Daruma dolls are seen as a harbinger of good luck in Japan. Richly detailed and symbolic, they're encouraging reward systems for go-getters. One of the most recognisable travel gifts around the world, they’re also undeniably cute, and found in all shapes and sizes: from tiny keychain versions to models up to two feet high, vying for space with potted plants.
If you’ve picked up a daruma on a trip to Japan, ever wondered about its body? Why is this handicraft so rotund, with no limbs or appendages dangling about? Why does it have white blanks for eyes?
Apparently, it’s all strategic, as you’re meant to be under the watch of a moody monk from the 5th and 6th century.
Bodhidharma is the man behind the myth. Traditionally remembered as the figurehead of Zen (Chan) Buddhism in China, he was a hot-blooded monk who travelled to the famed Shaolin temple to train under its first abbot. Called ‘Daruma’ in Japan, he’s also believed to have set up exercises and physical regimens that later developed into Shaolin’s legendary kung fu. Most researchers dismiss this claim, tracing it back to a 17th-century Chinese manual called the Yijing Jing. It likely had a forged preface attributing its contents to Bodhidharma—star power, y'know?—but that hasn’t stopped his legacy from permeating across East and Southeast Asia. The ill-tempered Buddhist is a rare trope, so we get the hype.
An inimitable legacy
One of Bodhidharma’s most famous legends is how he gained entry into Shaolin. When he first visited the temple, its abbot (likely the founder, Buddhabhadra) refused him entry. Adamant to get in, Bodhidharma sat inside a cave for nine years, gazing at its wall and creating a new form of meditation that’s still seen in Zen Buddhism. Legend says that with those nine years of stillness, his arms and legs wasted away—it is this idea of perseverance that made its way into the design of daruma dolls. Some accounts say he fell asleep seven years in, and cut off his eyelids to prevent a second mistake. This could explain his unflinching stare in many portrayals. It definitely adds a stoic layer to the flat white eyes of each doll.
Most depictions of Bodhidharma are distinctly non-Chinese. Popular culture back then represented him with blue eyes, a bushy beard and a volatile personality, calling him the ‘Blue-Eyed Barbarian’. Most scholars agree that he may have been a traveller from the ‘Western Regions’ (Central Asia), who followed the Silk Road to end up in China. Another interesting origin point is southern India, with Bodhidharma being a Tamil prince who’d tapped into his kundalini and renounced the monarchy to become a monk. Researcher Tsutomu Kambe speculates that he could have been the third son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. And he’s not alone in this belief—there’s an actual Bodhidharma Buddhist Worship Center in this temple city.
Daruma dolls today
The Japanese people use the daruma as a positive talisman. Once you set a goal, you fill in one of its blank eyes. On achieving your goal, you fill in the other one, giving the daruma ‘full sight’ and at a deeper level, helping Bodhidharma along on the path to self-actualisation and Buddhist enlightenment.
The Shorinzan Daruma-Ji Temple (Daruma-dera) in Takasaki, Japan partly led to the popularity of this talisman. The temple’s founder would draw New Year’s charms showing Bodhidharma against the evil eye, and parishioners would install them all around to usher in joy and prosperity. Over time, the parishioners started requesting for more charms at the end of a year. That’s when Togaku, the ninth priest of Daruma-dera, issued wooden moulds for people to make their own dolls. It’s not known when the daruma’s design fused with a tumbler doll format, but it became the norm by the 1800s. Farmers in the area mostly cultivated silk and they needed a great deal of luck for a good harvest.
Takasaki still celebrates an annual Daruma Doll Festival every year, where some 400,000 people visit the city to buy new talismans straight from the horse’s mouth. The temple’s monks provide a stunning backdrop to the event, with a 24-hour reading of sutras “for world peace”. When buying these dolls, people note their unique facial features modelled after Bodhidharma. His eyebrows are shaped like a crane and his cheek hair like the shell of a tortoise. Both animals are powerful markers for longevity in Japan.
If you were to Google Bodhidharma today, one of his most (in)famous stories might come up on top; when he demanded a disciple, Huike, chop off his arm and offer it as a mark of sincerity. Thankfully, you’re no longer asked to evidence the Ekalavya in you. The daruma in 2020 is a colourful way to doll up your shelves or home temple. Should you fail to hit the gym and fulfill your New Year’s resolutions, you won’t have to give up an arm and a leg to make amends. As a popular axiom in Zen Buddhism goes, ‘the temptation to give up is strongest just before victory’. Should you falter, Bodhidharma will be ready to push you back on track.