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A practice inspired by Daruma

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

'A persective on Mythology, Evidence and Methapor as a tool for creativity'

About 3 weeks ago, Fighting Monkey (Jozef Frucek and Linda Kapetanea) raised an intriguing question on their Instagram account;

"How can you practice today if you don't know what will be tomorrow"?

Clearly, Covid-19 makes this question very concrete, considering the many unknown changes the modern world is experiencing nowadays. Different works both in popular and less popular science, psychology, and economy have been written about the paradox of trying to define and attach to an ever-changing reality. Mostly, concrete conclusions can not be extracted from those works because of the essence of this paradox.

For me, this kind of philosophical or intellectual question (and journey) becomes more exciting when I try to recreate it within my personal practice and art. So I try to keep it in mind whilst creating something with it, preferably on paper and in movement.

In this article I would like to share one of my inspirations and how this has influenced and continues to influence me within my practice. An ancient story that holds some principles which can be practiced today, and prepare us for tomorrow. And here I must pause for a moment and appreciate how aesthetically pleasing it is to think about all 3 tenses of time in a single sentence or through a single image.

This idea is the DARUMA: a funny-looking red doll with the unique ability to get up regardless of which direction it gets knocked over. The Daruma is based on a character and teachings, which can be a great source of power in facing adversity. It also has a 'dark' history that can teach us how it supported people in a similar context to the current crisis which we are facing.

We will examine the Daruma through 3 lenses, which reveal the chronological process of how a story turns into a practice:

Myth (background), Evidence (historical practice) and Metaphor (novel practice).


Daruma is based on the character of Bodhidharma, the zen patriarch and a legendary figure who seemed to live between the 5th and 6th centuries and went through a pilgrimage in central Asia.

The historical character which is considered to be Bodhidharma was a prince in India who left royalty for the sake of a spiritual path. Seeing that his nephew would not remain in the country, the king of India ordered that carrier pigeons be sent to China with messages asking the people of this country to take care of him. These messages made Bodhidharma famous among many Chinese who wondered what was so special about this particular Buddhist monk that the king of India would make such a request. I guess that the ways of 'good' karma and fortune can be seen from multiple perspectives.

Throughout his travels Bodhidharma developed his mediation techniques and he is credited to be the founder of Dhyana Buddhism, better known in China as Chan, and later in Japan as Zen. He acquired many disciples in China through his travels and his teachings and on his stop in the Shaolin monastery in China, he founded the famous martial art which carries the name of the place.

Among the many encounters he had along the way, the stories about his playful and wise interactions with Emperor Wu are especially famous. His recorded dialogues with General Shen Guang (who later followed Bodhidharma and also became a famous monk) had a particular importance as well, because they have become the foundation teachings in the more "structured" schools of Zen and Buddhism.

Bodhidharma's style was very much about the actualization of selflessness through direct action and honesty. Here is an example of a famous dialogue between him and the general:

Shen Guang beseeched the Master, "My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you, O Master, please put it to rest!"
Bodhidharma said, "Bring your mind here and I will pacify it"
Shen Guang searched for a while and responded, "I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it."
Bodhidharma exclaimed, "Now your mind is pacified." (The sound of the one hand - translated with a commentary by Yoel Hoffman).

One of the techniques that Bodhidharma was practicing was some sort of 'wall-staring' meditation inside caves. Legend says that once he attempted a 9 years meditation without blinking or closing his eyes. He fell asleep for a moment after 7 years and was so furious from his own lack of discipline that he cut his own eyelids off in order to make sure this would not happen again. Upon doing so, his eyelids fell to the ground and sprouted the green tea plant. Later on, the delicious green tea was one of the things Zen Monks often used to stay awake in their rigorous meditation routine. It is also told that throughout the 9 years of meditation his arms and legs fell off, another detail which emphasizes the self-sacrifice or 'letting go' that is the consequence of the long quest for enlightenment.

The physical difficulty of practicing zazen continuously is not foreign, even for someone who would try to keep a routine of 10-15 minutes a day. Maintaining the sitting posture can be strenuous on the back, neck, and legs. The fear from fatigue can become a serious set-back.

Eventually, giving up on the attachment to the physical sensations is one of the essential lessons of this practice. This legend is a reminder of how far one can go with detachment and it sounds quite cruel at first. But it also reveals a beautiful and simple truth about an alternative causality; priorities and their outcomes.

Bodhidharma eventually broke his silence and returned to teach. His teachings travelled to Korea and Japan and his life's work has been documented through the progress of Zen in the east. His teachings and ideas brought about many interpretations and translations, which are still being practiced to this very day.


There is historical evidence to the existence of this extraordinary character, but in this article I would like to put this aside and consider only the expression and development of the 'myth' of Bodhidharma. The evidence for the myth (which is different than the proof of the history) can be verified through the customs and non-verbal practice that have been carried from old times and into modern life.

The Daruma doll represents the historic character and at its essence is supposed to bring luck, but it contains many more subtleties in its design and symbolism.

Traditionally the doll was made from wood and was carved in a way that never allows it to fall. It doesn't matter from which direction you will push the Daruma; he will come back up, following the famous Japanese quote, "Fall seven times, get up eight".

This 'never-falling' characteristic is supposed to reflect on the persistence of Bodhidharma in his journeys. It is also there to remind us about the strong connection between perseverance and luck.

