particular to support this, but I would also suppose that the large wide eyes of the daruma doll are based on the legend of the Bodhidharma cutting off his own eyelids to stay awake. Also a strong symbol of determination and commitment to a goal. I find this all particularly fascinating, as it seems very Japanese for a cultural icon to be devoted specifically to determination and good luck.
Darumas are produced with blank white eyes, which are left for the owner to color in themselves. The right eye is first colored in as the user selects a goal or wish that they strongly want and are willing to strive for. You then set the daruma in your home, office, etc. If you reach your goal or your dream comes true then you paint in the left eye to represent your accomplishment. At the end of a year it is tradtion to take all the daruma back to the temple from which they were purchased so that they may be burned a new daruma bought for the new year. This ceeremony is called the Daruma Kuyo and is usually held right after New Years Day. After expressing their gratitude to the daruma, they are turned over to the temple to be part of the ceremonial burning.
Below is a video from youtube of the traditional burning of the daruma dolls: