Four Wise Monkeys

The necklace was a cute one, still in its original box from the 1960s. There were several of them available and we bought the lot. Like many necklaces of the time, it was figural with an unusual articulation—it depicted the three wise monkeys of folklore—all in one monkey. The pewter monkey’s head could be turned and locked into place to depict either “hear no evil,” “see no evil,” or “speak no evil,” depending on your mood. It was a comical necklace and I was sure it would be a hit. In researching the monkeys to list the necklaces in our shop, Sienna’s Sandbox on Ruby Lane, I found that in our American culture these three monkeys have come to represent something quite different than was originally intended.

Sgt. Schultz, in the old Hogan’s Heroes TV show, often proclaimed loudly “I see nothing!” as he turned a blind eye to the prisoner’s shenanigans. That is how we often represent these three monkeys—as a way of denying responsibility for the wrong doing that is obviously happening around us, in other words plausible deniability. The “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” can sort of be summed up in the saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” And often the three monkeys are used to teach children not to tattle or to enforce a code of silence in a club or even a gang. But that is not the original intention. In fact, not only is their meaning quite different, there are actually four monkeys!

There are many discussions and disagreements on the origins of the philosophy and teaching which dates back to as early as the 6th century, but the idea of the monkeys associated with this saying is rooted in a 17th century carved panel at the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. Though the teaching, an ancient one that had migrated from China, had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys became a simple play on words when used in Japan. The saying in Japanese is " mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru.” Translated it is “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak.” When spoken, the ends of these sayings sounds exactly like “saru” the Japanese word for monkey—thus the sayings became the names of three monkeys when taught in Japanese. It was an easy comparison to make since in the Shinto religion monkeys play an important role and the shrine at Nikkō is a Shinto shrine. In Japan, the teaching is considered to be the Golden Rule.

So it is clear that the teaching wasn’t meant to mean feigning ignorance of a moral failure, rather quite the opposite which becomes abundantly clear when the original fourth monkey is added. You see the original philosophy is one that we all should strive to live by regardless of our culture or religion:

Don’t look on things that are immoral; don’t listen to things that are immoral; don’t speak things that are immoral; don’t do things that are immoral. That’s right, the fourth and final and often forgotten monkey is an important one: Do no evil. Interestingly, while Mahatma Gandhi disavowed possessions, his one exception was a small statue of the three wise monkeys. I think these wise monkeys just may be part of my own New Year’s resolution!

Nichole Brown

Sienna’s Sandbox


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