The Dogs of Heaven – Tengu (天狗)
kamiji no oku o
mata ue mo naki
mine no matsukaze
the gods passed
over, I seek
up and up to the
highest of all:
peak where wind
passes through pines.
Translated by LaFleur,
Awesome Nightfall (50)
The Tengu are possibly the most recognizable of all the Japanese yokai. With their enormous black wings and faces of either a large crow or a red-faced, long-nosed, goblin. They are often dressed as Shugendō priest having a long-standing association with our ascetics in the mountains. Many Shugendō consider the Tengu to be our brothers and protectors while traversing the Kurama Mountain ranges. But the Tengu did not always look this way. In China, his country of origin, the Tengu is called Tiangou and was depicted as a large black dog that swallowed the sun or moon during eclipses. But, how did the Tiangou go from being a celestial dog to a dour-faced bird man guarding sacred Shinto mountains? We don’t really know, I could not find any references to this, however, in looking at the Hanzi/Kanji characters that make up the Tiangou/Tengu’s name I can only determine that this change was made simply because it made sense. The character 天 (ten) means “heaven” and as birds can reach the heavens the Japanese must have thought that this made was appropriate. Especially as crows are seen as messengers of the Kami. I’ll be investigating this further in my own studies. Let us continue our exploration, however, of how the Tengu went from a peaceful Buddhist to a fearsome Warrior-Monk.
Karura (迦楼羅) – The Devourer
It started with a Hindu deity named Garuda who became known as Karura in Japan
(mainly due to differences in pronunciation between Chinese and Japanese), his
form was that a giant man with wings and, you guessed it, a bird like face with
a flaming Buddhist wheel on his back. He carried a magical flute and was able
to breath fire. His ferocious visage was meant to intimidate and place fear in
the hearts of his mortal enemies, the Naga. Like a bird eating a worm, Karura
devoured the Naga whom he defeated. Because of this he was greatly feared by
all Naga and worm like creatures including wyrms and dragons. Only Naga who
possessed a Buddhist protection talisman or those whom had converted to
Buddhism were safe from Karura’s wrath and his enormous appetite. He was
considered a protector of the Buddhist faith however, this changed drastically
during the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) which began in
Emperor Meiji and
His Restoration– Anti-Buddhist Philosophies
In 1868 Emperor Meiji decided that he needed to reinvent Japan. He felt that
outside influences were threatening his people’s traditional way of life. He
especially wanted to protect Japan from Western influence and Chinese influence. He created what is now known as State Shinto (which is still
practiced today) and outlawed the blending of Shinto and Buddhist practice. He determined that Buddhism was a threat to the natural Japanese religion of Shinto (as well as being a threat to his throne) and set out to eradicate all Buddhist traditions. Shugendō, a syncretic faith of Buddhism and Shinto was made illegal
to practice and its Priests were told to reform as Shinto priests or to become Buddhist priests at one of the “approved” temples where they could still practice Buddhism, but only as foreseen by Emperor Meiji. Many chose to become Shinto, a few became Buddhist but many more went into hiding and continued practicing
Practicing in secret was a very dangerous thing to do. If you were caught practicing
mountain ascetics as a Shugendō you would be tortured and put to death for
disobeying a royal decree. Many a mountain priest lost his life and many of our
heroic stories of warrior-monks come from this era as the Shugendō set about
protecting the last of their syncretic temples deep in the mountains. Emperor Meiji set out to destroy Shugendō with extreme prejudice. It was around this time that the Tengu began to take a sinister turn against Buddhism. As the Shugendō began to fall beneath the sword of the Meiji declaration, the Tengu went from being protectors of Buddhism to detractors of Buddhism.
According the stories I was told by my Sensei, the Tengu were said to have grown to
despise the faith because it brought so much death to their lands. Ever since the Meiji Restoration the Tengu have worked their hardest to belittle the Buddhist side of practice which has been reflected in modern Shugendō practice. Much of what is done in training and in practice is now more Shinto based though they still maintain the use of Sutra recitation, Fire-walking, Fire-rituals, Shakujo rattling, the Kuji-In, and the like. What is important to remember is that, despite still having many Buddhist practices within Shugendō the Tengu have continued to have a mostly peaceful relationship with its practitioners. I like to think that they have grown to understand that Buddhism was not at fault and was but the fearful reactions of an Emperor who didn’t want to lose to modernity.
