The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled between 475 and 221BC. In it, a follower named Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”.
“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked Yen Yüan. The Master replied, “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”.
The idea was not new. Zarathrusta, also known as Zoroaster, is in some respects the father of the world’s first monotheistic religion. It was sometime around 1200BC when Zoroaster taught his followers on the high Iranian Plateau “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta”, or “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.
The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.
In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.
The visual play on words, then, depicts Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. Though it’s rare to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey. Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, the name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.
The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from the Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”. He is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Gandhi lived a life of poverty and simplicity, owning almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles, and a carved set of 3 monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.