“Audi, Vidi, Tace" and the three monkeys by Archer Taylor.
(De Proverbio.com, Volume 2, Number 1, 1966, Excerpts from pages 101 to 103)
Archer Taylor was born on August 1, 1890, in Philadelphia and died on September 30, 1973. He dedicated his entire life to folkloric, literary and bibliographical scholarship. He is mostly known for his numerous and comprehensive publications of proverb studies, among which: 'Audi, Vide, Tace', and the Three Monkeys" (1957)
We turn now to the group of the three monkeys and must go to Japan for examples. They are perhaps best known to Europeans from a carving on a small building at Nikkõ shrine. The site and the shrine, which was built in 1635-1636, belonged to the Tokugawa family from 1603 to 1867. There are, as Professor Donald Shively tells me, earlier examples of the group in a Buddhist temple at Kyoto and in the Three Monkeys Hall at Awataguchi, which is also a Buddhist temple. In Japan, the notion of the three monkeys is characteristically associated with Buddhism and more especially with the Tendai (T'ient'ai) sect. They may, it has been suggested, represent the Three Dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect. Saichõ (Dengyõ Daishi, A. D. 727-822), the founder of the sect, is said to have carved them, but the ascription is far from certain. Others say that the three monkeys are to be traced back to Ryõgen (Jie-Daishi or Gansan-Daishi, A. D. 912-985), a reformer of the sect and the author of oracular and divinatory writings. Ryogen spells out the proverb in the so-called "Seven Monkey Poem," in which seven monkeys appear and play with puns and proverbs. Unfortunately, however, the ascription to Ryõgen is also insecure. It does not appear to be easily possible to clarify the obscurities in the date and authorship of these two references to the monkeys.
While we cannot get back to the beginnings of the notion of the three monkeys by studying these ascriptions, we are led to believe that it has a Japanese origin by certain grammatical peculiarities of the language. In the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" (Not-see, nothear, not-speak), the word "-zaru" (not) may also be understood to be "-saru" (monkey), as the latter word would appear according to rule in compounds. Since this pun is possible only in Japanese, the figures of the monkeys seem to be a Japanese invention. It is perhaps possible to see a second pun in "mi-zaru," which can be incorrectly read as "three monkeys," but native speakers are wholly unwilling to interpret "mi-zaru" in this way. The difficulty arises from the fact that the word "mi," which is also the numeral "three", cannot be used in counting monkeys. As I understand the grammatical situation, the suggested unacceptable pun would be something like saying "a herd of fish." That is to say, the word "herd" can be used in counting certain animals, but not fish. Whether "mi" can have suggested "three" to a Japanese ear is therefore a matter to be left to those familiar with Japanese grammar and the colloquial language.
Although I have said that the notion of the three monkeys is characteristically associated with Tendai Buddhism, it is also associated with Shintõ. The shrine at Nikkõ is a Shintõ shrine. A monkey is believed to be the messenger of the Hié Shintõ shrines, which also have connections with Tendai Buddhism. The importance of the monkey in Japanese religion extends very far. An important festival is celebrated in the twelfth year of Monkey (one of the animals in the cycle of the twelve animals), and a special festival involving a monkey is celebrated in the sixtieth year of Kõshin. The monkey has an especially important rôle in the Kõshin rite of folk religion. Stone monuments of this rite are found in considerable numbers in eastern Japan around Tokyo. Many of them bear carvings of the three monkeys, either in a group of three or together with Shõmen Kongõ, a deity worshipped in the Kõshin festival. This festival has a Taoist origin and is known to have existed in Japan as early as the Heian period (A. D. 794-1192). Toward the end of the sixteenth century the Kõshin rite is believed to have absorbed Buddhist materials, and about this time the erection of stone monuments began. The oldest stone Kõshin monuments with representations of the three monkeys are dated 1528 and 1548. While it is, therefore, possible to see the large share that Tendai Buddhism and Shintõ (the monkey is important in the rituals at the Fuji Sengen and Itsukushima Shintõ shrines) as well the Kõshin rite have in popularizing the notion of the three monkeys and while Taoism, still another Japanese religion, may also have had a share in it, we cannot clearly define the parts of each.
And the difficulties do not end with those which have already been stated. Professor Y. R. Chao points out to me the theme in the Analects (Lin-yü) of Confucius, ch. 12: "The Master said: The improper--don't look! The improper--don't listen! The improper--don't speak! The improper--don't move!" This translation I owe to the kindness of Professor E. H. Schafer. There are here two injunctions to avoid paying attention to impropriety and two to avoid committing it. This pairing of the injunctions seems, however, to have had no significance for the development of the group of the three monkeys. The loss of the fourth Chinese injunction-- "The improper--don't move" might perhaps be interpreted as a Japanese preference for the number three. In the same way the popular European versions of Proverbs 30:15 "There are three things...and a fourth I know not" show a reduction from four to three. It may be significant that the Chinese, Japanese, and European injunctions have the same order--seeing, hearing, speaking--but this may be explained as the logical sequence of perceiving and reacting to a stimulus. At least one Japanese translation of the Analects uses the imperative nakare and thus adheres closely to the Chinese construction. It should be noted that the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" is an indicative and not an imperative sequence of verbs. It is conceivable that some Japanese version of the Analects or some one speaking colloquially may have used the impersonal third person indicative construction to reproduce the Confucian passage. We must, therefore, leave unanswered the question whether the Japanese words used to describe the three monkeys have a Chinese origin. Should we wish to see their origin in the Confucian Analects, we might say that the association of an abstract saying with animals having a significant relation to it seems also to have developed independently in the Near East or Europe.