The three wise monkeys are a familiar sight to many people. They sit in a row, one with his ears covered, one with his mouth covered and the third with his eyes covered. The saying, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is one that has been translated into many different languages and used around the world. But where did the monkeys come from and why is there sometimes a fourth monkey included with the others?
The source for the popular depiction of this saying is the Nikko Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan. The carving was completed in the 17th century by sculptor Hidari Jongoro. The panel that the monkeys are on is actually part of a much larger eight panel series. The depictions illustrate the life cycle of man and incorporate many ideals from the Code of Conduct developed by Confucius. Confucius was a famous Chinese social philosopher who lived from 551 to 479 BCE.
Although the three monkey carving is the most widely known illustration of the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” saying, there are other areas where it was found as well. Another source for the saying is from the Analects of Confucius, a written record of the sayings and actions of Confucius. It was written during the time period between 475 BCE and 221 BCE by Confucius’s pupils in the time following his death. In this case, the saying was somewhat longer and translated into “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”. It is understandable why the much shorter version is so popular today.
Monkeys appear frequently in the Shinto faith and so it is no wonder that monkeys would appear in carvings on an important Shinto temple. The monkey acts as a messenger of Hie Shinto shrines and during the year of the monkey the faith will celebrate with special festivals that only take place during this time.
Each of the monkeys has a name. The monkey who has his eyes covered is known as Mizaru. The monkey covering his ears is named Kikazaru and the monkey with the covered mouth is Iwazaru. Many people know Kikazaru as Mikarazu and Iwazaru as Mazaru althouth the reason for this name change is not known.
In some cases, a fourth monkey may also be seen alongside the Three Wise Monkeys. This monkey’s name is Shizaru and is often shown sitting with his arms crossed. He illustrates the ideal of “do no evil”. In many cases, modern culture believes that the group of monkeys shows people who ignore evil or wrongdoing by turning away or ignoring what is going on around them. Other people use the series of monkeys as a reminder that they should avoid being gossipy or snooping into the business of those around them. Many cultures use this philosophy as a way of avoiding exposure to evil so that they do not do wrong in turn.