Tengu are supernatural creatures living in the mountains. They are thought to have supernatural powers as well as a deep understanding of Buddhism. A Great Tengu who transformed itself into a kite flew on a persimmon tree, where he was caught by a gang of Kyoto youngsters. As the youngsters were torturing the bird, a Monk from Mt. Hiei happened to be walking nearby. Though he reprimanded the boys, reminding them of the Buddhist precept against taking life, they would not let go of the kite. Finally, the Monk trades some of his belongings for the bird’s life. This is the backstory.
In the play, the Great Tengu transforms into a Yamabushi (mountain priest) and visits the Monk. Saying that he has come to thank him for having saved his life, he tells the Monk that he will grant him any wish. The Monk wishes to see Gautama Buddha preach at Vulture Peak, and the Yamabushi replies that it can be easily done. There is only one condition: the Monk shall never believe that what he will see is real. Saying this, the Yamabushi disappears.
A Lesser Tengu appears and narrates the backstory of how the Great Tengu was saved by the Monk. Then, heavenly music is heard, and the Great Tengu, appears in the form of Gautama Buddha, holding a scroll with sacred scriptures. Although the Monk promised not to believe in what is just an illusion, he falls into the deception created by the Tengu, and joins his hands in prayers, shedding tears. Suddenly, a thunderous sound is heard and Taishakuten, one of the guardian gods of Buddhism, appears. Taishakuten chastises the Great Tengu for having tricked the Monk. The Tengu escapes back to his cave.
The title of the play, “Dai-e” (The Great Assembly) refers to Gautama Buddha preaching at Vulture Peak. This scene is represented by the stage property representing the kind of chair on which Buddhist priests deliver their sermons. Recent performance variants have Lesser Tengu also appear to the sides of Gautama in the form of Bodhisattva. In the second half of the play, Gautama appears accompanied by a solemnly slow chant. However, the atmosphere changes abruptly when Taishakuten appears, chasing the Tengu. The main actor quickly changes costume and reappears in the form of Tengu. To perform this role, the actor must wear two layers of costumes, as well as two masks, one on top of the other. This greatly restricts movement as well as the sight of the actor, making this role a particularly challenging one.
The interlude in which the Lesser Tengu narrates the background story is also particularly important, as there is no mention of why the Tengu would like to return the favor to the Monk in the first half of the play. Depending on the school and on the performance variant the details of how the Tengu was captured and mistreated by the Kyoto youngsters may change.