I recently acquired a tiny (4 cm tall) copper “Three Wise Monkeys” statue. Finding a ceramic version confirmed my suspicions that the three monkeys statue was a futaoki (lid rest in Japanese) used to support the kettle lid when hot water is poured into tea bowls. But associations with manmade objects can be complex and change over time. I wanted to learn more.
An article about the symbolism of the three monkeys noted, “During the Warring States period of China, around 475 to 221 BCE, the Analects of Confucius included the proverb of looking not at what’s contrary to being right; listening not to what’s contrary to being right; making no movement which is contrary to being right.”
I was glad to learn from this article that the monkeys were present in Japan at the time tea ceremony was gaining popularity; “By the time of the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were portrayed in Buddhist sculptures. At the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan, an eight panel sculpture represents the Code of Conduct developed by Confucius. One of the panels is the Three Wise Monkeys, symbolizing the principle of not seeing, not hearing and not saying anything evil…The message is that we should protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, not allowing evil words to enter our hearing, and finally to not speak and engage in evil words and thoughts.”
The meaning ascribed to the three monkeys changed as they spread to new lands; later in Europe, the monkeys provided a reminder of the need to be blind, deaf and dumb in order to live in peace. Now with technology making it possible for fake news to travel faster than real news and the increasingly subtle ways evil doers are finding to manipulate our harmful human mind tendencies, the monkeys’ warning is taking on new poignancy.
They are also used as emojis – the hear no evil monkey to suggest hearing something one did not wish to “hear,” and speak no evil, when a comment seemed inappropriate for the topic under discussion.
I wonder what new associations these three enigmatic little monkeys will acquire in the future? I will smile as I place the little monkeys next to the hot water kettle before guests arrive to share tea in my hut.