In every country legends of supernatural creatures appear; fairies, goblins and imps. It seems mankind holds a common belief in a race of mischievous little people to punish the foolish and trick the unwary.
In Japan, this is also true. They have a belief in a race of bird people known as Tengu(天狗) which live in the forests and mountains.
Tengu translates as “Heaven Dog” and probably has an origin in the Chinese Tien Kou(T 天狗) or “celestial hound.” The name is very misleading as nowadays the big-nosed crow-like Tengu looks nothing like a dog at all. Many people believe the name came from the appearance of a meteor with a tail, for it is said one hit China sometime in the 6th century BC and was never forgotten.
Tengu is popular with both followers of Shinto and Buddhism. Stories of their supernatural powers are abundant; these include their ability to shape-shift into human or animal forms and a kind of telepathic ability to speak to humans without moving their mouth. They can teleport instantly from place to place without using their wings. Masters of magic and sorcery, they often appear uninvited in people’s dreams.
The patron of martial arts, the bird-like Tengu is a skilled warrior and mischief maker, especially prone to playing tricks on arrogant and vainglorious Buddhist priests and punishing those who willfully misuse knowledge and authority to gain fame or position. In bygone days, they also inflicted their punishments on vain and arrogant Samurai warriors. They dislike braggarts and those who corrupt the Dharma (law).
Why the Long Nose?
Tengu are a paradox; they have a mischievous sense of humour and great cunning. They love playing tricks to punish the pretentious and arrogant. There favourite targets being Buddhist priests who misuse the teaching of Buddha and samurai who use their power for self-aggrandizement. Indeed in much of the literature, the Tengu take great revenge on nascent Buddhist sects.
However, the Tengu’s long nose relates to their own pride and arrogance. It is said that those who are controlled by their pride can be cursed to become Tengu. Spiritual teachers or priests with no true knowledge, prideful egotistical individuals, those fascinated and attached to fame, all these people attract Tengu who play tricks on them and bring them to their fold. It is almost as if the Tengu are attracted to those like themselves. The Ninja Connection
Japanese mythology has always held that the Ninja evolved from Tengu, for they have the same love of the dark and supernatural powers. It is an interesting story but fully understandable for scared peasants in awe of the Ninja skills. I always thought this was a fun story with little meaning, merely demonstrating the Ninja’s skills to cultivate a scary image to put fear into their enemies.
A Deeper Meaning
The true meaning of this story came to me last week. I was reading the book Japanese Sword Fighting by Masaaki Hatsumi. He talked about Tengu waza, Techniques of the Tenguin sword fighting. He mentioned that they represented a focus on a specific set of techniques to the exclusion of others and how by training like this allowed you to do amazingly impressive things but made you an unbalanced and egotistical martial artist.
Then the truth hit me. Tengu is symbols. They represent what happens to people if they don’t control their passions and pride. The whole myth about Tengu evolving into Ninja is symbolic and meaningful. People who come to the ninja art are attracted by the power it offers; they want to be strong and powerful. They are normally ‘Tengu’ – prideful individuals who want to show off and build themselves up; who boast and do anything to seem important. Their focus of the art is on developing skills they can show off and feel special about. A true martial artist covers all skills to develop his personality and balance his character, whilst gaining enlightenment.
I have met a lot of ‘Tengu’ in martial arts. In fact, I, as Hatsumi describes, have always focused on specific areas; trying to build superhuman abilities, not balance – Tengu Waza. To develop into a true Ninja you need to follow the art for other reasons, move your skills into other areas and bring about balance.