According to Japanese tradition, if you make a wish, and then fold one thousand origami cranes, your wish will come true. The origin of this tradition probably relates to the eleventh century legend of a feudal leader who attached strips of paper with prayers to the legs of cranes. The leader did this for each soldier killed in battle, and then freed the cranes to carry the prayers to the heavens. The crane was likely chosen as the messenger in this legend because cranes are symbols of good luck and longevity in Japan, as reflected in the folk saying, “Cranes live for one thousand years; turtles live for ten thousand years.” The crane’s one-thousand-year imaginary lifespan is honored in the number of paper cranes you need to fold in order to have your wish fulfilled.
Origami began in China around the first century C.E., and was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in the early seventh century. In Japan, paper folding was originally used ceremonially, particularly in Shinto and Buddhist rites. In fact, the Japanese word for “paper,” kami, is a homonym for the Shinto word for “spirit,” and another translation of origami is “paper of the spirit.” In traditional origami, the paper is never cut while making a form. This practice probably arose from the Shintoist respect for the plant spirit that gave its life so the paper could be made.
Origami can be a path to the Zen qualities known as “mindfulness” and “no-mind.” Mindfulness is being in the moment, focusing our attention in one place. Too often our attention is divided between different tasks: We open our mail while talking on the phone, we think about what we’re going to make for dinner while driving home from work. Most of the time, we allow our attention to drift and wander where it will. Conscious attention comes from the intention to be present, and it requires that we constantly enforce our focus. When we do not disperse our consciousness over varied terrain, but fully focus our attention on where we are or what we are doing, we feel more fully alive and connected to the world.
In many traditions, the arts are used as paths to mindfulness, and can sometimes take us one step beyond mindfulness to the state of no-mind. No-mind is a quality of being in which we are so focused on what we are doing that we become one with the activity and disappear into it. Focused paper folding can help us to enter states of mindfulness and no-mind, in which we have the potential to release our sense of self and merge with the creative potential of the universe.
How to Fold One (Thousand) Cranes
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, wrote in the Tao-te Ching: “A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth. The journey of a thousand miles starts from where one stands.” Nonetheless, one thousand is just a number. Feel free to fold any number of cranes or not to keep count at all. If you want to count, you might choose a number that has personal meaning to you. For example, you could fold forty cranes on your fortieth anniversary or thirteen cranes with your daughter on her thirteenth birthday.
Although the legend claims that if you fold one thousand origami cranes, your wish will come true, there are no rules when it comes to how we release our wishes and prayers to the universe. You can decide how many cranes you need to fold to honor your intention. However, whether you fold a few or one thousand cranes, try to remain mindful of the paper, the folding, and the cranes. The more attentive you are to the task at hand, the more receptive you will become to the sacred space that can be found in creativity.
Begin by Creating Sacred Space
Find a place where you can work without distraction. Center yourself by lighting incense or a candle, or saying a prayer. If you are folding one thousand cranes with another person or a group, turn it into a communal meditation and make a collective wish.
1. Fold a sheet of origami paper in half (color inside), corner to corner. Unfold and repeat with the opposite corners, to make an “x” pattern with “valley” folds.
2. Turn the paper over and fold edge to edge with the color on the outside. Unfold and repeat with the opposite edges, to make a “+” with “mountain” folds.
3. Refold the paper in half, with the color on the outside, along one of the mountain fold lines. Now hold the corners and start to bring them together.
4. Complete the fold. You will have a form with four petal-like sides.
5. Collapse the folded paper.
6. Position the folded paper with the open end toward you. Now fold the outer edges of just the top flap toward the center crease so the top layer looks like a kite.
7. Fold down the top triangle of the kite shape.
8. Now unfold the three folds you made in steps 6 and 7.
9. Turn the form sideways and lift up the top layer using the crease made in step 6 as a hinge. Push on the “cheeks” of the form to flatten. Turn over and repeat these steps.
10. You should now have a long diamond shape on both sides. Carefully smooth your folds.
11. Orient the paper so that the split end with “legs” faces right.
12. Now fold the outer edges of this end to meet the middle crease. Turn over and repeat the same fold on this side so that the folded paper now looks like a long, thin kite.
13. Position index fingers inside each leg and push the legs toward the center crease. Do this on both the front and the back of the model. Smooth the folds. Now the model has short, separate “legs” at the top and a bottom that looks like a long triangle.
14. Lift up the top of the triangle layer along the existing crease and fold.
15. Repeat on the other side. The model should look as shown in #15 on our website.
16. Position your index fingers inside the folds as you did in Step 13, bringing the sides toward the front. Repeat on the other side.
17. Now you can see what will become the tail and neck of the crane. Pull the neck and tail away from the body and pinch to fold into place. Feel free to adjust the angle of the tail and neck to suit your taste.
18. To make the head, reverse fold as shown, tucking a little less than one inch of the neck into itself.
19. Open the wings and add a little curve to them if you wish. You can also inflate the crane’s body by gently blowing into the small hole on its underside while extending its wings.
20. The crane is now complete.