Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Daruma: Of Limbless Dolls and a South Indian Monk

Mention the word "Daruma" in Japan and you are quite likely to see faces light up with smiles. Children would instantly recall playing with a "Yuki-Daruma" - the Japanese version of a snowman, while the adults would talk of the cutesy, egg-like doll on which they paint eyes on  New Year's day, to absorb and ward-off evil.

I was mildly shocked to discover yesterday that Daruma tradition has its origins far from Japan. The doll is actually based on a monk who moved from the plains of South India to the Songshang mountains of China.

In circa 520AD, the original Daruma, a South Indian prince-turned-monk appeared at the Chinese port city of Canton (now Guandong). His name was Bodhi-Dharma. After a brief  - and irreverent encounter - with Emporer Wu of the Liang Dynasty, he moved on to the Shao-lin monastry in the Sonshang mountains.

The legend goes that at this monastry, Bodhidharma meditated for nine long years facing a blank wall and came up with a treatise that forms the basis of Dhyana (Zen) Buddhism. It was also during this period that both his legs atrophied away and he tore away his own eyelids to avoid falling asleep during meditation!

Perhaps the legend carries a lot of metaphor and symbolism which can be understood only by those who dive into the deep waters of Dhyana-meditation. For the rest of the lay public mere limbless dolls would suffice, to amuse the children and to remind them about what it takes to really know yourself.


Hoover, Thomas (1980): The Zen Experience (Link to Amazon Page)

A note on the commercialization of Daruma's at Wikipedia

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