What Do the Three Monkeys Symbolize? A Deep Dive into the Iconic “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” Motif

The three monkeys are known to be one of the most iconic symbols of Japanese culture. You may have seen their adorable cartoon depictions in popular media. But few people know what these three monkeys actually represent. The three monkeys go by an ancient Japanese proverb that teaches a powerful lesson. They are named Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, which, when translated, mean “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

The concept of the three monkeys is widely recognized and respected, even outside Japan, with many different interpretations. Generally, the first monkey symbolizes ignorance, the second monkey represents denial, and the third monkey stands for evasion. It is believed that the three monkeys represent the ideal way of living peacefully in society. They teach us about the importance of self-restraint, impartiality, and discipline. But what’s interesting is that the underlying message of the three monkeys spreads far beyond the concept of control and moderation.

This article aims to take a deeper look into the symbolism of the three monkeys, their cultural significance, their history, and how they can help shape the way we approach our daily lives. We’ll be examining how these cute critters have transcended time and place and how they continue to inspire people from all walks of life. Through this article, we hope that readers can learn how to take a step back and embrace the teachings of these three wise simians.

Origin of the Three Monkeys

The Three Monkeys, also known as the Three Wise Monkeys or the Three Mystic Apes, is a popular pictorial maxim that involves three monkeys represented in a pose of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. These monkeys are often displayed together in various forms such as sculptures, paintings, tattoos, and household items like soap holders, wind chimes, etc.

The origin of the Three Monkeys dates back to the 17th century in Japan during the Edo Period. The saying “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” (see not, hear not, speak not) was popularized by the Tendai-Buddhist temple of Shuzenji during the 10th century in Japan. The maxim itself was based on a Confucian teaching and eventually made its way into Japanese folklore.

The Three Monkeys symbolize the three codes of conduct: “not seeing”, “not hearing”, and “not speaking” in certain situations. They represent the ideal way to handle evil or negative situations without getting into trouble by ignoring them. The Three Monkeys also embody the principle of ‘Sanmi-ittai’ which translates to ‘three together is one’ or ‘three are united as one’.

Monkey Names: Meaning:
Mizaru See no evil
Kikazaru Hear no evil
Iwazaru Speak no evil

The Three Wise Monkeys

The Three Wise Monkeys, also known as the Three Mystic Apes, are a popular symbol of the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” that originated in Japan. The three monkeys, named Mizaru (who covers his eyes), Kikazaru (who covers his ears), and Iwazaru (who covers his mouth), represent a wise code of conduct that has been embraced by many cultures in different forms.

  • Mizaru (見ざる) – “See no evil”
  • Kikazaru (聞かざる) – “Hear no evil”
  • Iwazaru (言わざる) – “Speak no evil”

These monkeys have been interpreted in various ways, but the most common interpretation is that they represent the moral principle of not dwelling on evil thoughts, not listening to evil words, and not speaking evil words. This principle is a reminder to live a virtuous life, and to refrain from harmful thoughts and actions that can lead to suffering.

The Three Wise Monkeys have become an iconic symbol of Japanese culture, and have been used in various ways in art, literature, and pop culture around the world. They have also become a popular tattoo design, with many people getting inked with the image of the three monkeys as a reminder to live a positive and virtuous life.

The Origin of the Three Wise Monkeys

The origin of the Three Wise Monkeys is unclear, but there are various theories about their origins. One theory is that they were inspired by Chinese Taoist philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of leading a simple and virtuous life. Another theory is that the monkeys were influenced by the “Three Mystic Apes” of Buddhism, which represent the principle of ignorance and the obstacles to enlightenment.

Regardless of their origins, the Three Wise Monkeys have become a universally recognized symbol of wisdom and morality. Their message is timeless and applicable to people from all walks of life, and serves as a reminder to lead a virtuous life filled with positivity and kindness.

The Three Wise Monkeys and Pop Culture

The Three Wise Monkeys have been featured in various forms of pop culture, including movies, TV shows, and music. One of the most famous examples is the iconic scene from the 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing,” where the character Radio Raheem wears a necklace with the image of the three monkeys.

Another famous example is the rock band Van Halen, who used the three monkeys in their music video for the song “Right Now.” The video features the band members wearing T-shirts with the three monkeys on them, and the lyrics of the song are a call to action to make positive changes in the world.

Movie/TV Show/Music Description
“Do the Right Thing” Radio Raheem’s necklace
Van Halen’s “Right Now” music video Band members wearing T-shirts with the three monkeys on them
“The Simpsons” Episode “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”

The Three Wise Monkeys continue to be a popular symbol of wisdom and morality, and their message has spread to people all over the world. Whether it’s in art, literature, or pop culture, the three monkeys serve as a reminder to live a positive and virtuous life, and to refrain from harmful thoughts and actions.

The Three Monkeys in Japanese Culture

The Three Wise Monkeys or Sankyōdai (三猿) in Japanese is a popular symbol that has its roots in ancient Buddhist teachings. The three monkeys are seen covering their eyes, ears, and mouth, respectively, with their hands. The phrase associated with these monkeys is “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

The Number Three

In Japanese culture, the number three holds significant meaning. It is believed to be a sacred number that represents balance and harmony. The Buddhist concept of the “Three Treasures” or “Three Jewels” refers to the Buddha, Dharma (the teachings), and Sangha (the community of practitioners). Similarly, the Shinto religion has the concept of “Mitsugumi” which consists of three elements.

  • The number three represents a complete cycle – start, middle, and end.
  • There are three primary colors – red, blue, and yellow – that can create any color.
  • The three dimensions – length, width, and height – form the basis of our physical world.

Therefore, the symbolism of the Three Monkeys is closely tied to the significance of the number three in Japanese culture.

Origins and Meanings of the Three Monkeys

The origin of the Three Wise Monkeys is unclear, though some historians believe the concept originated in China. The monkeys’ symbolism was later adopted by the Japanese during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Each of the Three Monkeys represents a different proverbial phrase:

Monkey Japanese Pronunciation Proverbial Phrase Meaning
Monkey with hands over eyes Mizaru Kikazaru wo katazukeru “Do not see evil.”
Monkey with hands over ears Kikazaru Iwazaru ni wa kuchi ga nai “Do not hear evil.”
Monkey with hands over mouth Mikazaru Nikui koto wa nasakenai “Do not speak evil.”

The message behind the Three Wise Monkeys is straightforward- avoid evil in all its forms. The monkeys encourage people to keep away from bad influences and discourages people from taking on a negative mindset. It is also a gentle reminder to not engage in gossip or speak ill of others.

The Three Monkeys have become such an iconic symbol in Japanese culture that they are often featured in art, clothing, and souvenirs. Their message of positivity and staying away from negativity has also resonated with people all around the world.

The Three Monkeys in Chinese Culture

One of the most beloved cultural images in China is that of the three wise monkeys. The three monkeys represent the fundamental principle of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This concept is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and has been celebrated in art and literature for centuries.

There are various interpretations of what the three monkeys symbolize in Chinese culture. Here are some possible explanations:

  • The Confucian interpretation: Confucianism is one of the dominant philosophical systems in China. Confucius believed that the responsibility of a person is to conduct oneself morally and ethically at all times. The three monkeys, in this sense, could represent this ideal by encouraging people to avoid evil thoughts, words, and deeds. Confucius believed that by doing so, a person could live a life of integrity and honor.
  • The Buddhist interpretation: Buddhism is another influential philosophy in China. In Buddhism, the three monkeys signify the concept of the “three poisons” – ignorance, greed, and hatred. By avoiding these three negative states of mind, a person can reach enlightenment and inner peace. The three monkeys, in this context, can serve as reminders of this important teaching.
  • The Taoist interpretation: Taoism emphasizes the importance of harmony and balance. The three monkeys, in this sense, could symbolize the need to maintain balance in one’s life by avoiding extremes. The monkey covering its eyes may represent the need to avoid sensory overload, the monkey covering its ears may represent the importance of guarding against excessive noise, and the monkey covering its mouth may represent the need to avoid excessive speech or chatter.

Aside from these interpretations, the three monkeys also have specific meanings in Chinese folklore and mythology. For example, in one legend, the monkeys were said to be the gatekeepers of a heavenly peach tree that only bloomed once every thousand years. Whoever ate one of the peaches would gain immortality. The monkeys were tasked to prevent anyone from stealing the peaches or entering the heavenly realm.

In another story, the monkey was revered as a trickster god who possessed magical powers and outsmarted the other gods. This god was a common figure in Chinese storytelling and is still remembered today in popular culture.

The Significance of Numbers in Chinese Culture

In addition to the symbolism of the three monkeys, the number three is significant in Chinese culture. In Chinese tradition, the number three is considered lucky because it represents harmony, creativity, and the balance of yin and yang. The concept of three forms the basis of many Chinese beliefs, such as the three religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism), the three stages of life (birth, marriage, and death), and the three elements (heaven, earth, and water).

Furthermore, the number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to the word for “death” in Mandarin. As a result, the number four is often avoided in daily life; for example, many buildings in China do not have a fourth floor, just as many buildings in the West do not have a 13th floor.

Number Symbolism
1 Unity, simplicity
2 Opposites, balance, harmony
3 Creativity, balance of yin and yang
4 Unlucky, associated with death
5 Balance, marriage of yin and yang
6 Harmony, flow, balance of yin and yang
8 Prosperity, good fortune
9 Longevity, eternity

Overall, the three monkeys have become an iconic image in Chinese culture, representing important philosophical concepts and serving as a reminder of the importance of moral and ethical conduct. By understanding the symbolism of numbers in Chinese culture, we can better appreciate the significance of these cherished cultural symbols.

The Three Monkeys in Hinduism

Hinduism is a major religion in India and has influenced the lives of many for thousands of years. It is known for having a wide range of deities, traditions, and rituals, with each symbolizing something different. One popular symbol in Hinduism is the three monkeys, which are seen covering their eyes, ears, and mouths. Here is what they represent:

  • Mizaru – This monkey represents the proverb “See no evil”. The monkey with his hands over his eyes symbolizes that people should not look for trouble or evil in others.
  • Kikazaru – This monkey represents the proverb “Hear no evil”. The monkey covering his ears symbolizes that people should not listen to malicious gossip or rumors.
  • Iwazaru – This monkey represents the proverb “Speak no evil”. The monkey with his hands over his mouth symbolizes that people should avoid saying anything malicious or causing hurt to others.

The three monkeys together convey the message of living a righteous life and avoiding negative energies. In Hinduism, they are often seen as the embodiment of Lord Vishnu’s holy maxim- “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” meaning “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty”. These three virtues are considered vital to leading a virtuous and fulfilling life.

The three monkeys have often been depicted in Hindu art and sculptures, and their usage dates back to ancient times. The famous Khajuraho sculptures, found in Madhya Pradesh, India, depict the monkeys in various postures and hold great significance in Hindu mythology. The earliest known use of the three monkeys dates back to the Tendai Buddhist School in Japan.

Monkey Meaning
Mizaru See no evil
Kikazaru Hear no evil
Iwazaru Speak no evil

The three monkeys remind us to be wise in what we see, hear, and say, and to always strive to maintain a life of truth, goodness, and beauty. They stand as a testament to the ancient Indian philosophy that emphasizes right action, morality, and ethics in every human endeavor.

The Three Monkeys in Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion that has a lot to do with observing one’s own self and attaining enlightenment. It is no wonder, then, that the three monkeys – Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru – are also present in Buddhist teachings. The three monkeys have long been seen as a symbol of Buddhism, and they represent a variety of different principles and values that can be found in the religion. Let’s dive into the meaning behind the three monkeys in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, the three monkeys are seen as a symbol of the Threefold Training – Sila, Samadhi, and Prajna. Each monkey represents one of these three principles, which are essential for the attainment of enlightenment.

  • Mizaru: Mizaru, the monkey covering his eyes, represents Sila, which refers to ethical conduct. In Buddhism, ethical conduct is considered an essential component of spiritual practice, and it involves refraining from harmful actions, words, and thoughts. Mizaru reminds us to be mindful of our actions and to act with integrity.
  • Kikazaru: Kikazaru, the monkey covering his ears, represents Samadhi, which refers to concentration or meditation. Samadhi is essential for quieting the mind and achieving a state of inner peace. Kikazaru reminds us to focus on our meditation practice and to cultivate a peaceful state of mind.
  • Iwazaru: Iwazaru, the monkey covering his mouth, represents Prajna, which refers to wisdom or insight. Prajna is the ability to see things as they truly are, beyond our own perceptions and biases. Iwazaru reminds us to cultivate wisdom and to be mindful of our thoughts and speech.

Together, the three monkeys represent a holistic approach to spiritual growth and development. They remind us to cultivate ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom in order to achieve enlightenment.

In addition to the Threefold Training, the three monkeys are also associated with the concept of the Three Poisons – ignorance, attachment, and aversion. These three poisons are seen as the root causes of suffering, and they are also obstacles to spiritual growth.

