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Three Wise Monkeys


Three Wise Monkeys

The three wise monkeys (Japanese: , san’en or sanzaru, or , sanbiki no saru, literally “three monkeys”) are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks 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 pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The maxim, however, probably originally came to Japan with a TendaiBuddhist legend, from China in the 8th century (Nara Period).

In Chinese, a similar phrase exists 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” (非禮勿視, 非禮勿聽,非禮勿言, 非禮勿動).[1] It may be that this phrase was shortened and simplified after it was brought into Japan.

Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a word play. The saying in Japanese is “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” (, , , or with the suffix in kanji, , , ), literally “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak”. Shizaru is likewise written , “don’t do”. In Japanese, zaru, which is an archaic negative verb conjugation, is the same as zaru, the vocalized suffix for saru meaning monkey (it is one reading of , the kanji for monkey). Therefore, it is evident how the monkeys may have originated from what one would see as an amusing play on words.

In English, the monkeys’ names are often given as Mizaru, Mikazaru, and Mazaru. [2] [3] It is not clear how the last two names changed from the Japanese originals.

Three monkeys covering eyes, mouth and ears with their hands are the most likely known symbols of Kōshin faith, an obsolete Japanese folk religion with Chinese Taoism origins and ancient Shinto influence.

It is not very clear why the three monkeys became part of Kōshin belief, but is assumed that the monkeys caused the Sanshi and Ten-Tei not to see, say or hear the bad deeds of a person. The Sanshi (三尸) are three worms living in everyone’s body. The Sanshi keep track of the good deeds and particularly the bad deeds of the person they inhabit. Every 60 days, on the night called Kōshin-Machi (庚申待), if the person sleeps, the Sanshis will leave the body and go to Ten-Tei (天帝), the Heavenly God, to report about the deeds of that person. Ten-Tei will then decide to punish bad people making them ill, shortening their time alive and in extreme cases putting an end to their lives. Those believers of Kōshin who have reason to fear will try to stay awake during Kōshin nights. This is the only way to prevent the Sanshi to leave their body and report to Ten-Tei.

Just as there is disagreement about the origin of the phrase, there are differing 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 proverbSpeak 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.

The Three Wise Monkeys, and the associated proverb, are known throughout Asia and in the Western world. They have been a motif in pictures, such as the ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock printings) by Keisai Eisen.

Mahatma Gandhi‘s one notable exception to his lifestyle of non-possession was a small statue of the three monkeys. Today, a larger representation of the three monkeys is prominently displayed at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where Gandhi lived from 1915-1930 and from where he departed on his famous salt march.


  1. Three Wise Monkeys http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_wise_monkeys
  2. ^ Original text: 論語 (Chinese), Analects (English)
  3. ^ Worth, Fred L. (1974). The Trivia Encyclopedia. Brooke House. p. 262. ISBN 0912588128.
  4. ^ Shipley, Joseph Twadell (2001). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots . Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 249. ISBN 0801867843. http://www.google.com.au/books?id=m1UKpE4YEkEC&pg=PA249&ots=L6b6SXWuAe&dq=Mikazaru+mazaru&ei=8fe_Ru2ACJKmpQKat_SvDA&sig=secKJtH70tOAeQcNTNS6LzEMiGA.

11 thoughts on “Three Wise Monkeys

  1. http://www.three-monkeys.info

    Everything you may want to know about the three monkeys that hear, see and speak no evil: origin, meaning, collectors, collections, conferences, apparaisals and much more. The website is in three languages, English, German and Dutch. With free online Newsletter.

  2. Is this photograph free?

  3. i lov gandhi ji’s monkey’s

  4. Pingback: Los Monos Sabios en China

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