Three monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth with their hands are the most known symbols of Koshin faith, a Japanese folk religion with Chinese Taoism origins and ancient Shinto influence. It is not known why the three monkeys became part of the Koshin belief, but is assumed that the monkeys caused the Sanshi and Ten-Tai not to see, say or hear the bad deeds of a person.
Now you are wondering what is the Sanshi or the Ten-Tai. First of all it’s not what you think it is. The Sanshi are three worms living in everyone’s body. Like I said, it’s not what you thought (or hoped) it was. They keep track of not only the good deeds, but also of the bad deeds of the person they inhabit.
Every 60 days on the night called the Koshin-Machi, if the person sleeps, the Sanshi will leave the body and go to Ten-Tai, the Heavenly God, to report about the deeds of the person. Ten-Tai will then decide to punish the people by making them ill, shortening their time alive or in extreme cases putting an end to their lives. This is of course the same night that redbull sales go through the roof.
Personally, I prefer the Santa Clause story.
What is not commonly known is that there is in fact a fourth monkey, Shizaru. He symbolizes the principle of “do no evil”, usually shown with his hands covering his abdomen or crotch, or covering his arms. Why he is left
out is not known, maybe because Three Wise Monkeys roll better of the tongue than Four Wise Monkeys…
There are still today disagreements on what exactly the meaning is of the three monkeys. In Japan the proverb is simply regarded as the Golden Rule, to be followed withouth exception. Some simply take the proverb as a reminder not to be snoopy, nosy and gossipy.
Earlier associations of the three monkeys with the fearsome three-armed deity Vajrakilaya link the proverb to the teaching of Buddishm that if we do not hear, see or talk evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil. Others believe that a person not exposed to evil (through sight or sound) will not reflect that evil in their own speech and actions.
These three monkeys as well as the associated meanings are known throughout the Western world as well as Asia. They have been a common motif in art, film, advertising, marketing, etc. Even Mahatma Ghandi one notable exception in his lifestyle on non-possession was a small statue of the three monkeys. Today a larger representation of the three monkeys are prominently displayed at the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, where Ghandi lived from 1915-1930 and from where he departed on his infamous Salt March
Today though, it is commonly used to refer to someone who doesn’t want to be involved is a situation, or someone willfully turning a blind eye to an immoral act. There is an Italian version as well used in the Omerta, the code of silence. Their saying is “non vedo, non sento, non parlo” – I see nothing, I hear nothing, I say nothing.