Sunday, January 25, 2009

Autumn Asks: Where Did See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil Come From?

While having coffee with friends one night, the subject of the three monkeys came up in some context. It's been long enough that I don't even remember what the conversation was about...just that we started wondering where the phrase came from and how it was connected with monkeys.

Obviously once I start thinking about something like that I can't let it go. Why should I? After all, in our day all we have to do is go home and type in what you want to know on your trusty computer...and there you go! There's no reason to wonder...just find out!

So here is what I was able to find:

The three wise monkeys are a pictorial maxim (a saying that is notable in some way). Together they embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". To the Japaneses, the three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, seeing no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, hearing no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, speaking no evil.

Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil". He may be covering his abdomen or crotch, or just crossing his arms.

The source that popularized this is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan. However, it probably originally came to Japan from China in the 8th century.

In Chinese there is a similar phrase in the Analects of Confucius: "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".

Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a word play. In Japanese, zaru, which is an archaic negative verb conjugation, is the same as zaru, the vocalized suffix for saru meaning monkey - so this might be how the monkeys may have originated from what one would see as an amusing play on words.

There are different explanations of the meaning of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
  • In Japan the proverb is simply regarded as a Japanese Golden Rule.
  • Some simply take the proverb as a reminder not to be snoopy, nosy and gossipy.
  • Early associations of the three monkeys with the fearsome six-armed deity Vajrakilaya 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. This may be considered similar to the English proverb "Speak of the Devil– and the devil appears."
  • Others believe the message 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.
  • Today "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" 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.
Mahatma Gandhi's one notable exception to his lifestyle of non-possession was a small statue of the three monkeys. (All this info I found on Wikipedia)

Now, don't you feel smarter?


  1. I love the way the "do no evil" is often left out. Maybe because that's the hardest one?

  2. Very well researched.
    For those who want to know even more about hear-see-speak-no-evil (monkeys), check this website:

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