The Tengu’s Lesson (A Japanese Legend)
Once upon a time, a young man lived in a mountainous Japanese village. Many tengus — the minor deities descended from the god Susano — lived in the forest surrounding the village. The people respected the tengu and were careful not to upset them because the tengu liked to play tricks on people. Though these were usually harmless pranks, the tengu kept the people on their toes.
“Never tease or offend the tengu,” parents told their children. “The tengu loves to play tricks on us, but they do not like having tricks played on them.”
One boy in the village was as playful as the tengu and loved to play tricks on everyone. “Why can’t we play tricks on the tengu?” he asked his mother. His mother shook her head. “Be careful, child,” she said. “The tengu anger quickly. Promise me you will take care.”
The boy listened to his mother, but he did not promise not to play tricks. He had been thinking for a long time of a special hoax, and he did not want to break his word.
One day he took a long stalk of bamboo and ran into the forest. He wandered among the trees until he found a tengu sitting idly on a branch, watching the world go by.
The boy stood at the foot of the tree and, lifting his bamboo to the sky, looked through it as if it were a telescope. “Ohhh,” he gasped.
The tengu peered down at the boy.
“Oh my,” the boy sighed wistfully.
The tengu leaned over and looked closely at the bamboo and the boy. The boy pretended not to see him and continued to stare up at the sky through his hollow bamboo stalk.
“Amazing,” the boy sighed deeply.
The tengu could no longer bear the suspense. “What? What do you see up there?”
Pretending he had not noticed the tengu, the boy looked up suddenly, his face registering surprise. “Sorry,” he said, “I did not realize someone was here. I was watching the wonders of the heavens. I can see everything above through my bamboo. I can see the gods, and everything else. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing.”
Now the tengu was envious. “Give me your bamboo stalk,” he said. “I want to see the wonders of the heavens.”
“Oh no,” the boy said. “I must keep my stalk. I live to see the heavens.”
The tengu thought for a while and finally said, “I’ll give you a gift in exchange.”
The boy shook his head. “I can’t imagine anything as wonderful as my bamboo.”
Suddenly the tengu’s red skin began to glow. “I’ll trade my cloak of leaves for your bamboo!” he cried with delight. “With this cloak, you can make yourself invisible.”
The tengu pleaded, and at last, the boy agreed. He handed the bamboo stalk to the tengu and quickly ran off with the cloak.
The boy was ecstatic. With the tengu’s cloak, he could make himself invisible whenever he wished, and in this way, he managed to play tricks on everyone. Whenever someone tried to find him, he simply vanished.
But when the tengu realized he had been fooled, he gathered all the other tengu together. “We must teach that boy a lesson he will never forget,” the tengu said to his friends. “And I want my cloak back.”
The boy did not know that though he was invisible to all his friends and family, no matter what he did the tengu knew where he was. One day as he was walking beside the river with his friends, he suddenly felt someone push him. He looked around, but no one was there. Still, he felt more pushing and couldn’t keep his balance. He stumbled and tripped down the riverbank, for the tengu had made themselves invisible, and it was they who were pushing him.
“What’s wrong with you?” his friends asked as they watched the boy tumble, but he couldn’t answer them, for he was out of breath with the struggle to stay on his feet. A moment later he was in the river, up to his nose, and his satchel, in which he carried the tengu’s cloak, was floating away on the current. Before he could gain his balance, the tengu had snatched the satchel, and as he scrambled for the riverbank, he looked up and saw his friends laughing at him.
“Your face is as red as a tengu,” one of his friends laughed.
“It looks like the tengu has had their revenge,” another said. And they all laughed, for they were quite glad their friend would never again be able to become invisible.
From that day on the boy always was the first to caution the younger children to take care of the tengu. He no longer tried to play tricks on his friends, for he did not want them to feel the deep embarrassment he had felt when the tengu taught him a lesson.