Daruma: Bringing Good Luck to Your Life

Not everyone believes in luck. Depending on one’s beliefs, something good happening in one’s life can be attributed either to luck or to the works of a higher being. In most Asian countries, they believe in luck and take it to a whole new level. Talismans, charms, and figurines can be a source of good luck as believed by some people. Not only luck, but these things are also believed to bring good fortune to the user. Many people have traveled all over the world, specifically to certain parts in Asia, just to be able to visit shrines and obtain certain relics and charms that are believed to bring good luck and fortune to one’s life. 

In Japan, there are many traditions that surround the idea of obtaining good luck or fortune. There are those who pray to gods and visit shrines while there are some who purchase charms and talismans and use them for good luck. Among the many products that are being sold in the country that is believed to bring good luck is the Daruma doll.

Bodhidharma: The Model of the Daruma

Also known as the Dharma doll or just Daruma in Japanese, the Daruma doll is a traditional doll in Japan that was modeled after Bodhidharma. For those who are not fully aware, Bodhidharma is the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism in Japan. Having lived during the 5th or 6th century AD, Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk in the Land of the Sun. Traditionally, the transmission of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism to China is attributed to Bodhidharma. It is believed that Bodhidharma was the one who initiated the physical training of the monks residing in the Shaolin Monastery. This then led to the formation of Shaolin kungfu. On the other hand, in Japan, he is more commonly known as Daruma.

Because there is only limited information about the biography of Bodhidharma, many accounts relayed in association to him are layered with legends. One story says that Bodhidharma had a reputation for wall-gazing. It was said that he would meditate while facing a wall. However, this lasted for a period of nine years without him moving at all. This caused his limbs, both arms and legs, to fall off due to atrophy. Another legend states that he fell asleep during his meditation of nine years. Becoming angry with himself because of this lapse, he cut off his eyelids so he should never fall asleep again. Whether these stories are true or not is unbeknownst to the public. 

How the Daruma Doll Came To Be

There is significant symbolism behind the Daruma doll but many may not be aware as to where it came from. The origin of the Daruma doll symbolizing as a good luck charm came from the Daruma-dera or the Temple of Daruma in the city of Takasaki located just north of Tokyo in Gunma Prefecture. According to the author of “Omocha”: Things to Play (Or Not to Play) With, Josef Kyburz, it was the founder of the Temple of Daruma who would draw charms during the New Years with the model being Bodhidharma. These charms were kept by parishioners who believed that the charms not only brought happiness and prosperity to their lives but also warded off misfortune and accidents.

These charmed developed into figurines later on when the people needed new charms every single year. This is because it was believed that the charms they received were only effective for one year. Hence, the ninth priest by the name of Togaku found a solution to this problem in the beginning of the Meiwa period from the year 1764 to the year 1772. He entrusted the people in making their own Daruma charms by having the temple make and provide the people with wooden block molds. With the help of these molds, the peasants were able to create their own three-dimensional papier-mâché Daruma charms. 

While it is unknown how this further developed into tumbler dolls, it is believed that both the figurine and tumbler doll version of Daruma was considered synonymous with each other by the middle of the 19th century. The Daruma tumbler doll then became more popular with the masses and became a mascot of the region later on. A great deal of this popularity may be attributed to the fact that a huge number of families in this region were silk farmers, who relied on luck for their crop to prosper.

Being the birthplace of the Daruma doll, the city of Takasaki holds and celebrates the Daruma Doll Festival, also known as daruma-ichi, every year. The festival is held at the Daruma-Dera of Takasaki known as the Shorinzan. It is said that more than 400,000 people join the Daruma Doll Festival and purchase new dolls for good luck for the year. It may be expected as the city also produces about 80% of the Daruma dolls sold in the country. One other feature of this festival is a reading of sutras by the monks for 24 hours, in hopes for world peace.

