kimurho (kimuro) wrote in sluagh_aotrom,

Ape Lore

3 Wise Monkeys

A common motif in the United States is the "Three Wise (or foolish) Monkeys" - see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. (There's a fourth one that is occasionally depicted with its hands crossed in its lap "have no fun" - but that's just plain silliness.) Yesterday, I learned from whence this image came; from Japanese art. The three monkeys are named, Mizaru has his hands over his eyes. Kikazaru covers his ears. Iwazaru is the one with his hand over his mouth. (ref - Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures)

In Western culture, the three monkeys are depicted as fools - the Three Stooges often mimed them. Westerners believe - strongly - that what you don't know can hurt you (especially if it is dangerous or bad). Buddhists, on the other hand, strive to keep their minds pure, free from gossip, slander, seduction and desire (okay, so maybe that Western 4th monkey isn't so far from the initial ideal).

Interesting .... Looking to Wikipedia (, I find that there is a canonical 4th monkey, with his arms crossed to illustrate the principal of "do no evil" (named Shizaru).

The wise monkeys are a pun on the maxim "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". The saying in Japanese is "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru" (the three names given to the apes) - literally "don't see, don't hear, don't speak". -zaru is an archaic negative verb conjunction that is pronounced the same as saru, which means monkey.

One possible explanation for the number of monkeys in the famous art (three instead of four) might have to do Japanese folklore. The God of the Roads (Saruta Hito no Mikoto aka Koshin) had for attendants "the Three Mystic Apes" (Sambiki Saru). It was believed that during the Koshin festival, celebrated once every 16 years, all of ones bad deeds might be reported to heaven - unless one did something to avoid that happening.

Wikipedia reports that Mahatma Gandhi felt the lesson of the Three Wise Monkeys important enough that he kept a small statue of the three as a reminder - all the more striking because he eschewed possessions as a matter of belief.

Personally, I never really thought much about the history of the Three Wise Monkeys. Now .... As a product of Western Culture, I understand the dangers of willfully ignoring evil and danger, of not warning others of those dangers, of not taking action against them. But as a Christian, it seems that the maxim has a lot going for it. I suppose that it's like so much in life - you need balance. The three wise monkeys in ordinary, everyday are an encouragement against indulging in petty gossip and backstabbing. But in the face of true evil - they are a symbol of foolish self-ignorance. It's one thing to willfully destroy the reputation of a giddy, fun-loving young person, but quite another to ignore the creepy menace of a sociopath operating next-door.
Tags: apes, beasts
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