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The Legend of Daruma - July 2002 Newsletter


The name "Daruma" is the Japanese variant of the Sanskrit name "Dharma." More specifically, the meanings, beliefs, and legend of Daruma are based on the Indian Buddhist monk known as Bodhidharma. To understand the significance of the Daruma, one must look past Japanese popular culture and back into India almost 2000 years.

In A.D. 440, Bodhidharma is said to have been born in Pallava, a Southern Indian Kingdom. The third son of the King Simhavarman, Bodhidharma has been described as either a member of the Brahman (priestly) caste or the Kshatriya (warrior or ruling) caste. In any case, Bodhidharma was introduced to Buddhism and later to the Buddhist master Prajnatara. After becoming a disciple of Prajnatara, Bodhidharma became his successor as well as the twenty-eighth patriarch of Buddhism. As the stories differ, Bodhidharma may have traveled to China under the direction of Prajnatara or for a mission while he was over a hundred years old. The years of Bodhidharma's arrival range from 475 to 520, nevertheless, the stories all seem to agree that he landed in Southern China.

Upon hearing of his arrival, the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty invited Bodhidharma to a royal audience. The Emperor, having proclaimed himself an ardent patron of Buddhism, then asked Bodhidharma about the merit of his religious contributions. After responding with the doctrine of emptiness, Bodhidharma left, as the Emperor did not understand. As the popular scene goes, Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River on a reed or rush leaf, heading north. He eventually arrived at the monastery of the Shaolin Temple; it is here that several of the most legendary events associated with Bodhidharma took place.

Likely the most notable of such events is that of Bodhidharma's nine year meditation in which he faced a rock wall, possibly of a cave. Sitting and gazing for such a prolonged amount of time, Bodhidharma consequently struggled against fatigue and drowsiness. In a fit of frustration, Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids to remain awake. It is believed that the first tea plants grew at the place where his eyelids fell. From then on, monks, as well as the rest of Asia, would have tea as a means to resist lethargy and aid in meditation.

Another important aspect of Bodhidharma's meditation explains the form he is presented in today. Because Bodhidharma remained motionless for such an extensive period, he eventually lost his arms and legs as they withered away. Nevertheless, Bodhidharma was still able to remain upright. Especially for Zen followers who believe that one's personal energy resides right below the navel, Bodhidharma's achievement has been attributed to his discovery of inner strength.

Though Zen had been reportedly practiced in China for several hundred years before Bodhidharma, he alone is credited with introducing it. If anything, Bodhidharma presented a Zen of his own, Mahayana Zen. According to one source, this Zen was a "sword of wisdom" with which to cut the "minds free from rules, trances, and scriptures." Another idea concerning Zen and Bodhidharma suggests that Bodhidharma was selected as the patron of Zen in order to reinforce its legitimacy as a real Buddhist sect.

Bodhidharma's prominent presence at the Shaolin Temple has also influenced the belief that he founded a type of martial art now known as Shaolin kung-fu (Chinese) or karate (Japanese). Some affirm that during the T'ang dynasty, 618-097 A.D., the Shaolin Temple gained fame for the group of monks trained as warriors to fight with only sticks and their bare hands. Holding that Bodhidharma was indeed of the Kshatriya caste, having been trained himself in martial arts, it is plausible to see why some believe Bodhidharma to be the first teacher of these warrior monks. An additional claim holds that Bodhidharma's teaching of kung-fu was another means of combating the lethargy that monks commonly encountered during meditation and other practices requiring one to be motionless.

As far as Bodhidharma's death, there are accounts that he died in 528 or 534 A.D. near the Lo river or in an area in North China. These accounts, however, all suggest that three years after Bodhidharma's death, a traveler, or an official, in Central Asia, spotted someone resembling him, carrying a staff and one sandal, headed toward India. After the incident was reported, the supposed burial place of Bodhidharma was checked; the tomb was empty except for a single sandal.

The Japanese, however, have a different ending for Bodhidharma. According to this version, Bodhidharma journeyed to Japan on, once more, a reed or rush leaf across the sea in 613 A.D. Along a road, the story goes, the prince Shotoku Taishi encountered Bodhidharma who was reincarnated as a beggar. After giving him food, drink and clothing, the prince returned the next day only to find that he had died. Today, in Oji, Japan, there are stones marking the spots where the prince and Bodhidharma are said to have met.

