The Child Wearing the Tengai

"Mr. Komusō, would you please let that child wear your tengai for a moment?" As I was stopped like that, I turned around and saw a women holding a little child. She's making fun of me, trying to trick me into taking off the tengai so that she can see the Komusō's face. When I looked silently at her, she said very earnestly: "Could you please be so kind and let the child wear it?" There was no laxness in her voice whatsoever.

"And what will happen, when the child wears the tengai?" I asked insistently, because I did not now what was going on, and that was a somewhat fishy situation. When I listend to her explanation I understood.

"That child has something with its brain and we are in trouble." She also said that she herself had headaches from time to time and asked me to let her put on the tengai as well. Anyway, if it helps, I thought and let them wear the tengai for a moment. They tanked me very much.

Superstition concerning the tengai which the sturdy Komusō wears on his head probably only exists in the area of Kyūshū. (p. 9-10)


✢ Here the very unusual expression nōmochi 脳もち ("having something with the brain") is used to describe the child's condition, and I can only suspect that this is some kind of discriminatory term and is therefore not listed in dictionaries and lexicons, or that it might be Kyūshū dialect. Anyway, at the present moment I cannot confirm what the actual problem of the child was.


A modern tengai made from black bamboo.

Just like the Shakuhachi, the tengai was also regarded as an auspicious object and some believed that even wearing it briefly could bring health and sanity.

Those kinds of folk-religious beliefs in Buddhism root within the Lotos-Sutra, one of the most popular text of Central- and East-Asian Buddhism. In its second chapter (Upāya "Skillful Means") there are many examples that "getting in touch" with Buddhism even in a casual manner (like children building Buddhist stupas with sand while playing, etc.) could plant the seed for future salvation.

The mendicancy of a Komusō is, after all, know as gyōke 行化, what literally means "going and transforming". The idea is that the Komusō goes to the people and by bringing them in touch with the Buddhist dharma through the sound of his Shakuhachi transforms them into future Buddhas.