By the end of each year, all the items related to Daruma are to be returned to the temple from which they were purchased for a traditional burning ceremony. Known as the daruma kuyo, this ceremony is held only once every year, typically just after the day of the New Year. There are many places where these events are held but the most well-known are held in Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple in Tokyo and in Dairyu-ji Temple in Gifu. The Japanese people would express their gratitude for having good fortune or good luck brought about by the Daruma doll purchased from the previous year then turn it over to the temple. After which, they are to buy new Daruma dolls for good luck for the new year.

A solemn ceremony with the entrance of the monks is held, accompanied by the reading of sutras and blowing of horns. After which, all of the old Daruma dolls and figurines, which can amount to tens of thousands, are set aflame and burnt together. 

The Significance of Every Feature of A Daruma Doll 

There are a lot of symbolisms with the features of a Daruma doll. Daruma dolls of today are still typically made of papier-mâché. With a round shape, Daruma dolls are hollow inside. The bottom of the dolls is weighted. This is so that even when a Daruma doll is tilted over, it would still go back to its upright position. This is similar to a Japanese roly-poly toy known as okiagari. The “oki” directly translates to “to get up” while “agari” means “to rise.” This characteristic signifies the ability to stand up after falling down.

Hence, people who are facing challenges or any adversity in their lives would find comfort with the symbolism of a Daruma doll. While the obstacles may tilt one over, the ability to be able to stand upright again signifies resilience to challenges. This, in turn, would lead one to success, as they are able to overcome any adversity that comes along their way. This is further supported by Japanese popular culture illustrated in cards, books, and even banners. Daruma is often associated with the phrase “Nanakorobi Yaoki,” which means “seven times down, eight times up.”

The style of the Daruma tumbler doll is also similar to a toy known as the Okiagari Koboshi. The Okiagari Koboshi was a little self-righting toy modeled after a monk. It was highly popular during the middle part of the 17th century in the region of Kinki.

As for the color of a Daruma doll, it is usually red. While the origins as to its vibrant hue are not certain, it is believed that the color was based on the robes of Bodhidharma. This is also due to the belief that high-ranking priests wore red robes. There were also various images of Bodhidharma wearing robes of the color red. The color originally signified the warding off of sicknesses or diseases. Especially back during the Edo period, the color red was associated to smallpox. Hence, the color of the Daruma doll is believed to help the person recover from or avoid sicknesses.

However, as of today, there are now other colors available for a Daruma doll. Five colors are now available that complete the set of Daruma dolls. These colors are purple, yellow, red, white and gold. A specific hue provides a different set of fortune. A red Daruma doll shall be for luck and good fortune. A purple Daruma doll shall be for health and longevity of life. A yellow Daruma doll shall be for security and protection against evil. A gold Daruma doll shall be for wealth and prosperity. A white Daruma doll shall be for love and harmony among people.

As for the eyes, they are often blank when initially purchased. The purpose is for the user to fill in one eye upon setting a specific goal. Filling the other eye is only done after the goal has been fulfilled. The purpose of this is so that the user would be reminded of his or her goal every time he or she looks at the Daruma doll. Another belief is that the motivation for Daruma to fulfill one’s wish is the promise that full sight would be given to the doll when the goal is fulfilled.

Another symbolism of the two eyes being filled in after accomplishing one’s goal is in relation to “enlightenment,” which is the ideal goal of Buddhism. Hence, there is also now a Japanese phrase translating to “both eyes open.” This means that when the second eye is filled in, there is that realization of the goal being accomplished. Among the many people who purchase Daruma dolls are politicians who wish for victory in the elections. These Daruma dolls are usually placed in the office to serve as a constant reminder to the politicians.

Last but certainly not the least is facial hair. There are two main animals that are symbolized through the facial hair of a Daruma doll. The eyebrows of a Daruma doll is drawn in the shape of a crane while the cheek hair of the doll can be likened to a tortoise. Both of these animals symbolize longevity. This is further supported by a traditional Japanese proverb that translates to, “The crane lives 1,000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years.”