The monkey may symbolize the human mind; clever and intelligent but also prone to mischief…
“The three wise monkeys” is one of eight wood carved panels depicting monkeys on the Toshogu shrine in Nikko, a town some 140 km north of Tokyo in Japan. The iconic monkeys are popularly known to represent the idea that one should “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”. The original philosophy behind these principles could date as far back as to Confucius’ time and his code of conduct. The Toshogu shrine, however, is a Shinto shrine with Buddhist elements, built in the 17th century.
Buddhism from China and native Japanese Shintoism had long since been vital forces in the forming of the Japanese culture. Utilizing the monkey as a symbol, especially in Buddhist imagery, was quite common up until that time. A monkey may protect against evil spirits, or it may symbolize the human mind; clever and intelligent but also prone to mischief and restlessness.
The Toshogu Shrine was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1999 together with the Futarasan-jinja, both Shinto shrines, and the Buddhist temple Rinnô-ji. These sacred sites are considered outstanding examples of a traditional Japanese religious complex. They reflect the close relationship of man with nature, a perception that lies at the heart of Shintoism in particular and of Japanese culture in general.
All photos including header photo courtesy of Simon Tsuruta Pedersen.
This article was first published 30 April 2015.