The three wise monkeys (Japanese: 三猿, san’en or sanzaru, or 三匹の猿, sanbiki no saru, literally “three monkeys”) are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.
The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The carvings at Toshogu Shrine were carved by Hidari Jingoro, and believed to have incorporated Confucius’ Code of Conduct, using the monkey as a way to depict man’s life cycle. The philosophy, however, probably originally came to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, from China in the 8th century (Nara Period). It has been suggested that the figures represent the three dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect. In Chinese, a similar phrase exists in the Analects of Confucius from 2nd to 4th century B.C.: “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” (非禮勿視, 非禮勿聽, 非禮勿言, 非禮勿動). It may be that this phrase was shortened and simplified after it was brought into Japan. The Kōshin belief or practice in which this symbol is rooted is a Japanese folk religion with Chinese Taoism origins and ancient Shinto influence. It was founded by Tendai Buddhist monks in the late 10th century. Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a simple play on words. The saying in Japanese is “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” (見ざる, 聞かざる, 言わざる, literally “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak”). However, -zaru is the old japanese grammatical form of negation (“not doing something”) and is pronounced the same as zaru, the vocalized form of saru (猿), “monkey”, so the saying can also be interpreted as the names of three monkeys. It is also possible that the three monkeys came from a more central root than a simple play on words. The shrine at Nikko is a Shinto shrine, and the monkey is an extremely important being in the Shinto religion. The monkey is believed to be the messenger of the Hie Shinto shrines, which also have connections with Tendai Buddhism. Furthermore, it also reminds of “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta“, good thoughts, good words, good deeds” in Zoroastrianism and of the three Sanskrit words referring to mind, speech and actions Manasa, Vacha, Karmana.
In Germany (and probably all over the western world) this symbol is very often misunderstood. It is commonly used to describe someone who doesn’t want to be involved in a situation, or someone willfully turning a blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved. It stands for a lack of moral courage. But from my point of view, this is totally wrong. The maxim wants to address our attitude towards the world and how we perceive it. When looking at something, we should try to focus on the good aspects of it, not on the negative things. We shouldn’t interpret statements negatively when listening to other people talking, and when we talk we should avoid making negative statements. This is described in detail in the principles of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Right speech & right action. Additionally it is in accordance to early associations of the three monkeys with the fearsome six-armed deity Vajrakilaya that link the proverb to the teaching of Buddhism that if we do not hear, see or talk evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil (as in the Three Vajra from Tibetan Buddhism). This may be considered similar to the English proverb “Speak of the Devil – and the devil appears.”. One reason is that a person who is not exposed to evil (through sight or sound) will not reflect that evil in their own speech and actions. It can also be seen as a way to avoid spreading evil. Do not listen to evil things so they do not influence you. Do not read things that are evil or look upon evil things so they do not influence you, and lastly do not repeat verbally evil things so they cannot be spread about. Another interpretation is a warning or suggestion to not “see”, “hear” or “speak” evil in places where there in fact may not be any evil present. The point is that evil may not exist in the world except for how we may choose to perceive it or act it in the world through our own “speech” and “actions”.
Let me tell you some examples where I remember this symbol in daily life. I had a colleague who was always complaining and making very negative statements. Sometimes she caused trouble and stress, much more than necessary, by spreading “negative energy”. I am sure it would help her and also the working atmosphere at the office, if she would remember this maxim before starting to “speak evil”. Another example is from my drum teacher when I had drum lessons at the age of 14. He told me that on the coming weekend there is a workshop with a drummer at a music store, I should go there and listen. I told him, I know that drummer, and he is not very good, so I doubt that I can learn anything from him. He was quite upset about my statement and explained that I should listen to every drummer, even though they are not playing well. When I listen carefully they will at least once play something that I never heard before, that inspires me or that gives me a new idea for my own drum technique. I think this is valid for many situations in which we should listen with positive expectations instead of pre-judging someone and waiting for the confirmation of our “hearing evil”. The third example is something I practiced for a long time: when I woke up in the morning, looked out of the window and saw rain, I had bad mood. That was a very bad start into the day. But with this maxim it does not matter what I see outside after waking up, because I see the good in every weather. Rain is good for all life forms, because it gives them water which they need to grow. Sun gives energy in the form of light. Wind helps the flowers to spread their seeds and grow more flowers. Snow turns the landscape into a beautiful white. All kinds of weather have positive aspects, and when focusing on those, every day starts with good mood!
It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult to apply to all situations in daily life. Very often I find myself acting with negative attitudes, and realising that makes me feel uncomfortable. I know I have so much more to practice and train, but maybe someday I can integrate it fully into my daily life.