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Daruma: The Story Behind a Japanese Doll

Illustration of Ganesha

A few days before my thirty-first birthday, I had lunch at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park in San Diego. While browsing in the gift shop, I noticed an intriguing little wooden doll. It came in different sizes, but each one was roly-poly in shape and red in color, with no arms or legs. The doll had a fierce face with a black beard. I found it unusual that the whites of the eyes on the face had no pupils.

The docent running the shop told me that the doll was a daruma. She explained that you give a daruma to someone starting a new venture, such as a business, or celebrating a new year or a birthday. That person makes a wish and draws in one pupil on the doll. If the wish comes true, then the other pupil is added.

Because my own birthday was coming, I bought myself a doll. Then the docent mentioned that there is a story behind the doll: a monk who wished for enlightenment sat and prayed for so long that his arms and legs fell off. Because he finally reached enlightenment, the doll is balanced so that if you try to tip it over, it will regain its balance, just as monks try to live a balanced life. I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

The next day I met two women who were born in Japan but raised in America. I asked them if they'd ever heard of this doll. They had, and they corrected my pronunciation. "Daruma" is pronounced "dar-oo-mah," with each syllable stressed the same. (Japanes vowels are pronounced much like Spanish vowels.) They could add nothing more, however.

I wondered if the docent had given me correct information. Naturally I went to the library to read up on the daruma. The book Meeting with Japan by Fosco Maraini (Viking, 1959) explains that Daruma-san was "a famous Buddhist patriarch of the sixth century A.D. who lost the use of his legs as the result of remaining motionless for eight years while engaged in meditation." You buy one, and if business goes well, you paint in one eye and later the other eye. If business doesn't go well, you leave the doll blind as punishment. Of course, the more familiar Maneki-neko, the cat who calls customers with a raised paw, was mentioned in the same paragraph.

The Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols by Gertrude Jobes (Scarecrow, 1961) says that this "legless tumbling doll, which, when thrown down, bounces back, symbolizing undaunted spirit" is a good luck charm with a name related to Sanscrit dharma [law].

Gateway to Japan by June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palevsky (Kodansha International, 1990) had the most information. Daruma was the Indian priest who founded Zen Buddhism and introduced it to China in the fifth century. According to legend, he also brought tea plants to China. To this day an early form of the tea ceremony is carried out in Zen monasteries in Japan in his honor. He is the Bodhidharma and is generally portrayed with a scowling face and a heavy black beard. Daruma explained that each person is the Buddha and that by meditation one becomes enlightened. Two books about his life are Daruma: The Founder of Zen in Japanese Art and Popular Culture by H. Neill McFarland. [Kodansha International, 1987] and The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, translated by Red Pine [Norin Point Press].

World Religions; From Ancient History to the Present, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File, 1971), credits the Bodhidharma with staring at a blank wall for nine years and pins down his death to the year 528. The books says that the darumas are used as votive offerings by Buddhists and left "eyeless until the plea is answered."

Instead of blowing out candles on a cake and making a wish at my storytelling birthday concert, I showed my daruma and told his story. The only problem was narrowing down all my wishes to just one before drawing in his first eye!


Harlynne Geisler has been a professional freelance storyteller since 1980 and has told and taught storytelling in festivals, conferences, schools, colleges, libraries, churches, temples, community centers, preschools, and museums. She is a resident storyteller for the San Diego Museum of Art, CA. To find out more about Harlynne, visit her website.

Copyright 1997 - 2006 by Harlynne Geisler

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