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Yoshitoshi, Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts from Sojobo, King of the Tengu, 1880

The Dogs of Heaven - Tengu and the Secret Practice of Buddhism

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The Tengu (天狗)  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 priests, 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 depiction 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.


fukaku irite
kamiji no oku o tazunureba
mata ue mo naki
mine no matsukaze

Following the paths
the gods passed over, I seek
their innermost place;
up and up to the highest of all:
peak where wind passes through pines.

Translated by LaFleur, Awesome Nightfall (50)

Karura (迦楼羅) – The Devourer

It started with a Hindu deity named Garuda who became known as Karura in Japan. His form was that of 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 breathe 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 1868.

Sculpture depicting the Tengu – The Devourer known also as Garuda devouring a Naga serpent

Sculpture depicting the Tengu – The Devourer known also as Garuda devouring a Naga serpent. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain)

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 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 in secret.

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.

Tengu and a Buddhist monk, the Tengu wears the cap and pom-pommed sash of a follower of Shugendō

Tengu and a Buddhist monk, the Tengu wears the cap and pom-pommed sash of a follower of Shugendō. (Kotengu / Public Domain)

According to legend 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 we do in training and in practice is now more Shinto based though we still maintain the use of Sutra recitation, Fire-walking, Fire-rituals, Shakujo rattling, the Kuji-In, and the like.

One day I will go into more detail on my Shugendō/Vedic and Norse Heathen practices. 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 here 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?

Shugendō practitioners in the mountains of Kumano, Mie

Shugendō practitioners in the mountains of Kumano, Mie.(Fountain Posters / CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.
With all of this history out of the way. Let us return back to the Tengu. 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.

KoTengu (小天狗) Little Tengu, also known as KarasuTengu, Crow Tengu.

KoTengu (小天狗) Little Tengu, also known as KarasuTengu, Crow Tengu. (cotaro70s / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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 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).

DaiTengu (大天狗) – Great Tengu

DaiTengu (大天狗) – Great Tengu. (baobao54373 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

As with the KoTengu they can be bribed into working with humans and will teach them magic however, people often regret coming under the tutelage of the DaiTengu as they will often trick them 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; the children were later returned but the they 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: King of the Tengu

Sōjōbō: King of the Tengu. (Fæ / Public Domain)

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 mind’s 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 there for their king, there are actually 17 “kings” of Tengu across Japan, one for each major mountain range.

Top image: Yoshitoshi, Ushiwaka Maru learns Martial Arts from Sojobo, King of the Tengu, 1880. Source: Toshidama Gallery / Public Domain.

By Nisa Ryan


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Nisa Ryan is an avid devourer of folklore and literature. She enjoys reading manga and watching anime as well as spending times outdoors. Growing up in Japan, her love of all things Japanese led her to get a B.A. in... Read More

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