If the stories are anything to go by, Bodhidharma as an ascetic was absolutely in a league of his own. Scant biographical details have survived about the Buddhist monk, who was probably from India, lived in the fifth or sixth century and is traditionally credited with having brought Zen to China. In light of that information paucity, various narrators clearly decided that a little mythology never did any harm, and they weighed in with embellished legends of what happened to the elusive figure. His teaching and practice centered on meditation, and one story has it how Bodhidharma lived in a cave for nine years, simply sitting and gazing at a wall within the grotto. Seven years into that nine-year stint, Bodhidharma fell asleep. So incensed was he at his lack of fortitude that he sliced off his own eyelids just so that that sort of thing would never happen again. Another tale recounts how as a result of his immobility over that long stretch, his arms and legs atrophied and fell off.
Given his single-minded devotion to Buddhism, Bodhidharma would no doubt be more than a little bemused by the fact that the single greatest visible expression of the Zen patriarch in contemporary society a millennium and a half after his death would be in the form of a bold-red, rotund doll in the far-off land of Japan. Daruma take their name from the “dharma” part of Bodhidharma. With their glaring round eyes, bristling, thick eyebrows and generally ill-tempered sort of demeanor, they cannot be too many people’s idea of a pretty sight. But daruma do have the merit of bringing good luck.
The present form of the daruma began to take shape in the Edo period (1603–1867), when the dolls came to be regarded as propitious objects for protection against smallpox. But the place responsible for the overall promotion of daruma as good-luck charms is Shorinzan Daruma-ji temple in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. The founder of that temple initiated the custom of giving pictures to local farmers of Bodhidharma, which the priest had drawn as a talisman to ward off evil. During a famine in the eighteenth century, a subsequent temple priest made a wooden effigy of Bodhidharma based on the founder’s images. Showing a similar benevolence to his predecessor, the later priest taught the farmers how to make daruma dolls using that effigy as the template so that they would have a commodity they could hawk during lean years.
The daruma traditions at Shorinzan Daruma-ji have continued to the present day, and the temple holds an annual daruma fair in January.
From its profusion of daruma-themed souvenirs and daruma images, Takasaki today is clearly not discontent with its status as Japan’s premier producer of daruma. The dolls are usually made according to a basic pattern of papier-mâché on a bamboo frame and are typically red in color, though many color and other variations exist. In some places, daruma even come in for a sex change in the form of hime daruma (“princess daruma”) and onna daruma (“female daruma”). Irrespective of their sexual orientation, in keeping with the legend about Bodhidharma and his unfortunate physical degeneration, the dolls are invariably a rounded composite of a head and body but devoid of any limbs.
Today, daruma are often used as charms for the fulfillment of some special wish and are typically sold with the eyes unpainted. The purchaser then paints in one of the eyes upon making a wish. If the wish is fulfilled, the owner then paints in the other eye. That celebratory painting usually takes place within the quiet confines of a person’s home, but some are keen to make use of it as a public event. After achieving a successful election result, many politicians certainly do not shy away from the public spectacle of a little eye painting at their victory ceremony as they beam at their supporters—and the media lenses.
Many people buy their daruma in temples around the first days of the New Year. At the same time, they take along the daruma they kept the previous year and dispose of them at the temple. At popular temples, tens of thousands of collected daruma are later burned together in a huge bonfire. That formal memorial service ceremony is called Daruma Kuyo and is frequently accompanied by the reading of sutras.
A typical feature of many daruma is that they are made in the same fashion as the traditional roly-poly dolls known as okiagari koboshi, which have a history in Japan going back many centuries. Those dolls are usually hollowed and weighted at their rounded base such that if they are knocked over, they always return to an upright position. Among Japanese, this self-righting characteristic is regarded as auspicious, being symbolic of tenacity, recovering from misfortune, determination and standing up to adversity.
The historical Bodhidharma was a subject that very much attracted the great artist Hokusai. During a festival in Edo (former Tokyo) in 1804, he created a portrait of the monk 180 meters long, using a broom and buckets of ink. Later, in 1817, he painted Great Daruma, another monumental portrait of the holy man, beside a temple in Nagoya, a picture measuring a more modest 18 by 11 meters. Hokusai was never one to shy away from a little self-promotion, and the event was advertised well in advance so as to pull in a big crowd. In the wake of that dramatic live painting, Hokusai became known in Nagoya as Daruma-sen (“Daruma Master”).
No doubt acquiring that new appellation pleased him. If there was one thing that Hokusai was really fond of, it was names. He went through names like an F1 driver goes through tires, and he was known by at least thirty different names during his lifetime. Perhaps he thought it simply far too prosaic to have the same old name appearing again and again on the staggering number of over 30,000 works he is credited with having created.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
[This article first appeared in the January/February issue of the Japan Journal.]