Not only are the Japanese people known for their beautiful Sakura, mouth-watering sushi, and majestic Mt. Fuji, they too are known for their high reverence for amulets. They have one for almost any occasion and purpose. The Japanese believe that having an amulet in one’s possession will bring good luck, among other things, to the carrier.
And one of the most popular lucky charms is the Daruma Doll. It is a traditional Japanese doll that symbolizes perseverance and luck. As a matter of fact, if one is to think about it, the doll is also a symbol of Japan with its long history, rich heritage, and harrowing origin.
But more importantly, a Daruma Doll is an excellent confidant and can help bonsai enthusiasts in achieving their goals. How so? Well…read on to find out!
The Legend Behind
It all started with a monk named Bodhidharma, who was accredited for founding Zen Buddhism. While most of the accounts about his life are filled with legends and shrouded in mystery, it is believed that he lived between the 5th and 6th centuries.
In one of his many travels, he stayed for some time at the Shaolin monastery in China, where he founded the homonymous martial art. He continued traveling until eventually deciding to settle in a cave where he could meditate. And in this cave is where the Daruma’s history can be traced.
Bodhidharma became a wall-gazer. This involves meditating in a seated position while staring at a wall. The monk was driven to do this for nine years without ever closing his eyes and taking breaks. But after seven years, he slipped up. Believing that he lacked the discipline, he sliced his eyelids in order to prevent himself from sleeping again. When his eyelids fell on the ground, they turned into plants of green tea. This legend fuels the belief among Buddhist monks that drinking green tea will keep them awake.
Aside from his self-inflicted mutilation, the monk also lost his arms and legs due to him being immobile for nine years. These features of Bodhidharma are well portrayed by the Daruma dolls.
Daruma Doll Features
With how the legend about Bodhidharma goes, it’s only fitting that we start with the doll’s eyes (or lack thereof).
Upon seeing a Daruma Doll, it is instantaneous to be drawn to its blank glance. It lacks pupils and only has large white circles where the eyes should be. One theory states that this feature is due to the legend, but a more prominent one suggests that people want the deity residing in the doll to help them achieve their goals. And in order to do so, those people would vow to give the doll its eyesight in exchange for the god’s help to guarantee their success in whatever endeavor — even if it involves growing miniature trees.
Both the beard and eyebrows are painted on the doll to depict Bodhidharma’s features. Their significance and symbolism, though, are beyond just aesthetic purposes. The beard is shaped like a turtle, while the eyebrows are crane-like. These animals are representations of longevity in Japanese culture and East Asia. Such details are also in accordance with the Japanese proverb that goes:
“The crane lives 1000 years, the turtle 10,000.”
To represent Bodhidharma’s journey to enlightenment through meditation and self-sacrifice, the Daruma has no arms or legs as well.
Now, one of the most notable features of the original dolls is that they were impossible to tip over. The dolls would always return to their upright position when you tilt them.
A life lesson on its own, a Daruma doll serves as a reminder that no matter how often life knocks us down, we must always endure and stand back up again. By doing so, we get to work our way to achieving our desired goals.
And if you have heard of that Japanese expression nankorobi yaoki, you will definitely agree that, just like the Daruma doll:
“Seven times down, eight times up.”
On the midsection of the Daruma, you can find kanji, which means fortune, luck, perseverance, or other similar words. The written words are a reflection of the reason why the doll was acquired. There are also times that people write their wish or goal instead. This way, it serves as an official request to the deity.
The colors that adorn the Daruma come with an assortment of reasons, some interesting, some downright convoluted.
For one, the color gold is associated with money and fame in Japan. The color black is not bad luck itself but to ward such luck off. The green color is linked to fitness and health. But despite these common connotations, the colors are drawn from varying beliefs, legends, and superstitions that further form the collective image of the doll.
The thing we are certain of is that the most common color used is red, which was also originally the only color. Scholars have tried to understand the reasoning behind the color for what seems like centuries but still come empty-handed with the truth.
Speculations connect the color red to Bodhidharma’s robes; similarly, monks nowadays use the same-colored robes. Other theories point to the supernatural powers of the color and its connection to the gods.
Moreover, there are also beliefs that the color originated from the period when smallpox outbreaks devastated Asian countries. Without any knowledge on how to fend off a curse from a god, people then started wearing red garments. There was a consensus that the color pleased the god and would help in ending the disease. In a similar fashion, people also started decorating their houses with red ropes in an attempt to block the illness from entering.
Throughout history, people believed that the dolls ward off illnesses and aid in recoveries (does “bouncing back to health” ring a bell?) all because of the presence of the color red. But up to this day, no one has provided a universally accepted truth as to why.
Daruma Doll Usage
So how do we use this talisman?
People have been clamoring over Daruma Dolls since their conception. The appeal lies in their supposed power that mixes both psychological and supernatural.
Upon purchase, the doll is missing its eyes. You will have to paint one eye while simultaneously committing to your goal and asking the deity’s help. Then, you will paint the second eye as an act of giving the god its eyesight back and as a form of gratitude for the help in achieving your goal.
A year after purchasing your doll, you need to return it to the temple where you got it from and then burn it whether you succeeded in your goal or not. Ceremonies called daruma kuyo or dondoyaki are even performed in Japan, wherein huge piles of dolls are burnt at the same time. But make no mistake, this burning process is in no way a sign that you are giving up on your goals. It is simply a renewal of your vow and commitment to buy another Daruma doll.
Production of Daruma Dolls
Daruma dolls are almost exclusively produced in the city of Takasaki (Gunma Prefecture). About 80% of all the dolls are produced in this town just north of Tokyo. The dolls are then distributed all around the country and can also be purchased online.
With regards to the their creation, the Daruma dolls are crafted through a special kind of paper mâché called washi. Sounds easy enough, right? Far from it, actually. Creating washi is quite labor-intensive and is an art on its own in Japan. The sheets used are made of fiber, a limited amount of chemicals, and vats. These materials are then beaten by hand, dried under the sun, or heated on plates.
Because all Daruma dolls are handmade and hand-painted, no two dolls share the same design.
Wrapping Up: Daruma Dolls in Modern Culture
These unique dolls decorate businesses of all kinds, private households, and even the pockets of politicians — saying that it is only big enough to fit. The size of the dolls is an indication of the magnitude of one’s wish. It is believed that the larger the doll you possess, the bigger your aspiration. But going back to politicians, they often carry Daruma dolls during public addresses, interviews, and speeches, especially during the election period.
There is no denying just how much a doll represents in the lives of many. Its significance ranges from Zen Buddhism teachings of patience, perseverance, and sacrifice to becoming a figure people go to for help. It even became a symbol of the ruling class and, at the same time, a tool to mock and challenge them. Ultimately, the doll has become a beacon for anyone possessing it.
So, the next time you find yourself lost in your bonsai journey, it might serve you well to acquire one and follow this Japanese tradition.
After all, what is there for you to lose? Maybe just your bonsai if you don’t manage to save it from dying 😉