Monkey Poison
Mizaru Ignorance
Kikazaru Attachment
Iwazaru Aversion

By embodying the Threefold Training and working to overcome the Three Poisons, Buddhists can achieve a state of enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The three monkeys serve as a helpful reminder of these principles and the importance of mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom in our spiritual practice.

The Three Monkeys in Christianity

Christianity has long been influenced by the symbolism of the three monkeys. The association between them and the Christian faith can be traced back to the depths of biblical history and the interpretations of the New Testament teachings. Each of the three monkeys is believed to represent an essential characteristic for salvation, and they are often associated with the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity.

  • The See No Evil Monkey symbolizes the concept of faith. In Christianity, faith is the belief in the existence of God and His will. It is an essential aspect of salvation as it allows us to overcome obstacles and remain loyal to God even in the face of adversity. By covering its eyes, this monkey represents the need to trust implicitly in God, even when we cannot see the path ahead.
  • The Hear No Evil Monkey represents hope and obedience. It signifies our ability to listen and obey the teachings of God as communicated through the Holy Scriptures. In the face of trials and tribulations, it can be tempting to doubt God’s promises or try to take matters into our own hands. However, the hope we have in Christ and the obedience to His commands allow us to remain steadfast and confident in our journey toward salvation.
  • The Speak No Evil Monkey is associated with love and goodness. Christians are called to love God first and foremost and their neighbors as themselves. The Speak No Evil Monkey symbolizes our responsibility to speak words of truth, kindness, and encouragement, rather than those of hate, deceit, or malice. By refraining from speaking evil, the monkey represents the importance of actively pursuing goodness and being a gentle and loving presence to those around us.

Together, these three monkeys represent the purity of heart and mind that is required to attain salvation in the Christian faith. Their significance is further highlighted by their association with the Seven Deadly Sins, which serve as stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth and development.

Below is a table showing the correlation between the Three Monkeys and the Seven Deadly Sins:

Monkeys Deadly Sins
See No Evil Pride
Hear No Evil Sloth
Speak No Evil Wrath

In Christianity, understanding the symbolism of the Three Monkeys can serve as a reminder of our commitment to living a life of faith, hope, and love. Each monkey serves as a guide to avoid the pitfalls of the Seven Deadly Sins and strive toward spiritual growth and development.

Symbolism of the Three Monkeys in Western Culture

Throughout Western culture, the three monkeys – See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil – have become a well-known symbol. They are often used as a representation of the proverb “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” which encourages people to not participate in or spread gossip, lies, and negative behaviors. However, the symbolism of the three monkeys goes beyond just this simple proverb.

  • The Number 8: One of the lesser-known aspects of the three monkeys is their connection to the number 8. Each monkey represents a different numeral in the number 8. The monkey covering his eyes represents the number 1 (the first digit in 18), the monkey covering his ears represents the number 2 (the second digit in 18), and the monkey covering his mouth represents the number 5 (the sum of the other two digits). In some cultures, the number 8 is considered lucky or auspicious, which adds another layer of meaning to the three monkeys symbol.
  • See No Evil: The monkey covering his eyes can also represent willful ignorance or turning a blind eye to negativity. It can be interpreted as a message to not be afraid to face the truth, even if it is uncomfortable or painful.
  • Hear No Evil: This monkey is often associated with avoiding negativity and staying away from toxic people and situations. It can also represent the importance of listening and being open to different perspectives and opinions.
  • Speak No Evil: The monkey covering his mouth is often interpreted as a reminder to be mindful of what we say and to not spread negativity or hurtful words. It can also represent the power of silence and the importance of listening.

Overall, the three monkeys symbolize various values and morals that are important in Western culture. They encourage individuals to strive for positivity, truth, open-mindedness, and kindness. And while the symbolism of the three monkeys is mainly associated with Eastern cultures, it has become a universal symbol that is recognized and admired by people all over the world.

Next, we will delve into the history and origins of the three monkeys symbol.

The History and Origins of the Three Monkeys Symbol




The Different Interpretations of the Three Monkeys Symbol





The Three Monkeys Symbol in Modern Culture




Controversy Surrounding the Three Monkeys

The three monkeys are a popular symbol used in various cultures around the world, representing a message of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” However, there is much controversy surrounding the true meaning and origin of this symbol. Let’s take a closer look at some of the debates and theories behind the three monkeys:

  • Origins: Some believe that the three monkeys originated in China, while others claim Japan as the birthplace. There are also those who argue that the symbol is based on the ancient Indian principles of the three yogas of right action, knowledge, and devotion.
  • Religious Significance: Many argue that the three monkeys have ties to Buddhism, as they are often depicted as guardians of the Buddha’s teachings. However, others dispute this claim and view the symbol as less spiritual and more of a moral message.
  • Meaning: While the traditional interpretation of the three monkeys is to avoid evil, there are some who argue that this message is outdated and ineffective. Some believe that the monkeys represent the suppression of truth and turning a blind eye to injustice and corruption.

