Ignoring evil

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Wed Apr 12 08:22:32 UTC 2000

Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
> --------------------------------------------------------
>    These three monkeys are on a Nikko temple that dates back a few hundred years.  Anyone have a good explanation of this?
> --------------------------------------------------------

I don't know you mean by "explanation", Barry, but I can add some data.

The story of the three monkeys came out of Japanese folklore.  I believe
it has been traced back to the Nara Epoch, 710-784 AD. Nara was the
first permanent capital of Japan; the city was modeled on the T'ang
Dynasty capital of China.  When the seat of government was moved to
nearby Kyoto, Nara remained a major religious and cultural center for
the next several centuries.

During the Nara Epoch, cultural borrowing from China reached its major
peak.  Buddhism had crossed over to Japan somewhat earlier, but it
jumped into prominence at Nara.  Chinese artists, architects, and
Buddhist monks who were brought to Nara became the focus of cultural
developments.  When some of them returned to their mainland homes, they
brought things they had learned in Japan back to China and Korea. That
may have been the mechanism for the spread of the "no evil" monkeys
through much of the Buddhist world.

One of the major monuments of the Nara epoch was the colossal bronze
statue of Buddha, housed at Todaiji Temple in a huge wooden building.
Today, it probably is the largest wooden building in the world.  (The
present building is the result of rebuilding a few centuries ago; the
original was three times its size.)  If my memory serves, there was a
carved wooden representation of the three monkeys just outside the
building housing the colossal Buddha. (I was stationed in Nara for most
of 1953, courtesy of the U.S. Army; that was so long ago that my memory
may be misleading me.)

I believe that the three monkeys at Nikko probably reflect much earlier
wood carvings that reach back to Nara.  Residents of Nara told me that
their three monkeys were the originals that served as models for later
representations at other sites in both Japan and mainland Asia.  My
guides said the monkeys were not quite as old as the building or the
great statue, but that the monkeys had been at Todaiji Temple for a very
long time.

Sometime in the last couple of decades, the Todaiji Temple was
reworked.  (That's no surprise.  Although the building was built to
last, the fired clay roof tiles are comparatively flimsy: they have to
be replaced every four or five hundred years.) The smaller works of art
at Todaiji, once standing out in the open, were moved to protected
exhibits inside one or another of the many historic shrines in Nara.  I
think the three monkeys were moved inside as part of the reconstruction.
. .  but you'd have to ask a much later visitor for details.

-- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at niu.edu>

P.S.:Incidentally, the anthropologist in me can't resist adding that the
original see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys represent
Japanese macaques.

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