The Three Wise Monkeys are pictorial representations of the well-known saying: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” The first monkey covers his eyes, the second his ears, and the third his mouth.
There are several interpretations of the Three Wise Monkeys worldwide. For example, in Buddhist philosophy, the proverb preaches morality, urging people not to dwell on evil thoughts.
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In Western culture, these Three Wise Monkeys came to mean a lack of moral responsibility in people who pretend not to see the evil happening around them. But today, most people associate the three monkey emojis with playfulness — “I can’t believe what I am seeing!” or “I can’t even look!”
Origin of the Three Wise Monkeys
The “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” Three Wise Monkeys were popularized by 17th-century carvings by Hidari Jingoro at the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. These monkey sculptures were carved during the Muromachi period of Japan. From here, they became a popular motif used worldwide.
However, the “See no evil” saying or philosophy predates the pictorial representations in Japan. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact origin, most people believe it’s a Buddhist expression that found its way to Japan through China.
The earliest well-known version of this expression comes from the Chinese thinker Confucius or one of his disciples. “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.” (The Analects, Book XII).
This old expression is said to have become personified by monkeys thanks to a phonetic play of words. Mizaru, Kikazaru, Iwazaru (見ざる, 聞かざ る, 言わざる) is the Japanese shortened version, translated as “see not, hear not, speak not.” (Miza, Kika, and Iwa are abbreviations for seeing, hearing, and speaking). “Zaru,” which is a negative command meaning “no,” is phonetically similar to “saru,” which means monkey. Hence, over time, people incorporated the depiction of Three Wise Monkeys into their teachings.
The monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, seeing no evil; Kikazaru covering his ears, and hearing no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, speaking no evil.
Importance of monkeys in the Shinto religion
The Tōshō-gū shrine at Nikkō is a sacred Shinto shrine, and monkeys play an essential role in this religion. They believe the monkey is a messenger of the Hie Shinto Shrine, who brings luck and fortune.
Additionally, the Three Wise Monkeys are sometimes called the Three Mystic Apes. They are described as “the attendants of Saruta Hito no Mikoto or Kōshin, the God of the Roads.” During the year of the monkey (every 12 years), Shinto followers hold important festivals to celebrate it.
There was also a unique festival celebrated every 16th year of the Koshin on the 60th day of the calendar. According to ancient beliefs, during the Koshin festival, one’s evil deeds might be reported in heaven unless one takes necessary actions.
Meaning of the saying
As mentioned, the Western world believes the proverb means that you shouldn’t stay silent when you see or hear evil deeds. So don’t pretend you didn’t see anything and look the other way; take some action.
However, in ancient China and Japan, the maxim likely taught the prudence of avoiding evil. It means you are more likely to become corrupted if you pay attention or open yourself to evil. Evil spreads through mimicry, and by opening your senses to evil, you may be soiled by it, even when your intentions are good.
So only open your senses to that which is good and just.
The fourth monkey
Some variations today have a fourth monkey, Shizaru, that symbolizes the maxim “Do no evil.” The depiction of Shizaru varies; sometimes, the monkey is shown covering its genitals, and other times, it crosses its arms. Yet another variation shows the monkey holding its nose, symbolizing “Smell no evil.”
Choosing the righteous path
Whichever interpretation you choose (Western or Asian), the Three Wise Monkeys philosophy can be a helpful principle as you navigate through life. Humans are naturally curious, but sometimes it’s prudent to close our senses to evil to avoid being consumed. But if you witness evil, don’t stay silent; do something.