For those who had visited the Land of the Rising Sun (Japan), I’m sure you had brought home the cliché variety of KitKat or bottles of sake for your loved ones. If you want to be a little more original during your next trip to Japan, you might want to consider getting these beautifully designed Daruma Dolls that are handcrafted with high quality workmanship from the Japanese.
The Daruma is a traditional Japanese doll which people believe could help them achieve their goals and obtain good luck. During my past three trips to Japan, I had brought home these dolls to display on my shelves but little did I know about the history behind them… Until now. If you are like me, attracted by their designs, do stay on and read the rest of this post where I will explain their slightly disturbing origin, the types of dolls and how to use them.
So… what actually led to the rise of Daruma Dolls?
The Daruma dolls have symbolic representations where the shape was modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen sect of Buddhism. Zen believers stress the importance of meditation and takes no interest in doctrinal refinements. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5/6th century CE and credited with the conveyance of Zen Buddhism practices to China and subsequently to Japan and eventually became very popular in the West from mid 20th century. Its actual origin is muddled with mystery as there the documentation of his life is mixed with legends.
According to one tradition, Bodhidharma stopped in a Shaolin monastery in China for sometime and continued his travels until he decided to meditate in a cave. He was famous for his practice of wall-gazing. Legend goes saying that Bodhidharma meditated for nine years straight without moving, eyes fixated to the wall and seated in a cross-legged position without taking breaks or closing his eyes. Except for one occasion, after seven years. He was so infuriated with himself and grabbed a knife to cut off his very own eyelids to make sure that he will never fall asleep again. The pieces of eyelids which fell to the ground eventually sprouted green tea leaves which eventually became a belief among Asian people that drinking green tea helps one to stay awake. Of course, Science would explain that it is due to the caffeine inside it but legends explains that the tea was created because of the “eyelid-plant”.
The goriness does not end there… Bodhidharma also suffered from the loss of his four limbs where legends said that it had gradually withered and fell off his body due to nine whole years of immobility.
This is why the Daruma resembles the head and torso without all limbs. Also, it is believed to have exhibited all characteristics of Bodhidharma and it is often associated with the Japanese proverb ‘nanakorobi yaoki – 七転び八起き’ which means ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight’. The Daruma might look unstable at first glance but just a mere push, it will still come right back up. It is a symbol of resilience and recuperation.
How to use Daruma Dolls?
I hope that the morbid history behind the Daruma Dolls did not scare you off and you might want to know more on how you can actually use them to your favor. These dolls are believed to be able to help one achieve their goals and dreams by providing them luck and the strength to be resilient. They are also popular gifts of encouragement in the Japanese culture where they are often commercialized by the Buddhist temples to help with goal setting.
Initially, the Daruma’s eyes are blank and you will have to make a wish and paint one of the eyes. Once your wish or goal is realised, you can then paint the other eye to thank the god for your achievement.
However, do note that these Daruma charms have an effectiveness of only one year. After a year, you should return it to the temple from where you had purchased it and burn them regardless of whether you had attained your goals. This is a symbol of freeing the god and it is not meant to be treated as giving up on one’s goals but it is a renewal of one’s vows by purchasing another Daruma. There is even a ceremony named Daruma Kuyo is held in several temples in Japan where tons of Daruma dolls are burnt altogether. The next ceremony will be held at the Nishiarai Daishi Temple in early Feb 2021.
Modern day Daruma
Let’s talk about the colors. In modern day Daruma designs, the color of the doll varies. The most common being red as it originated from Bodhidharma’s red robes. Also, in the Asian culture, red symbolizes prosperity, good luck and fortune. There was also another myth that the color red was due to the smallpox incident that occurred during the Edo period in Japan. Children who was diagnosed with the illness had to wear red hoods. If they died, they were often wrapped up in red funeral robes. As such, the Daruma are typically red as it associates with this myth and symbolizes resilience and wishing one to have a speedy recovery.
Today, there are many uses of the Daruma design as it could be vastly seen adorned as bracelet charms, pendants and even tattoos.
Even the Daruma doll’s facial hair has a symbolic meaning. The eyebrow represents the shape of the crane and the mustache takes after the tortoise. This was to match the Japanese proverb of ‘the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000’.
Nowadays, the designs have shifted to using cats and many other forms to be incorporated in Daruma. This inspired me to create and design my own series of Daruma jewellery. I hope that this blog post helped you understand the origins of Daruma dolls and perhaps encourage you to get one during your next visit to the rich heritage and cultural land of the rising sun. 🙂