Tuesday, June 7, 2011
The Three Wise Monkeys
One of the unique benefits of studying at a budo institute is the access it allows to people who have dedicated their lives not only to the study of martial arts, but to the study of the history and development of the martial arts. The information is not always readily available; however, if you have a dictionary and the interest, there are many professors who will take the time to speak on various aspects of budo. I will try, whenever possible, to include information on the history of the martial arts or how changes in Japan have affected modern budo.
Sanbiki-no-saru (三匹の猿) or the Three Wise Monkeys, as they are referred to in English, comprise a famous symbol known throughout the world. Though the exact origins are unknown, the three monkeys are most often associated with a carving over the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Japan, dating back to the early seventeenth century. The monkeys are known as mizaru (見ざる), kikazaru (聞かざる) and iwazaru (言わざる) or see not, hear not and say not. Some hypothesize that monkeys were chosen to represent these three ideals due to the fact that the Japanese word for monkey, saru (猿), is pronounced similar to the antique suffix expressing negation—zaru. A play on words results in which “see monkey”—mizaru (見ざる)—is read as “not looking”.
Statues and images of the three monkeys reached the western world by way of Dutch traders throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this time, Japan was closed to all but a few Dutch traders who themselves were limited to one island off the coast of modern-day Nagasaki. The meaning of the statues was taken to be “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” and is a maxim for the healthy way to live. This information is all available on Wikipedia or any number of other websites; in fact, large groups of people collect images and statues of the Three Wise Monkeys and have discussion boards online.
After a trip I recently took to Nikko, I was discussing the statue of the three monkeys with a professor. The famous carving over the Tosho-gu shrine is attributed to a legendary sculptor known as Hidari Jingoro (左 甚五郎). Hidari, in Japanese, means “left” and the story goes that Jingoro was cut in his right hand and, therefore, learned to paint and create encredible sculptures with his left. In actuality, Hidari Jingoro was not a single person but rather a title handed down from person to person in the Hidetakayama region. Hidetakayama was long known in Japan for its artisans—sculptors amongst them—and Hidari Jingoro was said to come from this region. Whether or not the story of a man overcoming a physical disability to create beautiful art is true is unknown. It makes for a nice story, however, and is therefore repeated frequently. It is also said that Hidari Jingoro once carved the likeness of a woman so realistically that she began to move.
Further speculation on the history of Hidetakayama and the significance of the three monkeys is difficult to find. It is believed that after the Genpei war, in which two clans—the Minamoto and Taira—fought for power, people associated with the Minamoto clan fled Kyoto. These people established themselves in the mountain towns of Hidetakayama where they remained for centuries. They then had a long reputation of defiance against the ruling Samurai class.
Hidari Jingoro, if he indeed came from a background of anti-samurai sentiment, was probably making a statement with his carving of the three monkeys. Though it is known that “look-not, hear-not, and speak-not” were rules to live a healthy life, it is not so immediately understood that these were meant in irony. In order to be a healthy Samurai, one must learn to ignore the things that happen around him. The tokugawa clan, to whom the shrine in Nikko is dedicated, had a history of atrocious crimes against commoners. Some samurai were known to kill pregnant women, taking bets on the sex of the child within the mother’s womb.
Commoners, as well as samurai, were forced to ignore many injustices that happened around them. To openly look, listen, or repeat could result in a quick death. The philosophies surrounding Budo were developed as a result: to help curtail the violence of inactive Samurai in times of piece.
I hope this has been interesting. It is important to understand the history of martial arts as well as the practice. The Three Wise Monkeys provide a quick, though poignant, glimpse into the history of the Samurai.