Dee Chadwick
18 Jul 2021
Hear no evil, speak no evil – aka the Three Wise Monkeys, though in the picture, three wise Buddhas. Which of those monkeys would you equate with? How are you affected by the things that you see, hear and say?


The saying is thought to have originated in Japan although something of a similar ilk was to be found in China in the second to the fourth century BC, this being – ‘Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.’ A fourth aspect here being included by Confucius. Said fourth monkey sometimes being shown as having either crossed arms, covering his genitals or in some cases holding his nose – maybe as in ‘smell no evil’. I have to say that with a lack of adequate drainage, I should imagine that there were a lot of evil smells to be avoided without looking beyond the literal meaning. Hindu records show a variation of this fourth monkey – with the suggestion being that your pleasures, your enjoyment are hidden and not shown to others – maybe in this case, the monkey was covering its genitals rather than simply crossing its arms! Or am I putting two and two together here and getting well above four?

Wikipedia points out that there can be different spins put on the meaning. Buddhists are said to focus on not lingering on negative or evil thoughts brought about by what is seen, heard or said. Others use the proverb to show the low moral standards of those who ‘refuse to acknowledge impropriety, looking the other way or feigning ignorance’. Apparently, it can also be used within organised crime as a code of silence. I guess a case of what happens in the monkey underworld stays in the monkey underworld. ‘The opposite version of the three wise monkeys can also be found. In this case, one monkey holds its hands to its eyes to focus vision, the second monkey cups its hands around its ears to improve hearing, and the third monkey holds its hands to its mouth like a bullhorn. Another modern interpretation is "Hear, see, and speak out loud for what you stand for". Now why do these versions really resonate with me – says she who has always endeavoured to support those who are struggling, listening to problems and not closing my eyes to hurt, risking speaking out when surrounded by others intent on singing from a different hymn sheet,


We are all affected to a greater or lesser degree by what happens around us, and the things that surround us. Just take a moment to actually look around you and see what is there – the things you ignore or take for granted; the things large and small; even the tiny things such as for me, at this moment, a small clump of cat fur shed by my furry companion that I hadn’t actually noticed until I did a ‘proper’ seeing look. I am also more aware of the colours that surround me and I can see the different textures, as well as feel them. Now tune in to what your ears are picking up and actually hear things as you listen – maybe a background hum of traffic, birdsong, the gentle patter of rain on the window, the sound of your own breathing. Until I focused on this, all I was actually registering was the tap of my fingers on the keys, the occasional jingle of the furry one’s bell and the louder traffic sounds caused as a tractor, lorry or motor bike passed by that seem to demand that they are heard.  Add in those textures that we can feel including how our clothes feel against our skin, the scents that surround us, the lingering taste of the coffee we drank some time ago and it becomes an impossibly large amount of detail to take on board and still continue with and really focus on any task in hand.

As we are constantly bombarded with such information, fortunately, our internal filter systems allow us to block out much of this without even being aware of this happening. For those whose filters do not function adequately, their world can become an overwhelming place – a bombardment of a multi-sensory ‘Where’s Wally’ with them struggling to identify and isolate the information that is currently in need of being attended to.

An article in Psychology Today describes this filtering This Is How the Brain Filters Out Unimportant Details | Psychology Today, so I won’t go into detail in this piece, rather suggest that you click through and check out the biological, neurological and physiological happenings of filtering.  The article’s mention of going to the cinema where we can, in theory, focus on the film reminded me of a time that my filters let me down big time. I had gone to a matinee film performance with a couple of friends and the cinema was virtually empty. Just before the lights dimmed, a young couple came and sat next to me. Why me? I asked when the young man began munching through a huge bucket of popcorn and slurping through an enormous coke. I was delighted when he finished, but he then took over the bucket that his companion had barely touched and stoically worked his way through that too. My glares had no affect – as he seemed to be engrossed in the film. Sadly something that I had not been able to achieve over the all too dominating sounds from my right!


As this varies from person to person, teachers are taught to employ a multi-sensory approach to enable optimum uptake of information, to encourage learning in their classes. Some of us prefer to listen to instructions, some to see them by reading; some will learn best by telling, explaining to someone; others prefer to include touch by writing or handling objects; and others learn best if body movements are a part of their learning. Some of us benefit most from a combination of more than one of these. I know that I learn best by including ‘doing’ in with many things rather than relying on reading or listening. I may read about something to do with crafting but don’t fully grasp the concept until I’ve ‘had a go’ at it, often with built-in unpickings and re-startings thrown in for good measure. All part of the learning – the learning how NOT to do it. If a child has an impairment, say with vision or hearing they are encouraged to hone in to their other senses in support of their experiences, their learning.

I wonder, do you feel that the things you see, hear or the words that you speak stay with you longest, giving you cause to reflect and maybe regret? It could be said that it is easier to cut out seeing something or hearing something rather than saying something? Yes, you can certainly hide behind a cushion if you don’t want to see something, maybe in a horror film, or for me in a football the dreaded penalty shoot out! I am not sure why I feel that peeping from behind said cushion is better than actually watching head on, but it must do, or I wouldn’t still be doing it; then again, why don’t I simply close my eyes? I wonder, no I am sure, that there is a subconscious link back to hiding behind my Mum’s skirts as a small, uncertain child and feeling reassured by this?

As for cutting out hearing, it’s back to footie again – if they say for those who are going to watch later – you might want to ‘not listen’ to the scores... it’s hands over ears backed up by loud humming. I have to say that it’s also eyes closed, as a belt and braces measure, in case they also put the score up on the screen! 

When push comes to shove, it is how the things that we see, hear or say actually make us FEEL that is the main influence on their ability to remain with us.... some seventy years on in the case of my Mum’s skirts and that feeling of being safe and protected. As for those things that we say – I imagine that, like me, you would have liked to have wound back time in order to unsay something hurtful that you have said. Yes, it hurts the person at whom you threw out those words, but it also hurts you as the thrower. You recall those words for which you are responsible, knowing the effect that they had. I have to say that there are far too many times when I would like to wind back that clock to enable me to throw in a clever, witty, thoughtful comment that popped into my brain too late to be included in real time.


I think I would like to keep the more recent ‘translation’ of the three monkeys as the one that means the most to me – a call to "Hear, see, and speak out loud for what you stand for". Don’t let yourself be unseen, unheard,forbidden to have your say. For far too many people this is not even a remote possibility whilst for others, they don’t seem to think that there may be times when silence is golden. Having said that, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a replica of the three wise monkeys to former U.S. President Trump. I wonder what the two leaders’ interpretations of this were and if they were the same.

On a lighter note – I end with a quote from an unknown source – 'The best things in life are unseen. So we close our eyes when we kiss, sleep and dream..... 

Food for thought about what are the best things in your life, are they unseen and how blessed you are to have them? ...... and why do we close our eyes when we kiss? Answers in a pm please!!


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