Despite the controversy surrounding the three monkeys, there is no denying their popularity and widespread use in various contexts. Whether you see them as a spiritual symbol or a moral code, their message is one that still resonates with many people today.

Modern Interpretations of the Three Monkeys

The three wise monkeys, also known as the three mystic apes, have been a staple in symbols and figures for centuries. They embody the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and represent the principle of not dwelling on evil thoughts and refraining from speaking them out loud. Over time, the three monkeys have been interpreted in various ways, representing different ideals and beliefs.

Number 10: Power, Money, and Politics

One modern interpretation of the three monkeys is related to power, money, and politics. The three monkeys are often depicted wearing suits, ties, or other formal attire, symbolizing businessmen or politicians. The message conveyed is that these individuals may choose to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” when it comes to matters that could undermine their power, wealth, or position in society.

  • The “see no evil” monkey represents the willful blindness that politicians display when it comes to issues they do not want to address. For example, some may choose to ignore the negative impact of their economic policies on certain groups of people, or turn a blind eye to environmental issues that could affect their interests.
  • The “hear no evil” monkey stands for the selective deafness that officials and businessmen have when it comes to criticism and feedback. It suggests that they only listen to those who agree with them or have something to offer, and ignore dissenting voices.
  • The “speak no evil” monkey represents the censorship and control of information that those in power often exercise. Governments may suppress dissenting opinions, impose restrictions on the media, or manipulate facts and data to fit their agenda.

The message behind this modern interpretation of the three monkeys is that power, money, and politics can breed corruption, greed, and unethical behavior. It highlights the need for transparency, accountability, and integrity in leadership and decision-making.

Monkey Symbolism Example
See No Evil Willful blindness A politician ignoring the impact of their policies on marginalized communities
Hear No Evil Selective deafness An executive ignoring feedback from their team members or customers
Speak No Evil Censorship and control A government suppressing dissenting opinions or manipulating facts to suit their agenda

The three monkeys symbolize different interpretations based on the context, culture, and beliefs of the individuals viewing them. However, they continue to serve as a universal reminder of the importance of moral values and ethical behavior in our personal and professional lives.

FAQs: What do the three monkeys symbolize?

1. What are the three monkeys’ names?

There are different interpretations of the names of the three monkeys. In Japan, they are known as Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, which mean “see no evil,” “hear no evil,” and “speak no evil,” respectively. However, in some cultures, they are also known as “thought,” “word,” and “deed.”

2. What is the origin of the three monkeys’ symbol?

The three monkeys’ symbol originated in Japan in the 17th century as part of a carving done on a temple. It was intended to promote the Buddhist principle of refraining from evil deeds, speech, and thoughts.

3. Why do the monkeys cover their eyes, ears, and mouth?

The monkeys cover their eyes, ears, and mouth as a metaphor for the human condition. It represents the idea of not seeing, hearing, or speaking evil, which is an essential tenet of Buddhism and other religions.

4. What is the meaning behind the three monkeys’ symbol?

The three monkeys’ symbol represents the idea of living a virtuous life and refraining from evil actions, thoughts, and speech. It also illustrates the importance of mindfulness and self-discipline.

5. How is the three monkeys’ symbol used today?

The three monkeys’ symbol is used in various contexts today, including art, advertising, and popular culture. It’s often used to promote the idea of avoiding negativity and being mindful of one’s actions and words.

6. What are some variations of the three monkeys’ symbol?

Some variations of the three monkeys’ symbol include adding a fourth monkey representing “do no evil,” or changing the order in which the monkeys cover their eyes, ears, and mouth.

7. What can we learn from the three monkeys’ symbol?

The three monkeys’ symbol reminds us of the importance of living a virtuous life and being mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions. It teaches us to steer clear of evil and negative influences and to strive for a better, more positive, and more compassionate world.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for reading this article about what the three monkeys symbolize. We hope you gained some valuable insights into this iconic symbol’s meaning and significance. Remember to be mindful of your actions, words, and thoughts, and strive to be a better, more virtuous person. Please visit us again for more interesting articles and insights.