However, there are still tales of people disappearing in the deep woods, of being lost
in ravines and never finding a way out but how much of that is cautionary tale
versus the actions of nefarious long-nosed goblins?
Over time the Tengu also began to become associated with the Shinto kami, Sarutahiko
O-kami (猿田毘古大神). Surutahiko O-kami is the leader of the Earthly Kami (Kami and yokai who are bound to roam the Earth) and is often depicted as having a long nose much like a Tengu. In fact, it could have been his unusual features that first created the association between this Kami and the Tengu.
Anyway, with all of this history out of the way. Let us return back to the Tengu.
DaiTengu, and Sōjōbō OH MY!
There are traditionally, three different types of Tengu. I will go over each one now.
KoTengu (小天狗) Little Tengu
Also known as KarasuTengu, Crow Tengu (烏天狗), these are the Tengu that many are familiar with. They are dressed in the robes of a Priest but with the head and long beak of a crow. These “lesser Tengu” are said to be much more animal like and enjoy the same types of things that actual crows do. They are said to be fond of shiny items such as coins and jewelry and that you
might be able to bribe them for safe passage with the promise of such items.
These Tengu are the possibly the most dangerous type as they can be unpredictable
and, as all yokai, are capable of using a certain amount of magic. They can
cast glamour and, much like their corvid cousins, can mimic voices to lure
people away. They like to cause all types of mischief by throwing their voices
around or making strange noises to scare people away. They were also master
archers and swordsmen and are said to be the servants of the DaiTengu. On rare
occasions they can be talked into sharing some of their secrets but, these
Tengu are also the ones that are most likely to eat you. So be warned.
DaiTengu (大天狗) – Great Tengu
These Tengu are the the ones we most often seen in popular culture, media, and artwork. They are recognizable by their Priestly robes, large black wings, the long shakujo staff, and most especially their bright red faces and long,
beak-like, noses. These are the Tengu to be most wary of as they are not so much yokai but more Kami-like in that their power has exceeded that of normal yokai. They are said to have the strength of 1,000 men, can control the wind and fire and can summon thunder and lightning. They are also master swordsman, archers, and martial-artists. They are said to be the causes of war as they often manipulate humans into fighting for the Tengus own personal gains (what
these gains might be, we might never know).
As with the KoTengu they can be bribed into working with humans and will teach
them magic however, they often regret coming under the tutelage of the DaiTengu
as they will often trick people into doing silly things, such as holding your head in the water and trying to breathe, under the belief that they will somehow gain infinite wisdom and immortality.
The DaiTengu have an even more nefarious side, which is why they are often called
‘goblins’ and are the main reason people fear the Tengu. They are known for the
kidnapping of children, they were later returned but the children usually come
home terrified and refuse to enter the woods. Sometimes they would pick people
up and fly away with them only to later leave them stranded on the tops of tall
trees, naked and mildly insane.
This being said there are instances of DaiTengu who are helpful or that could be
placated into helping lost travelers. Many a mountain monk has sought out the
DaiTengu to ask for their teachings, leaving offerings of the rice-wine, sake (酒),
and various cakes in the hope that the Tengu would impart their knowledge.
These “good” Tengu are those who have turned back to Buddhism and now seek to
rectify their karma to escape the wheel of Samsara (wheel of life and death) in
the hopes of being reincarnated as Buddhas in their own right.
Sōjōbō (僧正坊) – King of the Tengu (Goblin King)
The King of Tengu lives on Mt. Kurama, the home of Shugendō and the birthplace of Reiki. It was on this mountain that Usui Mikao meditated when the symbols of Reiki and their uses appeared to his minds eye. This is also the mountain that
the founder of Shugendō, En No Gyoja, also mediated on the Heart Sutra and from
its teachings and the teachings of Shinto, formed the path of the Yamabushi known
in whole as Shugendō. With all this great history it is little surprise then that the great King of the Tengu makes his home here and it was here that he is rumored to have tutored Japans greatest samurai warrior, Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Even though Sōjōbō is said to be the greatest of the Tengu, and therefor their king, there are actually 17 “kings” of Tengu across Japan, one for each major mountain range.
Tales of the
Tengu – Tengu Monogatari (天狗物語)
The Man who Flew – Tonda Otoko (飛んだ男)
In 1810 there is a story in Asakusa of a man that fell from the sky, utterly
naked, and was left lying in the street. He was found by a farmer who helped
the man to his home and nursed him back to health. When questioned the man
claimed that he had left on a pilgrimage. During his journey across the
mountains he was stopped and questioned by a monk, his face hidden behind a
feathered fan. The man answered the questions as honestly as he could but when
the monk revealed himself, the pilgrim expected a dour faced man but was
instead greeted by a long-nosed yokai. He was carried away by the red-faced
DaiTengu and kept within its village of fellows for two days. The farmer was
sure the man must be delirious as he refused to elaborate on what had happened
to him during his time with the beast men.
Kakuremino (天狗の隠れみの) – The Tengu’s
There once was a boy playing outside with a long beam of bamboo. It was hollowed
inside from age and the boy would aim the bamboo here and there, up and down,
left and right looking through the empty husk and pretending that he could see
things far away. Or that he could see ghosts and yokai and even a dragon’s treasure. A Tengu happened to be resting in a tree nearby and he watched the boy with fascination, certain that this must be a magic piece of bamboo to allow the boy to see such things. He was determined to own it for himself. The Tengu approached the boy and made a great show of his magic cloak that allows himself to move, invisible, among the villagers and offers a trade, “If you give me your bamboo I will give you my cloak! It would be so much more fun to move around unseen than to see far away but unable to do anything!” The boy agreed and they made their trade. The boy ran off immediately and caused all sorts of mischief in his village while the Tengu sat with his new bamboo toy.
The Tengu tried several times to get the bamboo to work but finally, realizing that he has been tricked, searches for the boy but cannot find him because he is invisible! However, the joke is on the boy in the end as he isn’t able to remove the cloak and remained invisible for the rest of his miserable life.
A Visit from the
Shogun (将軍からの訪問) – A True Story
People believed so deeply in the Tengu and the mischief they could create that when
the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi came to visit the mountain city of Nikko in 1860,
only a few years before Meiji became Emperor and took power away from the
Shogunate and Shugendō, an announcement was placed around the woods and the
Tengu and other
devils: Our generals intend to visit the Nikko cemetery next April, but the
devils who live in the mountains such as Tengu must be removed from other
places until the general visits are over.
Many offerings were placed along the mountain’s paths, prayers made, and rituals
performed to ensure that the Tengu would allow the Shogun a safe visit.
Tengu Matsuri – Tengu
Today, there are still many tales of the Tengu to be found and there are several festivals held in honor (or appeasement) of the Tengu. One such festival is Shimokita Tengu Matsuri (しもきた天狗まつりてんぐ) in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. It coincides with the winter holiday of Setsubun and is based at the Shinryuji Temple where the temple deity is Doryosatta, a DaiTengu. Another celebration that takes place every October in Osaka is simply called Tengu Matsuri (天狗まつり), women and children are chased around the festival by shrine Priests dressed as Tengu. If a child is beat over the head with the Tengu’s feathered fan the child will grow up to be strong and wise like the Tengu.
As this post has become so much longer than I intended, I sincerely thank you if
you have read this far and if you want even more information on this fascinating creature I implore that you check out my collection of resources below.
Tengu: Legendary Goblins of Japan http://www.seinenkai.com/articles/tengu.html
Japanese Tengu: The Japanese Demon https://www.tofugu.com/japan/tengu/
and Sōjōbō http://traditionalkyoto.com/traditional-areas/king-of-the-tengu/
Tengu: The Bird Demons of Japanese
Catharina Blomberg; The Heart of the
Warrior – Origins and Religious Background of the Samurai System in Feudal