Evil and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Medieval Japanese Buddhism

The Seven Tengu ScrollsThe Seven Tengu Scrolls: Evil and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, by Haruko Wakabayashi, is a study of visual and textual images of the mythical creature tengu from the late Heian (897–1185) to the late Kamakura (1185–1333) periods. Popularly depicted as half-bird, half-human creatures with beaks or long noses, wings, and human bodies, tengu today are commonly seen as guardian spirits associated with the mountain ascetics known as yamabushi. In the medieval period, however, the character of tengu most often had a darker, more malevolent aspect. Wakabashi focuses in this study particularly on tengu as manifestations of the Buddhist concept of Māra (or ma), the personification of evil in the form of the passions and desires that are obstacles to enlightenment. Her larger aim is to investigate the use of evil in the rhetoric of Buddhist institutions of medieval Japan. Through a close examination of tengu that appear in various forms and contexts, Wakabayashi considers the functions of a discourse on evil as defined by the Buddhist clergy to justify their position and marginalize others.

“Haruko Wakabayashi gives us a meticulously researched, entertaining, and thought-provoking study of the image of the tengu. Using a wealth of written and visual sources, she is able to show that this odd long-nosed or bird-like figure, often avoided in scholarship as a sort of hobgoblin of marginal folk belief, was in fact an important figure, absolutely essential to the polemics and self-conception of central institutions and actors in medieval Japanese Buddhism.” —Hank Glassman, Haverford College

April 2012 / ISBN 978-0-8248-3416-6 / $50.00 (CLOTH)