Three red daruma dolls on a shelf

Your Guide to Daruma Dolls: Helping You Set Your Goals Since the 19th Century

With the New Year, you might be setting goals and resolutions, whether it’s to save more money, exercise more, or slow your roll. Whatever your ambitions might be, they could be a challenge to achieve, especially as day-to-day life gets in the way. That’s where a daruma doll might help!

Where they come from

The Daruma Temple in Japan

By Takashi.koike (CC BY 3.0)

It’s believed that the Japanese daruma or "goal" doll has been around since the mid-19th century. Originating in the Temple of Daruma in Takasaki, the dolls began as wooden good luck charms that the temple would make for its parishioners. 

When demand grew and the work became too arduous, a priest named Togaku came up with the idea of creating a mold that the parishioners could take home and make their own papier-mache charms. Eventually that lead to the papier-mache daruma doll. Takasaki is still known as the daruma capital of Japan.

A possible inspiration

The 5th or 6th century Indian monk, Bodhidharma

Another belief is that the daruma doll is modeled after Bodhidharma, a 5th- or 6th-century Buddhist monk who might have been from India. He's credited with founding Zen Buddhism, developing Shaolin kungfu, and, some say, inventing green tea.

According to myth, Bodhidharma spent nine years praying and gazing at a cave wall after he was initially ejected from the Shaolin Monastery (and before he returned and whipped the flabby monks into shape, hence the birth of Shaolin kungfu). It’s said that he grew angry with himself after falling asleep and so cut off his eyelids, and that he sat for so long, his arms and legs atrophied — which is why the daruma doll is wide-eyed and limbless.

The other elements of the daruma doll

Pile of daruma dolls

By Masaki Ikeda (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The other elements of the daruma doll have meaning as well. It’s red because it’s believed Bodhidharma wore red robes, and, as in Chinese culture, the color is considered happy and auspicious in Japanese culture.

As for the eyebrows and mustache, they’re painted to resemble cranes and turtle shells, respectively, since those animals represent longevity.

How they work

A single daruma doll

By Crisco 1492 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

You might notice that in addition to being pretty cute, the daruma doll's eyes are blank. The idea is to fill in one eye when you pick your goal, and to fill in the other one when you achieve it.

Burn after wishing

A ceremony in which year-old darumas are burned

By C1815 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some say that a year after obtaining a daruma, it should be returned to its original temple and burned in a ceremony called daruma kuyo or dondo yaki, whether or not you’ve achieved your goal. This frees the spirit from the doll and is an act of renewed commitment to one’s goal — and to getting another daruma!

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