This unopened walnut shell -- with the nut-meat still inside -- has been carefully carved with the miniscule representations of 108 bald-headed, sitting Buddhas (or, alternatively, bodhisattvas) and is carried as a good luck charm. It comes from China, a country where such miniaturized carving is a popular craft, although Buddhism is not a dominant religion there and has not been for centuries. In a sense, the 108 Buddhas on a walnut charm can be said to be an Asian cultural equivalent to the Western custom of inscribing the Lord's Prayer on a grain or rice or rolling the Ten Commandments onto an elongated good luck penny.
As a lucky pocket piece, the walnut resembles the similarly sized buckeye nut of European-American tradition and the John the Conqueror root celebrated in African-American folk magic. Because the images carved on the nut are of a holy nature, the 108 Buddhas charm straddles the interface between luck, protection, and religion, where many such quasi-sanctified charms can be found.
The number 108 is highly auspicious in the Buddhist religion. Buddhist mallas ("rosaries") have 108 beads; it is a custom among Japanese Buddhists to ring a large bell 108 times at the beginning of each year for new year's luck; and among some sects of Buddhism, there are said to be 108 human beings who could have achieved nirvana or buddhahood, but have chosen to reincarnate on Earth to serve suffering humanity. These 108 boddhisattvas are very likely what the carver intended to depict here, but the name "108 Buddhas" is catchier and more accurately describes the tiny bald men, each like the other, who crowd around the surface of the walnut.
The use of 108 in religious symbology is not unique to Buddhism, and in fact derives from the earlier Dravidian and Aryan religions of India, where 108 was tied to the lunar calendar, the computation of the lengths of the yugas or cosmic ages, and to worship of deities such as Bhairava/Siva and Kali. Hindu mallas for the worship of Siva also have 108 beads, as do the Nepalese skull-bead mallas which belong to the hybrid religion known as Tantric Buddhism. The significance of the number 108 stretches back possibly even to ancient Sumer, where 108-plus-252 was a numerical combination associated with the goddess Inanna's gift of the arts of civilization to humanity.
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