The 3 Wise Monkeys|The Meaning of the Secret

You have probably seen them: The 3 Wise Monkeys representing the proverb:

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

But if the symbolism seems clear enough, what is the connection between the three monkeys and evil?

The three wise monkeys and their paradoxical symbolism

While this is a relatively modern adage in the West, in the East, where it originated, this proverb and its physical representation date back to antiquity. Here is an overview of why the three wise monkeys have been associated with this proverb and what it means.

What do the three wise monkeys symbolize?

A cultural symbol originating in Japan, the three wise monkeys – one covering its eyes, another its ears and the third its mouth – are known as Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru. They symbolize the proverbial adage:

“See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.”

Surprisingly, their Japanese names are also a pun.

In Japanese, the proverb translates to

“mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru”, which means “not to see, not to hear, not to speak”.

The suffix -zu or -zaru is usually used to negate a verb or express its opposite meaning. However, the suffix -zaru can also be the modified word for saru, which means monkey in Japanese, which explains why the proverb is illustrated with pictures of monkeys.

The three wise monkeys represent the moral message not to look, listen or say anything wrong, as well as to be morally upright in the face of evil. However, the proverb is sometimes used sarcastically to refer to those who turn a blind eye to something morally or legally wrong. As if, by pretending not to see the wrongdoing, they wouldn’t be held accountable.

Eastern and Western vision of the three wise monkeys

It is interesting to note that the eastern and western perspectives of the symbolism of the three monkeys are completely opposite.

In the East, the image reminds us that we must follow a straight moral path by avoiding evil in all its forms. The three monkeys are a positive symbol that reminds us to be pure and virtuous by avoiding negative and destructive behavior. Even Mahatma Gandhi, known for having very few possessions, owned a small figurine of the three wise monkeys. He appreciated the lesson that this symbol represents, namely to avoid evil by all means if one wants to remain pure and virtuous.

However, in the West, this symbol is used in a completely different way. Here, the image of the three wise monkeys represents turning a blind eye to something morally or legally wrong. For example, you may notice that something bad is going on, but you decide to completely ignore it in order to avoid accountability and responsibility.

It is not a virtuous way to live and, as a wise man once said,

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

So, in the Western context, the three wise monkeys represent the actions we take that allow evil to exist.

This symbolism of the three wise monkeys also aligns with other ancient proverbs, such as this Turkish proverb:

“To live in peace, one must be blind, deaf and dumb”

or this Latin phrase:

“Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace”, which translates to “Listen, see, but shut up if you want to live in peace”.

It’s the perfect example of how a symbol can mean completely different things depending on the context. The three wise monkeys can be positive or negative depending on whether one places oneself in an eastern or western perspective.

From India to Japan, from Europe to America

The proverb of the three wise monkeys predates its physical representation. It originated in ancient China, then found its animal representation in Japan, before becoming popular in the West.

During the Warring States period of China, between 475 and 221 BCE, the Analects of Confucius contained the following proverb:

“Do not look at what is contrary to propriety; do not listen to what is contrary to propriety; do not speak what is contrary to propriety; do not make movements contrary to propriety”.

However, the motif of the three monkeys was probably brought to China from India via the Silk Road (an ancient trade route linking East and West) and eventually to Japan in the 8th century. During the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were depicted in Buddhist sculptures in Japan.

At Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, in Japan, an eight-panel sculpture depicts the code of conduct developed by Confucius. One of the panels depicts the three wise monkeys, symbolizing the principle of see no, hear no, and speak no evil.

This is during the Meiji period, from 1867 to 1912that the sculpture became known in the West, which inspired the saying “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil”.

In the 1900s, small statues of the three wise monkeys became popular in Britain as good luck charms, especially with First World War soldiers. Some folklore experts associate the symbolism of the three wise monkeys with proverbs from different cultures. It has also been compared to the Yorkshire motto, “Hear all, see all, say now”, known since the late Middle Ages.

The three wise monkeys in modern culture

In modern times, the three wise monkeys still embody the proverb they originally represented, but different meanings are attributed to them.

The three wise monkeys in social networks

The three wise monkeys are sometimes used as emojis, but they are often used playfully, sometimes even unrelated to their original meaning. In fact, they are often used to express feelings of joy, surprise, embarrassment, etc.

The “monkey who sees no evil” emoji is commonly used to say, “I can’t believe what I see.” In contrast, the “hear-no-evil monkey” emoji suggests that people are hearing things they don’t want to hear. The say-no-evil monkey emoji can also be used to express the reaction of someone who said the wrong thing in the wrong situation.

Their meanings in popular culture

Images of the three wise monkeys are sometimes printed on t-shirts, woven into sweaters, or depicted as wooden, plastic, or ceramic figurines. They also appear on press advertisements and postcards to convey a more meaningful message.

In a 2015 horror short, Three Wise Monkeys, the story character is given a sculpture of the three monkeys as a sign. Three monkeys are depicted in the trial scene from the film Planet of the Apes (1968).

In England, they were the subject of a children’s fable in the Hiccup Theater, where actors in monkey costumes played the part. The fable told the story of the kidnapping of a baby monkey and the efforts of the three monkeys to save it.

Three Wise Monkeys FAQ

1. What do the three monkeys mean?

They represent the concept of seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.

2. Who are the three wise monkeys?

In the Japanese proverb, monkeys are Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru.

3. What is the message conveyed by the three wise monkeys?

The message is that we must protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, by not letting evil words enter our hearing, and finally by not speaking evil words and thinking evil thoughts. In the West, however, the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” means to ignore or overlook something bad.

Overview of the 3 Monkeys

Throughout history, animals have been used as a symbol for proverbs, and monkeys are proverbially considered a type of intelligent creature.

The three wise monkeys recall the Buddhist teaching that if we do not see, hear or speak evil, we will be spared from evil. Their moral message remains relevant and their representation is one of the most popular motifs in the world.

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