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Hi ni! fu ni! Fundan Daruma ga akai zukin kaburi sunmaita!
Once! Twice! Always the Daruma dressed in red carelessly returns to his seat!
(featured in Lafcadio Hearn’s A Japanese Miscellany)
I often feel a childish amazement due to the sudden “discovery” of small simple things, so that in the following times other things line up in a clearer, more organized vision, making me aware of how often everything is under my eyes in a dimly lit room, and only a particular state of mind, sometimes accidental, is perhaps able to light that flame that suddenly lights up the environment and allows me to pass from a state of unconscious ignorance to that of happy understanding .
No enlightment, no high philosophy, just that state of serendipic serenity that suggests how I thought something somehow interesting but without being able to grasp its blurred contours, and suddenly it defines itself in all its simple power.
The happiness of simple and intimate things, which do not change the world but which make you feel better: a questionable but extremely personal statement.
The Daruma is one of these things: an artifact with a vague human form, that more or less everyone knows about, like the Maneki Neko, another of those icons I have always associated with Japanese folklore and tradition but without ever understanding its essence. Starting from the name, which I have always pronounced wrong perhaps because of that typical Piedmontese sound given by the accent on u, and which I recently and accidentally discovered having to be changed by moving it to the first syllable instead. A trivial thing, insignificant in itself, but which suddenly made me remember that the “u” in Japanese is practically silent. The sound of the name of that curious red doll has then changed into “da-r-ma”.
Dharma. Bodhidarma. The Indian patriarch of Chan Buddhism, perhaps better known in the Japanese version as Zen.
I am not a Zen practitioner, although some thoughts from the more philosophical part fascinate me. I hope those who truly believe will forgive me, but playing with words a little bit, this enlightenment instantly clarified some things to me, like when you look at the five thousand pieces of a puzzle piled on the table and then move your gaze to the packaging that shows the final image to be reconstituted.
As a simple Westerner I have always considered the Daruma as a nice traditional object, and having not a particular knowledge on Japanese culture I have always stopped at the superficial consideration that binds this doll to a commitment and to the work necessary to reach the goal. Unlike the Maneki Neko, however, it is not a good luck charm, but the symbol of a personal effort to achieve something, which I like to see as a sort of Gantt, essential and very personal, without many frills and descriptions, typical of that minimalist aspect that so much characterises the Japanese arts. In its immediate simplicity, when one sets a goal, the Daruma indicates the commitment taken to achieve it: the doll has white eyes, and colouring of one eye, usually the left, with black ink, one takes the commitment to accomplish the set goal. Daruma is therefore the representation of commitment, through daily work, and when the goal is reached, the other eye is finally coloured thus terminating the making of the doll.
Simple and effective, although folkloric.
Historically, in the Edo Japan (1600) the Daruma was considered talismans to protect children from smallpox and measles, diseases that were believed to be brought about by a demon, Hososhin or Hosogami, the demon of smallpox, in fact a mythological spirit able to enter the physical world in search of revenge, terrified of the color red, which is why the most typical Daruma is still this colour today. Curiously, even in the West figures such as the French King Charles V (12th century) or the English Queen Elizabeth I (16th century) and other kings who fell ill with smallpox underwent what has been defined as the “red treatment”, the habit of wearing red clothing such as shirts, veils, stockings or blankets, as well as “therapeutic sessions” which consisted of being placed in front of a beautiful red fire. But regardless of the reason for the red colour of the origins, Daruma have undergone a popular evolution as charm for a good birth, good harvest or good luck in general.
It is believed that around the seventeenth-eighteenth century Japanese farmers had established the supply and demand for the modern version of Daruma, then considered a lucky charm for an abundant rice harvest: originally created from wood by Buddhist monks, farmers learned from them how to create their own Daruma dolls with the help of specially made molds, and during the less demanding agricultural seasons they made Daruma handcrafting a large-scale secondary activity, while nowadays they are often made of papier-mache. Curiously, today, almost the whole Daruma production is concentrated in a single city, Takasaki, in Gunma prefecture not so far from Tokyo, with over fifty artisan families that make over one million dolls a year, covering 80% of the Japanese supply.
The evolution of the meaning of Daruma has passed over time from protection to constancy in the pursuit of a personal goal.
This simple approach to commitment and constancy reminds me of the words of Shunryu Suzuki, a contemporary Zen monk who contributed enormously to the spread of Zen in the West, as an example he’s the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Zen is concentration in our usual daily routines.
It is therefore not a mere lucky charm, but the representation of what the Japanese consider as the spirit defined as gambaru, the ability of perseverance: the Daruma therefore embodies the essence of the proverb nanakorobi yaoki, fall seven times and get up eight, and often are precisely made with a shape and weight distribution such that it returns to an upright position when overturned.
Anyway Daruma dolls share with Maneki Neko a chromatic system to indicate the type of objective that is set:
- Red: for general objectives and luck, suitable for good luck
- Gold: for financial health and success, suitable for money-related goals
- White: for mental, physical and spiritual well-being, suitable for purity and peace
- Purple: for personal improvement, suitable for the realisation of particular personality traits
- Blue: for career success, suitable for business and new jobs
- Pink: for love, suitable for affective matters
- Green: for the improvement of physical condition, suitable for health and physical well-being
- Orange: for study and learning, suitable for focus and concentration
- Yellow: for protection and support, suitable for friendship and honor in relationships
- Black: for prevention and personal safety, suitable for the removal of negative things
- Silver: for social status, suitable for personal transformation
- Colourless: a curious version for creating personal goals allowing one to develop own creativity by freeing the inner artist
If I feel more sympathetic towards Maneki Neko as the object itself, even if I do not believe in its good luck function, although Daruma remains in a similar area of action, I consider the latter more useful and functional than its feline relative, especially if taken in person rather than gifted or received from someone, provided that the recipient has the same orientation towards commitment to goals. A sort of warning and reminder towards a made commitment, towards constancy, towards what I still believe should be the normal approach to daily life, but to which it adds a little nice colour and physical solidity in remembering the necessary effort. And precisely because it represents something more than just a wish for good luck, the Daruma has characteristic traits that represent perseverance and longevity. Details that do not immediately jump to the eye but once again they need a deeper level of attention, just like the intention to reach your goal. The eyebrows are in fact designed in such a way as to remember the crane, whose symbolism is associated with a thousand years, while beard and mustache recall the turtle, with its significance as ten thousand years. Furthermore, the grim expression of Daruma should not be interpreted as something negative, but rather it recalls the memory of concentration, determination, firm resolution to reach the set goal, with the intention of visualizing the state for which nothing is easy, but also remining that no challenge is impossible. Returning to what has just been said, it is true that this condition is extremely personal and for those who have such strength it is certainly not the Daruma that allows to reach the goal, but given that it is typical of the human being, especially Western, to possess things, then I consider this like many other objects that personalise one own home, but with a deeper meaning compared to any other piece of furniture. And perhaps, once the goal has been reached, as a reminder of the efforts made and a future example for what may await us in the future. Ultimately, a manifestation of responsibility.
About how to use a Daruma, its typical feature is colouring its eyes: it is in fact sold with white eyes, that means without eyes: the color of the first eye, typically the left one, indicates the will to make a commitment and next commitment to pursue the set objective, while the right eye will be colored when the goal is reached. As a Westerner I can consider these actions as simple indications to use it, but in Japanese culture the meaning is deeper, indicating the offering of one’s personal commitment to Daruma, Bodhidharma, by opening his mind’s eye. The completion of the eye colouring indicates the sincerity in applying to a commitment and almost similarly to Western adage according to which luck favors the bold, one of the most practical meanings is to obtain the favors of fate through the commitment, megaderu, whose kanji can be literally translated as “open eyes”, a subtle reference to Zen enlightenment. Daruma often also have kanji written under the face with a calligraphic technique, adding a further classification towards the goal in addition to its colour code: if not specifically made, and therefore with particular kanji, on the Daruma there is more commonly written fuku, for a wish of luck in general, shiawase, for happiness, or kanau, for fulfillment, while other kanji may be written on the shoulders to recall specific goals or to provide additional words of encouragement.
In Japan, Daruma are also the subject of festivals, usually held at the beginning of the year at temples such as Shorinzan Darummaji, Bishamonten and Jindaji, Tokyo’s second oldest Buddhist temple. Tradition is so that on similar occasions all the Daruma are brought back by the people who during the year have committed themselves to their goals to the temple from which they were purchased, to participate in a ceremony of the stake, called daruma kuyo: after expressing their gratitude, people deliver their Daruma to the monks and buy new ones for the following year, then the old Darumas are eventually burned all together in the temple.
The further evolution of Daruma’s own concepts linked to perseverance and success towards a goal is finally recognizable in contemporary Japanese culture called kaizen, or continuous (kai) improvement (zen), a more purely commercial philosophy linked to economic practice referring to the efficiency of production factors, the constant improvement of industrial processes, the renewal in small steps to be done day after day with continuity, the basis of which is the encouragement of each person to make small changes every day and whose overall effect becomes a process of selection and improvement for the entire organization.
I believe the connection of these principles is particularly strong with those expressed by the kendo no rinen written by ZNKR. Even if they were laid down for Kendo, I have the humble presumption to consider them valid for every Way as well as for anything one dedicate himself to in daily life, with the idea of taking the lessons learned out of the dojo: the way of the sword is the pursuit of perfection as a human being through exercising (…) to contribute to the development of culture and promote (…) prosperity among peoples. Everything starts from ourselves, from our example, from our determination, from our will, even for the benefit of others.
But precisely because of the meaning of Daruma, it might not be certain that a set goal is actually achieved, or perhaps not within the set time frame: even having a time-indefinite desire is often used to motivate a person to continue improving, while for specific desires, so Daruma is also used as a reminder of failure, seen as one of the stages through which achieving success. For Japanese people, in fact, defeat or failure are not necessarily synonymous for a negative result, as demonstrated by the many heroes of Japanese history who, despite a tragic end, still managed to conquer perennial fame. It is a characteristic dictated precisely by the desire to change and to improve: the important thing is the constant commitment, throughout life, in facing any test and any situation.
The symbol of a Way, whatever it is, about being and living always with positive attitude, even aimed at collective well-being, because anything requires commitment and perseverance and necessarily passes through our example.