In terms of iconography, Bodhidharma has been represented in numerous ways including paintings, sculptures, carvings, and temples. Throughout all these different forms, however, Bodhidharma is usually portrayed with these same characteristics: bulging, lidless eyes, stern eyebrows, a prominent nose, a down-turned mouth, heavy beard, and a cloak (most often red) which only reveals his face. The transformation from Bodhidharma to Daruma, however, seems to lie within the many uses and meanings the Japanese attribute to him.

The most notable use of the Daruma is that of a symbol of good luck and fortune. One of Daruma's first uses was as an amulet to ward off illnesses from children, particularly smallpox. Red was said to be the favorite color of the god of small pox and so Daruma's predominantly red cloak appeased him. Like Maneki-neko, the cat that beckons and brings fortune, Darumas are also featured in store windows, signs, and advertising. Likewise, the Daruma is ordinarily displayed in the home and even used as a decorative figure. The Daruma image is also commonly seen on household items such as tea sets, sake sets, bowls, plates, fans, chopsticks and chopstick holders.

One of the most common Daruma forms is the okiagari (self-righting) Daruma. This rendition of Daruma is that of a tumbler doll - armless and legless - alluding to the popular story. These Darumas are weighted at the bottom so that anytime it is knocked over it always returns upright. This characteristic of the okiagari Daruma is obviously symbolic of the feat Bodhidharma achieved, remaining upright as he gazed ceaselessly. Bodhidharma's nine year meditation and Daruma's ability to get back up both entail the values of perseverance, determination, and success. As strongly held cultural values, the Japanese instill these in their children; the okiagari Daruma has long been a popular children's toy with which parents have used to accomplish this.

The Daruma otoshi (dropping Daruma) is another popular Japanese toy. Usually made of wood, the Daruma otoshi consists of a stack of five thick disks and a Daruma figure that is placed on top. With a mallet, the goal of the game is to knock each of the disks beginning with the bottom one until only the Daruma figure is left. Like the self-righting Daruma, this toy also symbolizes the concentration, patience, and endurance attributed to Bodhidharma.

Another of the most popular forms of Daruma is that of papier-mâché me-nashi (eyeless) or me-ire (put-in-the-eyes) Daruma. A variation of the okiagari Daruma, and almost always red, this Daruma features blank white circles in place of the eyes. The purpose for this lies in the belief that when a wish or prayer is made, one of the pupils is to be painted in; if the wish comes true, the other pupil is then painted in. This traditional practice is attributed to the Buddhist rite of kaigen kuyo (opening-the-eyes-ceremony) in which a Buddhist image is given religious qualities. In the making of such an image, the eyes are left as the last to be constructed; the completion of the eyes is seen as giving the image its spirit.

The sizes of this type of Daruma are also used in accordance with the significance of the wish or prayer. A small Daruma for small wishes, and large Darumas for more serious needs. Such Darumas are often accumulated over several years in which small wishes can be turned into bigger ones.

Called a "political rite of passage," the eyeless okiagari Daruma is also widely used during elections. From local officials to the Prime Minister, candidates typically paint in one eye of a giant Daruma in hopes of winning an election, often doing so in large ceremonies. Consequently, the winning parties hold even bigger ceremonies featuring the completion and painting in of the other Daruma eye.

The presence of Daruma also stems into shrines, markets, and festivals which are all in honor and celebration of Daruma. The Daruma Ichi (markets) are usually held with the New Year season, beginning in January and lasting until March. As the Daruma represents good luck, the New Year is the most popular time they are given as gifts. In addition to the okiagari Daruma, many other forms of Daruma can be purchased at the Daruma Ichi such as the Daruma ema. Ema, or votive tablets, crafted as Daruma, are used to write one's name and wish and then taken to a Daruma temple.

One of the most spectacular Daruma festivals is the Dairyu-ji, the annual burning of used Daruma figures. Held around January 18th, a giant bonfire is made in which thousands of Daruma figures are thrown. Whether a Daruma has lead to the fulfillment of a wish, there is a general assumption that the good luck of a Daruma (particularly the paper-mâché okiagari type) lasts for just a year.

Daruma has developed into a widely spread element of Japanese culture. But whether used for religious, political, or cultural beliefs, the Daruma always conveys a positive meaning. Commonly written alongside the image of a Daruma, the saying nana korobi ya oki, "seven falls and eight rises," perfectly summarizes the determination, strength, and success that Daruma brings to life.


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