Daruma dolls are small ornately decorated figurines that serve as a material representation of the origins of the Zen/Chan Buddhist tradition. They are made in various sizes and colors, but are traditionally about the size of a softball and painted a vibrant red, but they can also be made as large as a soccer ball. The darumas made in different colors are an example of the commercialization of this ritualistic item today. The monk Bodhidharma, known as Daruma in Japan, is held as the founder of the Zen/Chan tradition of Buddhism. This is why the dolls are known as “daruma” dolls (Kato).
While Chan (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) Buddhism share similar origin stories, the daruma doll is specific to those who practice the Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism. The representation of Bodhidharma’s memory through the use of the dolls became prominent in early modern Japan. According to the legends the great monk went to a Shaolin temple, tucked himself into a zazen meditation pose with his legs tucked underneath his body, and entered a state of deep meditation for nine years. After many years his legs and arms began to atrophy and eventually fell away from his body. This is why daruma dolls are round figures with a face, but no arms and legs. However, daruma dolls are missing one other thing: their eyelids. The legend says that Bodhidharma, in order to overcome his body’s need for sleep, cut off his eyelids and threw them onto the ground. His eyelids then became tea plants, one of the sources of caffeine that people use today to stay awake.
Even the ornate way in which the daruma doll is painted is representative of different things. The way the eyebrows are painted resembles a crane, and the beard covering the cheeks represents a tortoise. Both of these are traditional symbols of long life in the Japanese culture (Faure). The gold decoration on the body of the daruma is done to promote business and financial success. While they are traditionally painted red, in various regions of Japan Goshiki darumas are sold in sets of five with each in a different color. Usually red, blue, yellow, white, and black, but green ones have also been included in some Goshiki sets. Another variation in the design of the daruma dolls is the Kanji (Japanese symbol) painted on the belly of the daruma. While the symbol varies they traditionally mean good luck, good fortune, or happiness (Kato).
In modern Buddhism the daruma doll has come to represent the willingness to dedicate oneself to an important, life-changing project until it is completed. Traditionally, when one is starting a major project or a new chapter in life, they paint the left eye of the daruma doll to signify their commitment to what lies ahead of them. This has become a common modern practice to ensure success in business, marriage, and politics. Once the task is finished, the right eye of the daruma is painted. What is done after the completion of the daruma varies depending on the person. Some people keep their finished doll as a reminder of what they have achieved, while others ceremonially burn theirs. When the person decides to burn them, the daruma is traditionally taken back to the temple it was purchased at, and burned as part of a festival held at the start of the new year (Kato). This is a tradition carried out with most good luck items in Japan.
Starting sometime in the 16th century, the daruma doll began serving as a talisman to protect children from smallpox. When you knock a daruma over, because of their shape and the weight strategically placed in the bottoms of them, they always return to an upright position. This has lead the daruma doll to represent a speedy recovery or “getting back on your feet” (Faure). They have also come to represent the resilience and determination to achieve your goals. It is because of these ties that the daruma doll has become a popular subject matter for traditional Japanese tattoos in modern society. Many of the tattoos of daruma dolls are done with only the left eye filled in. This means that, for many, these tattoos symbolize the beginning of something.
However, the meaning behind these dolls, to some degree, has become lost due to their increasing commercialization in the United States. Instead of these dolls being used as symbols of spiritual or personal journeys, many are sold simply as East Asian figurines that can be collected. Examples of this loss of meaning during commercialization include daruma dolls that have been modeled after images in popular culture such as Hello Kitty and Power Rangers. This shows a simple disregard for the origin story of the object in relation to Bodhidharma and the spiritual or personal meaning behind these dolls (Chandler, 22).
While the meaning of these dolls has changed in some aspects since its inception, there are still those who appreciate its symbolic use and adhere to the customs of traditional Chan/Zen Buddhism. For many, these dolls serve as a symbol of the beginning and end of a journey that is important to their personal or spiritual identity.
By Andrew Sabo, Max Hansen, and Evan Slupe
Chandler, Stuart. “Chinese Buddhism in America: Identity and Practice.” In The Faces of Buddhism in America, ed. Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 13–30.
Faure, Bernard. “From Bodhidharma to Daruma: The Hidden Life of a Zen Patriarch.” Japan Review (2011): 45. Accessed April 19, 2017.
Kato, Kevin. “The Daruma Doll: Japan’s Limbless Figure of Good Luck.” Taiken Japan: Explore Japan (2015). Accessed April 10, 2017. https://taiken.co/single/the-daruma-doll-japans-limbless-figure-of-good-luck.