- The Seven Tengu Scrolls: Evil and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Medieval Japanese Buddhism by Haruko Wakabayashi
The sudden expansion of expressions of tengu that took place in medieval Japan is one of the most intriguing phenomena in Japanese religious history. Although the concept tengu presumably derives from a related word that describes an occult creature in Chinese folklore, it takes on a life of its own in Japan, particularly in the many forms of so-called tengu zōshi scroll paintings seen in the yamato-e genre of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. In contemporary Japan, tengu are depicted somewhat comically, sporting masks with long noses, but in the Heian and Kamakura periods they took on a variety of guises, the most common marker being a curved, bird-like beak. Medieval tengu, the subject of Haruko Wakabayashi’s The Seven Tengu Scrolls, are notoriously hard to pin down. In one context they are said to form a saṃsāric realm of retributive punishment called tengudō. In another they are promoters of the Buddha’s dharma. At times they are fierce like demons, at other times they are simpletons who lose their magic cloak of invisibility in a game of chance with humans.
The conceptions embedded in tengu zōshi and other religious scenes in which the creatures are depicted became somewhat of a historical enigma in the Edo period and have been written about by such notables as Ogyū Sorai, Hirata Atsutane, Inoue Enryō, and Yanagita Kunio, among others. More recently, Umezu Jirō, Amino Yoshihiko, Abe Yasurō, and Harada Masatoshi have made significant contributions to this lively field of inquiry. The first serious study of tengu to appear in a Western language was “The Tengu,” published in 1908 by Marinus Willem de Visser, a contemporary of Inoue’s who lauds the latter’s writing on the subject but felt the need to provide it with a historical perspective and so collected a vast number of tengu stories from medieval literature.1 Anyone looking for an exhaustive list of such stories both in Chinese literature and in medieval Japanese texts including Kojidan, Kokon chomonjū, and Azuma kagami would benefit from consulting this impressive essay as a supplement to the book under review.
Following de Visser’s work, despite a wealth of Japanese scholarship and the discovery of new material, nearly a century passed before the next English-language critical study appeared in Abe’s “The Book of Tengu: Goblins, Devils, and Buddhas in Medieval [End Page 263] Japan.”2 Wakabayashi’s new contribution is a product of her many years of work on this topic, and the Japanese studies community in the West is undeniably grateful to her for the time and effort she invested in gathering the wide range of information presented in this book. She has also made useful forays into the complex political landscape behind many depictions of tengu both in artworks and in secular literature. Her study serves as a reminder that religious art was typically commissioned by religious institutions and therefore reflects the doctrinal and political agenda of the contemporaneous leadership of those institutions. The two extant tengu scrolls from Miidera—referred to in the book as Miidera A and Miidera B—are particularly noteworthy, for their content reflects one of the two most obvious areas of political tension evidenced in the book: the long-standing rivalry between Enryakuji and Onjōji/Miidera for dominance of the Tendai sect and its supporters in the ruling class. The book’s main title, The Seven Tengu Scrolls, refers to a label first given to this genre of emaki in Shoji kaikō, a work by the monk Ken’a (1261–1338), and used thereafter.
Another explicit political theme in these works is the resentment within older institutional sanghas toward movements devoted exclusively to Pure Land and Zen, illustrating just how threatening these new forms of Buddhism appeared to the then-prevalent kenmitsu (exoteric-esoteric) regime in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By demonstrating a link...