A carving of the Three Monkeys on the sacred stable in the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan.

Eyes grasp no form, free away from prejudices.
Ears make no distinction, spared futile chasing.
Mouth keeps silent, no contending pro and con.
Three monkeys set model of profound wisdom.

The three wise monkeys are folk characters that probably appeared first in China, but are well known throughout Asia.

One monkey covers his eyes, so he can not see evil. The second monkey covers his ears, so he can not hear evil. The other monkey covers his mouth, so he can not speak evil.

The Japanese names of the monkeys are: Mizaru (see no evil), Kikazaru (hear no evil), and Iwazaru (speak no evil).

"See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” is a common phrase, usually used to describe someone who doesn’t want to be involved in a situation. But where did the saying originate?

Unfortunately, no one knows for sure how it evolved. Because the saying is typically associated with three monkeys; one covering his eyes, one covering his ears, and the other covering his mouth; it is believed that the saying may have its origin in a 17th century temple in Japan.

The Nikko Toshogo Shrine, also known as the Sacred Stable, in Japan has a carving of three wise monkeys. Many scholars believe the monkeys were carved as a visual representation of the religious principle, “If we do not hear, see, or speak evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil.”

Others believe that the saying originated from a Japanese play on words. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” translated into Japanese is, “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru.” The Japanese word for monkey is “saru”, and sounds very similar to the verb-ending “zaru”. It is easy to see how the saying may have originated from a fun play on words. The only problem with this explanation is that the three wise monkeys aren’t originally from Japan.

In the eighth century A.D. a Buddhist monk from China introduced the three wise monkeys to Japan. They were associated with a fearsome blue-faced deity called Vadjra. It is believed that the monkeys’ gestures were a representation of a command of the deity to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

Just as there is disagreement about the origin of the phrase, there are differing explanations of the meaning of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Some contend that it is a proverb reminding us not to be so snoopy, so nosy, and so gossipy. Others say that it is a warning to stay away from places where immoral acts are taking place. Whatever the origin and meaning of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” it is one of the most visual phrases in existence. It’s impossible to hear it spoken without thinking of three wise, but very cute, little monkeys.

The trio of monkeys is depicted with one having its hands over its ears, another having its hands over its mouth, and the third having its hands over its eyes. Known as the Three Monkeys, they are a tradition in Japanese culture.

Beginning in the late Muromchi period (1333-1568), it became customary to carve these figures on koshinto, stone pillars used during the observance of Koshin. According to the Kiyu Shoran, an early 19th century reference work, the Three Monkeys may also be related to the Sanno belief complex, wherein monkeys play the role of divine messangers. The Three Monkeys represent the Santai (Three Truths) advocated the Tendai Sect of Buddhims. The Tendai founder, Saicho is said to have carved a representation of this ideal in the form of monkeys.

Carvings of monkeys were believed to prevent diseases in horses.