As a real person, he walks the tightrope between myth and history; the fifteen centuries that separate us from his era are too many to allow us to be certain if he really existed, if he travelled from India to China, if he talked with emperor Xsiao Yan replying “nothing” to the latter’s question about the meaning of Buddhism, if he went to the Shaolin temple and spent nine years in a cave there meditating and if after that he taught the temple’s monks martial arts before he disappeared only to reappear in various places in Asia before as well as after his death. One thing is certain though: Buddhism considers Bodhidharma (in Japanese, “Daruma”) its 28th patriarch (that is, 28th generation successor of the historical Buddha) and Zen Buddhism its first –that is, its founder.
If the historical Bodhidharma/Daruma is vague, it’s no wonder that this vagueness applies to its modern Japan reincarnation: a usually red doll in various sizes, made of papier-mâché that is used as a decoration in countless homes and shops all over the country and that has become a symbol of good fortune as well as for the continuous effort against life’s adversities. With no legs (according to legend, the real Bodhidharma lost his after the nine years of zazen in the cave in Shaolin) but made to roll back to an upright position no matter how one tries to topple it, the Daruma doll became at some point during the 17th or the 18th century one of Japan’s most characteristic images and it remains such even today without anyone really knowing how or why this happened.
It is impossible to stay in Japan even for a few hours and not come face to face with a Daruma glowering at you, frequently with only one eye; folk lore wants Daruma being sold without their eyes painted so the buyer can paint the one eye when they set a goal and the second when they achieve it. Many collect them (even though the basic shape is the same, variations in materials, sizes and colors are so numerous that guarantee that any such collection will remain forever incomplete) and there are places such as the temples Jindaiji in Tokyo’s Mitaka and Sorinzan in Gunma prefecture’s Takasaki that have based a significant part of their economy on the sale of Daruma of various sizes (as a matter of fact, Sorinzan asserts that the Daruma idea started right there). If, as I was wondering in my previous letter there is indeed a connection between Zen and Japanese culture, Daruma –classic and folkloric, serious and funny, flashy toy, protector and a hope for a better future- illustrates it in the best possible way.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.