In my native culture fate or the divine factor have a leading role in the evolution of our human life, it is believed that we all have our fate set from birth. I grew up with all sorts of mystical explanations about fate or the divine influencing love life, marriage, health and even exams.

I never identified with this idea. While I do believe there are events beyond our control, which most are set when we are born (hence, inequality of chances), I don’t believe in ceding too much power to fate. I would very much rather take over the ship and steer its course to where I want it instead of letting it be guided by the waves…even if that means heavy storms and unknown waters. One doesn’t become a good captain by sailing shallow waters. However, even the most experienced sailors need good wind to sail sometimes. And this is why I like Daruma, the Japanese goal setting tradition and how it embodies their work and life ethic.


The Daruma Doll is the Japanese representation of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is typically a red tumbler papier maché figure of a bearded man, the image of the Indian Buddhist monk who lived in the 5/6th century AD and brought Zen to China and from there to Japan. He is armless and legless because he is said to have sat in meditation for 9 years rendering his extremities useless.

The doll is empty but brilliantly weighted at the base making it always return to its vertical position if turned upside down – symbolic of the Japanese proverb Nanakorobi yaoki (fall down seven times, get up eight). His face is set in concentration, he is focused, determined. The most popular modern day Daruma, the Takasaki type, has the eyebrows shaped as cranes and a beard in the form of a tortoise, mystical and holy symbols in Japan for good health and longevity. They portray the Japanese proverb “The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years”. Red is the symbol of the Buddhist’s monks traditional coats but also a color associated with protection against evil and illness. The eyes are intentionally left blank.

At the beginning of a new year people buy a new Daruma doll, they set a goal or make a wish, fill in one eye with black ink and place it somewhere in sight. When they achieve their goal they fill in the other eye. At the end of the year they take their dolls back to the temple where they were bought to be burned in a ceremonial fire.

And this is why I am so in love with this tradition, because you need both good luck and hard work to achieve a goal. Daruma does not exempt people from working hard, falling down, getting up again and ultimately persevering in achieving their goals. It is not a free pass from fate…with his one eyed determined figure, he is a reminder that you also have to work hard and put in daily effort for anything you want to achieve. Only then might winds be also favorable to you. Daruma is the growth mindset mixed with a little bit of superstition.


These dolls have become symbolic of the Japanese culture or how professor Neil McFarland put it “For centuries Zen masters have said that Daruma is Zen. Perhaps it would now be appropriate to say that Daruma is Japan. In neither case is the definition fully explicable or applicable. Each is essentially a KOAN whose solution is acessible only to experience, not to rational analysis. This is to assert finally that Daruma is one key to an authentic and rewarding experience of Japan and the Japanese people.”

They are so popular that their power and use now extends to business, politics and even international relations.

I made 4 Darumas, 3 papier maché red ones Takasaki style, one for each member of the family which we will burn at the end of the year, and a 4th one made of clay to watch over the family, Matsukawa style. I illustrated the last one with cranes, a turtle, ginko biloba and bamboo leaves for good health and longevity and painted it purple the colour of nobility and honor.


You can order Daruma dolls online but I wanted to make mine because I felt everything would have more meaning this way. Plus learning to sculpt clay taught me a lot about perseverance. It was hard, I ruined the first one and almost the second one, too. It was particularly difficult to obtain the tumble and stand up again effect.



Recommended Posts

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment