The Tengu at Kurama Station on the Eiden line

John Dougill writes…

Lafcadio Hearn had a taste for the macabre, as is well-known from his Kwaidan (1903) collection of strange stories.  In Ghostly Japan (1899) contains one such story which is set in Kyoto.  Fittingly enough, it concerns a tengu, for the creatures were much associated with the city, particularly the northern area around Mt Hiei and Kurama, where the King of the Tengu famously taught martial arts to Yoshitsune.  It’s thought these tengu were in fact warrior-monks like Benkei, whose nocturnal exercises excited the imagination of those who caught glimpses of them in the woods.  (An alternative tradition claims that they were a folk legend inspired by the first Westerners with big noses to visit Japan, though personally I see them as more likely inspired by the Jomon/Ainu mountain folk of old, since the crow-tengu in particular is so obviously shamanic in form.)  The story below comes from the Kindle edition of Hearn’s Collected Works, though the paragraphing is by myself.  The story is particularly appealing because of the concern with animal suffering which Buddhism teaches and which was once such an important part of Japanese culture.


One of the floats at Kyoto’s Awata Jinja festival depicts the Karasu Tengu (tengu in the form of a crow)

“In the days of the Emperor Go-Reizei, there was a holy priest living in the temple of Saito, on the mountain called Hiyei-Zan, near Kyoto. One summer day this good priest, after a visit to the city, was returning to his temple by way of Kita-no-Oji, when he saw some boys ill-treating a kite. They had caught the bird in a snare, and were beating it with sticks. “Oh, the, poor creature!” compassionately exclaimed the priest; – “why do you torment it so, children?” One of the boys made answer: – “We want to kill it to get the feathers.” Moved by pity, the priest persuaded the boys to let him have the kite in exchange for a fan that he was carrying; and he set the bird free. It had not been seriously hurt, and was able to fly away.

Happy at having performed this Buddhist act of merit, the priest then resumed his walk. He had not proceeded very far when he saw a strange monk come out of a bamboo-grove by the road-side, and hasten towards him. The monk respectfully saluted him, and said: -“Sir, through your compassionate kindness my life has been saved; and I now desire to express my gratitude in a fitting manner.” Astonished at hearing himself thus addressed, the priest replied:-“Really, I cannot remember to have ever seen you before: please tell me who you are.” “It is not wonderful that you cannot recognize me in this form,” returned the monk: “I am the kite that those cruel boys were tormenting at Kita-no-Oji. You saved my life; and there is nothing in this world more precious than life. So I now wish to return your kindness in some way or other. If there be anything that you would like to have, or to know, or to see,-anything that I can do for you, in short,-please to tell me; for as I happen to possess, in a small degree, the Six Supernatural Powers, I am able to gratify almost any wish that you can express.”

In the wooded surrounds behind Nanzen-ji, people still pray to Karasu Tengu (statue top right)

On hearing these words, the priest knew that he was speaking with a Tengu; and answered:-“My friend, I have long ceased to care for the things of this world: I am now seventy years of age; neither fame nor pleasure has any attraction for me. I feel anxious only about my future birth; but as that is a matter in which no one can help me, it were useless to ask about it. Really, I can think of but one thing worth wishing for. It has been my life-long regret that I was not in India in the time of the Lord Buddha, and could not attend the great assembly on the holy mountain Gridhrakuta. Never a day passes in which this regret does not come to me, in the hour of morning or of evening prayer. Ah, my friend! if it were possible to conquer Time and Space, like the Bodhisattvas, so that I could look upon that marvellous assembly, how happy should I be!”

“Why,” the Tengu exclaimed, “that pious wish of yours can easily be satisfied. I perfectly well remember the assembly on the Vulture Peak; and I can cause everything that happened there to reappear before you, exactly as it occurred. It is our greatest delight to represent such holy matters…. Come this way with me!” And the priest suffered himself to be led to a place among pines, on the slope of a hill. “Now,” said the Tengu, “you have only to wait here for awhile, with your eyes shut. Do not open them until you hear the voice of the Buddha preaching the Law. Then you can look. But when you see the appearance of the Buddha, you must not allow your devout feelings to influence you in any way; – you must not bow down, nor pray, nor utter any such exclamation as, ‘Even so, Lord!’ or ‘O thou Blessed One!’ You must not speak at all. Should you make even the least sign of reverence, something very unfortunate might happen to me.”

The priest gladly promised to follow these injunctions; and the Tengu hurried away as if to prepare the spectacle. Then forgetting utterly his pledge, – foolishly dreaming that he stood in the very presence of the very Buddha, -– he cast himself down in worship with tears of love and thanksgiving; crying out with a loud voice, “O thou Blessed One!”… Instantly with a shock as of earthquake the stupendous spectacle disappeared; and the priest found himself alone in the dark, kneeling upon the grass of the mountain-side. Then a sadness unspeakable fell upon him, because of the loss of the vision, and because of the thoughtlessness that had caused him to break his word. As he sorrowfully turned his steps homeward, the goblin-monk once more appeared before him, and said to him in tones of reproach and pain: – “Because you did not keep the promise which you made to me, and heedlessly allowed your feelings to overcome you, the Gohotendó, who is the Guardian of the Doctrine, swooped down suddenly from heaven upon us, and smote us in great anger, crying out, ‘How do ye dare thus to deceive a pious person?’ Then the other monks, whom I had assembled, all fled in fear. As for myself, one of my wings has been broken, – so that now I cannot fly.” And with these words the Tengu vanished forever.”

At Yuki Jinja on Kurama hill you can get special tengu fortune slips