Most people in the West know the motif of the three little monkeys that close of their senses with their hands. One is covering his mouth, the other covers his eyes and the third one covers his ears.
Ironically this means something else in Japan, than it means in the West.
The West – in its charming way – interprets the three monkeys as a metaphor for a reality that one does not wish to see, something that one wishes to disavow, pretty much like the picture with the ostrich hiding his head in the sand.
The original Japanese meaning is a bit more complex and is much closer to a Buddhist perspective. Here the monkeys represent a sensory input that is overlooked and accepted by the use of wisdom. The evil is not allowed to touch the mind, neither by way of the eyes or the ears. In the very same way, no evil will escape the mind by use of the mouth.
Within this lies the wish to guard the integrity of something worthy within us by the control of the senses.
This ‘guarding the sense doors’ is a common concept in Buddhism and a very important key to spiritual development.
It teaches to be aware that not every sensory input we submit ourself to is helpful to our development; is not – to use a Buddhist term – wholesome. Once we understand how strongly we can be affected by the wrong pictures in our mind, we learn the responsibility to avoid them.
Nothing could be more important in the age of the internet, where every imaginable (and unimaginable) human abyss is only two mouse clicks away and can easily haunt us for months in our nightmares.
Only with the training of many years we can learn to acquire a responsible attitude in handling our ’sense doors’ and to learn how to deal with unwanted emotional stress.
These days this point can even be shown in scientific studies.
Scientists around Richard Davidson were able to show in 2003 that continuous meditation practice will influence prefrontal brain areas, which are understood to deal with negative emotions.
[Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564–570.]
Over a period of eight weeks of continuous meditation practice scientists observed a significant shift of brain activity from the right to the left hemisphere. According to the current neurophysiological understanding an increased activity on this side of the brain is correlated with the ability to faster and more efficiently deal with negative emotions and stress.
In his book “The Sun My Heart” the Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhat Hanh describes that using a mind trained in mindfulness you can even watch a bad movie or read a trashy novel. [„The Sun My Heart” , Parallax Press, 1988, ISBN 0-938077-12-0]
It means that with the appropriate training one can let his sense doors open without running the danger to get caught by and with the whatever negative influence got through. It would even become an exercise in itself to watch something with an open ‘Dharma-eye’ and use the experience to watch and learn from it.
If, however, the training is not advanced enough (and believe me, mine isn’t) it is highly recommended to watch carefully over everything that tries to sneak past our guard and may involuntarily pull us down.
The Buddha often described the dangers in not guarding the sense doors using quite powerful images. I wrote about that before >here<.