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The Story Behind a Japanese Doll

by Harlynne Geisler

A few days before my birthday in July, I had lunch at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. In the gift shop I noticed an intriguing little wooden doll. It came in different sizes, but each one was roly poly and red with no arms and legs and with a fierce face with a black beard. The unusual thing was the whites of the eyes had no pupils drawn in. The docent running the shop told me the doll was a daruma. She explained that you give a daruma to someone starting a new venture: business, New Year, birthday, and so on. That person makes a wish and draws in one eye on the doll. If the wish comes true, then the other eye is drawn in. Because my own birthday was coming, I bought myself a doll. Then the docent mentioned that there is a story behind the doll: that a monk who wished enlightenment sat and prayed for so long that his arms and legs fell off. Because he finally got his wish, the doll is balanced so that if you try to tip it over, it will regain its balance.

The next day I was on a walk with two women who were born in Japan but who had spent most of their lives in America. I asked them if they had ever heard of the doll. They had, and they corrected my pronunciation. It is pronounced, "dar-oo'-mah." (Japanese vowels are pronounced like Spanish vowels.) The accent on the second syllable is very light. But they knew nothing more than the name.

I wondered if the docent had given me incorrect information. Naturally I went to the library to read up on the daruma. Meeting with Japan (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 8 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 does not 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 (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 (June Kinoshita & 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. He explained that each person is the Buddha and that by meditation one becomes enlightened.

Instead of blowing out candles on a cake and making a wish on my birthday, I showed my daruma and told his story. The only problem is choosing a wish before I draw in the first eye on my doll!

Harlynne Geisler performs and conducts workshops on storytelling nationwide. To receive a sample copy of her newsletter, Story Bag Newsletter, a bimonthly publication that lists storytelling events in San Diego and throughout the U.S., send a self-addressed envelope with 55 postage on it to Storyteller Harlynne Geisler, Dept. JD, 5361 Javier Street, San Diego, CA 92117. You can also find more stories and information about a storytelling book and a complete list of upcoming public shows at Storyteller Harlynne Geisler

If you know more about the daruma doll, please write her or call her at 619-569-9399.


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