The doll was traditionally sold without eyes drawn. The reason is that upon buying the doll, one would have to focus on a challenge or life adversity that is standing in their way of a good life. While thinking deeply about this objective, they will paint one of the doll's eyes. Daruma will observe their host throughout their path to achieve their goal. Once this challenge will be overcome and the objective will be achieved, the owner will paint the second eye of the doll with sincere gratitude.

Bodhidharma's teachings focused on the potential of turning one's attention into their own mind and its emptiness. Those teachings can be revealed during the process of attaining something difficult.

Personally, I can see how slowly opening one's eyes to this process is a beautiful metaphor, and the ability to commit to this idea through an objective or a life goal is a fascinating connection.

Another significant detail in the design of the doll is its color.

Nowadays, the dolls can be bought in plenty of colors, and each can have a different meaning connected to Japanese Folklore (and the Shinto traditions). The most common and original single color is red. The common explanation being that this color was used for the robes of monks in the Buddhist tradition.

Another ‘darker’ explanation and a relevant reference is to the Japanese Smallpox epidemic outbreak in the 8th century. According to PubMed, this epidemic killed about one-third of the entire population (year 735).

Later more epidemics of smallpox followed and were recorded for almost 500 years.

"Statistics from a village show that the village experienced major outbreaks of smallpox about every ten years. They also show that about ninety-five percent of the deaths from smallpox were those who were under ten-years-of-age. (...) "

Such terrible circumstances can definitely change a nation's sense of faith drastically as well as its social organization. Back then, traditional, scientific, medical and philosophical values were much more entangled and practiced hand in hand.

"(...)This epidemiological profile of smallpox in early modern Japan had an important social consequence. Since victims were almost exclusively children, the management of smallpox became the business of each household. Medical advice-books for laypeople published during the Edo Period often included how to protect one's child from malignant smallpox. Likewise, suffering and recovering from smallpox became an important part of the ritual celebrating the growth of one's child. "

It was commonly believed that the color red was disliked by the god of the disease. This led both to the making of the dolls and to wrapping kids who died in red robes or fabrics, with the hope that the disease would not take them on their way to the next world. Texts, stories and paintings from this period, documented the use of both orangutan-monkey dolls ("Shoojoo") and daruma dolls as worshipped by houses which were struck by smallpox. The similarities between the two dolls even created a certain hybrid-duo, and stories from the era relate to them as symbols of recovering from the disease.

Epidemics have been part of human history and finding connections and similarities between them can seem a bit redundant because of the very different circumstances accompanying each era and society.

Nevertheless, the acceptance of the crisis and the unknown future are common to all occasions.

I find it fascinating and fruitful to learn about the faith that people put in symbols and practices which didn't necessarily support overcoming the misfortune scientifically, but rather on the level of values and hope. The faith of the symbol doesn't reflect only on the daily struggles, but also reflects on the eternal questions of life and death.


So how do these old times stories and famous doll relate to a new practice? In the case of this article, the answer is through me. And indeed, if the idea inspires you, it can be through you.

If I need to summarize the most important lesson that I have learned from the study of the Daruma it would be: 'Every journey will contain falling, and falling is managed with forgiveness'.

The minimalistic version will be; every journey begins with forgiveness.

Things haven't always been easy for me. Things got bad and even went very wrong many times. In that, I am no different than anyone else. Daruma is a reminder that this will happen over and over. That despite my beliefs and wishes, things will not go the way I wish or plan.

This philosophy turned into a set of physical skills and an essential part of my craft. Forgiving what could go horribly wrong in advance, is a promise for a journey that will not break me.

Forgiveness is entangled with endurance and the acceptance of falling and getting up. This inspires me to invest in how I prepare myself for the many falls to come along the way.

In basic acrobatics, one of the first lessons I learned as a kid was to never stretch my arms to protect my head when falling backward. Even though stretching the arms while falling back is a primal instinct, it puts me at the risk of breaking both of my arms and/or dislocating both shoulders. The less comfortable and more difficult solution is to curve the spine and protect the skull through rolling. The quicker one realizes something goes wrong and accepts the mistake, the easier it is to initiate this mechanic. The more one is insisting on saving oneself, the harder it is to protect what is essential.

While many cultures and philosophies adapt principles and characters which symbolize overcoming the problematic challenges through strength and beauty, Daruma is different. It reminds me that all will eventually fall at the end, but that I can always accept a momentary loss, fall, and carry on with my path.

I made a thorough study about rolling*, which can be a door for a practice that adapts fall as inevitable, but this is just a personal proposition. I believe that the lesson of Daruma goes beyond a single physical expression and can be used for endless subjective and individual practices. Letting go of shame, guilt, self-pity, and judgment and the hope to carry on in one's own time and pace. Keeping one eye focused on the objective but allowing the other eye to open up and discover myself.

Every time I look into this myth and its evidence, I find new lessons worthy of embodiment.

And if I find moves, principles, patterns or games which remind me of those lessons, I keep them. And by doing so; Daruma blesses me in his presence. Because the teaching of Bodhidharma pointed towards experience not only in a verbal manner but in an all-inclusive and fully experiential one.

Meeting the Daruma and essentially yourself through falling and rising might be the liberation that he spoke about all along...


1 Comment

Unknown member
Apr 30, 2020

I really enjoyed this piece thanks! I have practiced Zen and martial tai chi alongside one another for some years and find there to be lots of fertile territory shared between them. I would certainly recommend "Cultivation of the Empty Field" by Hongzhi as a primer for someone moving and playing amidst an enlightened field of activity..thanks again Nick

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