Friday, 26 April 2013

Daruma-san has fallen

Woodblock by David Bull
(copyright M. Schumacher)
“Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just rise to your feet again.” This is a saying attributed to Bodhidharma, a legendary monk said to have introduced Zen (or Chan) Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century.

Bodhidharma is often depicted in Japan as a cute doll, known as Daruma-san. Sold in temples with blank, round eyes, you're supposed to fill in an eye and make a wish when you buy it and then fill in the remaining eye when the wish comes true. Apparently these dolls started to be made in the 18th century. Many are tumbler dolls, made in a round shape with a weight attached to the bottom so that the doll will automatically "rise to its feet" as soon as it is toppled over.

A friend of mine who is fluent in German once claimed that the doll expressed an important Zen truth: "unten schwer, oben leer". That may be true or not, but the popularity of the doll probably has more to do with the fact that it works as a symbol of recovery from illness or injuries and for rapidly overcoming difficulties. This symbolism is also expressed in a popular proverb connected to Bodhidharma, nana-korobi ya-oki, literally meaning "falling seven times, rising eight times", which is used to express the attitude of never giving up.

By Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)
There are also some gruesome legends about Bodhidharma which are connected to feet and eyes. According to Chinese legends, he is said to have meditated facing a wall for nine years until his legs atrophied and fell off. According to more recent Japanese legends, he is also said to have torn off his own eye lids in anger over having fallen asleep during meditation.

Being in bed with a calcaneus fracture, I guess it would be easy for me to be ironic about people talking about how easy it is to rise again. But actually, these legends about feet, falling and recovery made me look around for a little bit more to read about him and doing so proved to be a very pleasant pastime. 

One thing I found out through this nice collection of Buddhist artworks with commentaries by Mark Schumacher was that these stories about falling and rising were sometimes given a phallic symbolism. What falls and then quickly rises again is the male sexual organ. I'd really recommend interested readers to have a look at some of the artworks on his site - like so much else produced in Edo period Japan it is quite delightful and sure to guarantee a few laughs (as they were meant to do already then). Meanwhile, let me quote the relevant passage from Schumacher's text:
As shown above, Daruma artwork lent itself easily to phallic symbolism without any need for folkloric references. Yet, there is little doubt that Daruma's metamorphosis into the male organ was pushed along by the widespread use in the late Edo era of the armless and legless Daruma tumbler doll talisman against smallpox. When knocked on its side, the doll pops back to the upright position and therefore symbolizes (1) a speedy recovery from illness, akin to "getting back on one's feet;" or (2) resilience, undaunted spirit, and determination. Such imagery can be easily employed to describe the down-up, soft-hard nature of the male sexual organ. With only a little imagination, one can easily understand why Daruma paintings and talismanic representations fell naturally under the same phallic sway. Says scholar Bernard Faure: "Until the Meiji period, phallic representations of Daruma in stone or papier mache were sold. The name 'Daruma' was also a nickname given in the Edo period to prostitutes, perhaps because, like the doll, these specialists of tumble could raise the energy of their customers........ There is also in Zen iconography a representation of the 'erect Bodhidharma.' The sexual symbolism is played out in the ukiyoe [woodblock prints], where Daruma appears as woman — a courtesan, or a transvestite Daruma and Okame" (the quote is from this text by Faure)
One reason I liked this passage was that Schumacher here confirms so much about the phallic or yang associations connected to Bodhidharma that I myself once tried to excavate with the help of a few old artworks. I could have saved myself at least some of this interpretative toil by reading this earlier! (See my previous entries: "Big eyes" and "White and red").

Totem pole
Incidentally, the phallic symbolism also helps explain this -Takewo Yoshizaki's "Daruma-san totem pole", one of the few three-dimensional artworks produced by the young artists engaged in creating art in the "Cardboard Village" of homeless people living in the underground passages near the west exit of Shinjuku Station in the mid-90's (For a look at the artworks, see this site or Sakokawa Naoko's recently published photo collection, Shinjuku danbôru-mura). Take Jun'ichiro, another of the artists, often spoke about the underground passages as a womb. Perhaps the totem pole could be seen as a phallus that would impregnate this womb? In fact, many of the artworks depicted births or newborn babies. 

I once wrote a text on this cardboard village in which I pointed out how one of the most famous paintings - the "Shinjuku Left Eye" - was also connected to the Daruma-san motif. The painters had decided to paint it to supplement an existing art work, the "Shinjuku Eye" (a rather monumental glass eye located nearby that was made by Miyashita Yoshiko in the late 60's), thereby repeating the gesture of filling in a missing eye. The artists spoke about it as signifying the birth of a huge living creature, a monster living in the underground passages ready to howl its resentment and "turn its fangs against shit-Japan", symbolized by the Metropolitan Government skyscraper at the foot of which the passages ended.

Shinjuku's Left Eye
So here again the Daruma-san motif is connected, if not to a phallus, than to a kind of fertility idea and to the idea of a rectification of the world. Such symbolism was also present in artworks depicting Daruma-san in premodern Japan, where Daruma-san was for instance sometimes depicted as a namazu, a giant subterranean catfish through to cause earthquakes and used to symbolize the idea of yonaoshi, the rectification of the world, the punishment of the greedy and the redistribution of wealth (see Gregory Smits's site here or his "Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints", Journal of Social History 39:4, 2006). 

Daruma namazu, 1855 woodblock print
(courtesy Univeristy of Tokyo, via M. Schumacher)
Perhaps it's time to leave the phallic symbolism. The saying about just rising again if one happens to fall is one which I like and which I think may have some truth even outside the phallic context (however hard it might be for some to rise). Let me end by quoting one of my friends, who has a special talent for paraphrasing and détourning quotations. Once in a letter she wrote: "We are ridiculous! Disarm your enemies by laughing (AND THEN RISE!)". On another occasion she was feeling a bit blue and said: ”Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just stay in bed.”  Now there's some good advice which I will follow!


  1. What a lovely piece!
    And tell yr friend that I loved her advice.

  2. Thank you Eva! I will tell my friend - her advice is lovely too and has always helped me.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.