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Daruma Dolls: Which Eye First?

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Which eye should I color first? It's only after you've already bought a daruma doll and are cradling it it one palm while gazing into its curious countenance that you're likely to consider this question.

Which daruma doll eye should I color first?' Daruma are sometimes sold without eyes being painted on them, and the pupils are filled in by the owner. The first pupil is drawn when you decide on the goal you want to enlist the doll's help in attaining, and the other gets filled in when you've reached it.


The Left Eye.....?

Many sources say that you should color the left eye first. And by this, by the way, they mean the doll's left eye, not the eye that is on your left as you face him. Knowing this important detail will certainly clarify things if you saw such advice online and were wondering whose left it was referring to!

But now that I’ve cleared that up, I’m going to say something that makes it moot. Because in fact, it doesn’t matter which eye you color when you make your wish or goal.

Even though I’ve lived in Japan since 1997 and have colored my share of daruma doll eyes, I wasn’t really sure which pupil should be filled in first until I started writing this article, as I assumed there was a right and a wrong way to do this and I'd forgotten which eye I'd chosen in the not so recent past!




What's Important

For the answer, I went straight to the horse’s mouth. In this case, since my daruma doll itself was mum on the subject, that means I checked with an organization of daruma doll makers called Gunma Daruma Doll Manufacturers’ Cooperative Union. Gunma is a prefecture that includes Takasaki City, where about 80% of Japan’s daruma dolls are made. On their website the association notes the prevailing advice about the left eye, but goes on to refute it by saying that ‘there is no correct order of painting eyes on a daruma doll.’

For good measure I went to Kyoto's Horin-ji Temple.  There are actually two temples with this name in Kyoto. This one is most commonly known as 'Daruma-dera' which means 'Daruma Temple.'  The other Horin-ji Temple is in Kyoto's Arashiyama area and has no special connection with daruma dolls. So if you make a plan to go to see the daruma dolls here, it's best to refer to this temple as Daruma-dera, which is what the locals call it. The 8,000 or so daruma dolls there will soon make it clear you've found the right place!

I took the photos in this article there and we had a wonderful chat with the priest, who was busy with his daily chores but took the time to show us a sublime life-size reclining Buddha statue and an intricate scroll which depicted the Buddha's passing. Then we enjoyed some time with his wife, who was manning the small office at the entrance. The photo below shows some of the ema prayer plaques on a board just inside the entrance. You can read more about the history of ema in an article I posted here.


I noticed that many of the daruma dolls for sale there already have both eyes colored in and have specific focuses, such as protecting against traffic accidents and as writing this article has stirred up many questions in my mind, I asked her for her thoughts on the significance of the dolls.

She gifted us with a heartfelt expression of her hope that people focus more on the important message that the daruma represents, rather than on trivial things like which eye gets colored. She mentioned the tradition of coloring the daruma's right eye first(the left eye as you're facing it), but in the next breath discounted its significance. She impressed on us the importance of intention and spirit and I was struck by her humility and warmth, which seemed to exemplify the true spirit of dharma.

Color the right eye when you get it? Fine. The left? Fine. Buy your daruma doll with the eyes already colored? Perfectly acceptable. Color the eyes purple with long lashes? Inspired! Keep it rather than returning it to the temple where you got it after a year? Why not!  What a wonderful afternoon. We left feeling invigorated and grateful to both of them for sharing their home and hearts with us.

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