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Daruma Dolls: History and Meaning

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What is a daruma doll? It's a representation of the Buddhist monk Bohidharma, who lived in the 5th or 6th century. Bodhidharma is recognized as the founder of the zen sect of Buddhism. Only the daruma doll's face is visible, the rest of the figure resembles a priest's robe. 


Daruma Dolls and Zen

Zen Buddhism has garnered attention in the west as a means to cultivate mindfulness. Formal sitting meditation is but one aspect of this training. In general, it promotes a greater awareness of what's going on around you, of the reality that exists outside of ourselves and the narrative that our thoughts create, and the resulting lenses that we see the world through.



In this spirit of seeing what is in front of us, I'd like to offer up a simple exercise-take a moment to really look at a daruma! It occurred to me in writing this that though I have seen hundreds of daruma over the decades of living here in Kyoto, if asked to make a cursory drawing of his face from memory or describe it, I would have little confidence in my ability to recall anything clearly aside from his eyes and his robe!


Facial Features

Daruma dolls made in the traditional way feature a face framed by ample eyebrows and a beard. There's an understated line representing his mouth that gives him a stoic look, and his robe is embellished with bold but simple brush strokes, often in gold.

I've read that if you look carefully at his stylized facial hair you'll find cranes in his eyebrows and turtle shells on his cheeks. That very well may be, and I went looking in his eyebrows for cranes and found them, one on each side-then I found others! So I ended up wondering what I was seeing and what I was imagining! Maybe I've found a new use for daruma dolls-as rorschach tests!

Cranes and turtles are both symbols of longevity in Japan, with the crane said to live 1000 years and the turtle 10,000 years. This makes them very common symbols in Japanese art, especially in connection with auspicious occasions like weddings. One furoshiki in my shop in fact features a crane and turtle together, in a traditional pose with the crane standing on the turtle's back.


Meaning

Take a look at a daruma doll-what do you see? It's believed that daruma dolls were introduced in the 1700's by a priest at a temple in order to satisfy his parishioners' desire for new charms. As a talisman, there are different ways to look at a daruma. Some might color in an eye and make a wish in the same way you'd make a wish when blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. I can't remember being disappointed when such a wish didn't come true, because I never even deeply thought about what I would wish for before the cake was set in front of me, and I knew that I wasn't committing myself to doing anything to help to make the wish come true.

Personally, I think that having a daruma doll can be a great way to buoy yourself up when you're striving to attain some goal that you've chosen thoughtfully and are committed to working toward attaining. The reason for this lies in the doll's association with an often used Japanese proverb, 'nana korobi ya oki' which translates as 'Get knocked down seven times, get up eight.'

This saying has its roots in zen and quite pithily conveys the essence of that Buddhist sect in its message of perseverance in the face of adversity and resilience, and a stoic commitment to seeing something through. This dedication infers a focus on the present moment and what we can make of it.

Poke a daruma doll and you'll see why it has become so associated with this saying. Though it might look unstable at first glance and easy to topple, it comes right back up. You can't keep it down. I'm about to date myself and American pop culture references can't do justice to the wisdom and beauty of the expression above. But it does somehow take me back to a TV commercial that I must have seen a thousand times in the 70's......weebles wobble but they don't fall down!

I've taken part in some meditation sessions and at times a priest would circulate among us 'sitters' and stop at times to hit someone on the shoulder with a piece of wood. It wasn't hard enough to hurt, but it certainly does tend to bring you back to the moment!

Daruma dolls are very useful for goal setting and achievement as reminders of the goal we've set for ourselves. We take the time to clarify the goal and to imagine achieving it when we color in the first eye, and put the daruma doll in a place where it can be seen(and where it can see us!). Over the next year, it serves as a physical manifestation of the commitment felt on that day when a pupil was drawn in that blank space where eyes should be.

Let the daruma doll remind you of that as you use your days to challenge yourself by devoting time and effort to your goal, no matter how uphill the process feels at times. And just remember that for better or worse you won't be pulled back to your focus with a sudden whack on your shoulder, but with a watchful eye!

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