You probably have already seen three wise monkeys in miniature or in picture where one covers his ears, the other covers his mouth and the last one covers his eyes. But do you know what it means? In western countries, it’s our habit to see them as decorative objects without speaking of their true signification. Of course, they are far from only decorative objects.
Origin of the 3 wise monkeys
It’s hard to date the first appearance of the three wise monkeys. They have been brought into
Buddhism by a monk in the 7th century. According to the legend, this monk, while he was travelling, was escorted by a monkey. His name was Xuanzang, one of the most important translators of Buddhist texts in China. He left China for India when he realized that it was time to seek more Buddhist texts to bring to China.
Nevertheless, he’s not the one who invented the three wise monkeys, but the one who made them known. The first traces lead us to the «Analects of Confucius» (between the 4th and 11st century BC). Several legends assume that those three monkeys came from Japanese Koshin’s belief. They are based on the idea that, in every human being, there are three wicked worms, the Sanshi, which, every sixty days leave our body to report on our sins to a superior entity, Ten-Tei. Still, it’s tough to make the difference between legend and reality.
Moreover, one of the oldest known representations of those three monkeys is on the front of the Tshogu temple in Nikko, Japan. Would they come from Japan then? It’s possible.
The three mystical monkeys (as they are sometimes called) are named the sanzaru. Their names are Mizaru, Iwazaru and Kikazaru.
In Japanese language, «san» means three and «saru» means monkey. Time passing, «saru» becomes «zaru» giving birth to sanzaru. Yet, «zaru» is also a negative form, that we could translate to «not to». So the common admitted meaning «not see, not hear and not speak» could come from a Japanese play on words. Besides, in Japanese culture, monkey is supposed to ward off evils.
Meaning of these three wise monkeys
Those three wise monkeys are supposed to represent a way not to feel evil. The common sense is : not to see anything, not to hear anything and not to say anything. But can it really be that simple? To me, such a philosophy can hardly be reduced to this only sentence.
Through those monkeys, let’s have another approach : not to see the evil, not to hear the evil and not to say evil things. That can be explained by the idea that, each time we see something bad, a part of it enters into our body. Similarly, hearing the evil or speaking of it makes a part of us turning into evil. Those three little monkeys would be a call to refuse the evil in our life.
This point of view stays questionable; should we close our eyes on the evil ? Should we shut up when someone says «bad» things ? Looking into the past, such thoughts have led to horrible acts…It’s certain that ignoring the evil won’t make it disappear. Would it be the original meaning of those three monkeys ? Probably not, but we are getting close.
Interpretation of these three mystical “not to”
More and more people give a new explanation, each a little bit more subtle. Instead of not to see anything or not to see the evil, the message could be the following one :
I see everything but I look to nothing, I hear everything but I listen to nothing, I think of nothing to become everything.
In other words, I would be conscious of everything happening around me but I would choose not to let it reach me. According to me, we can see an idea more simple : to think before speaking. We have to learn how to think by ourselves, not to listen to anyone and not to always trust our pretending-full-view-eyes. But everyone should have his/her own interpretation of the three wise monkeys. Then, what is yours ?
To sum up, those monkeys have a really particular meaning. May we learn to see them more as a life philosophy than as decorative objects. Let’s finish with a little story which tells that the only materialist exception Gandhi made all his life was to always keep on him a tiny sculpture of those three monkeys.