As children, we should not follow our own wishes and do as we please, without consulting our parents. Otherwise, we will not be fulfilling our filial duties. The first two lines emphasize that as children we should respect our parents.
No matter what we want to do, we should first ask our parents. We should act only after we have received their permission. We should not casually make decisions on our own, thinking we have already grown up. After we receive an education, we should not regard our parents as country bumpkins and be disrespectful to them. Nor should we think that there is no need to bring small matters to their attention and so only report major events to them. If we act in this way toward our parents, we have been remiss in our filial obligations. Filial piety is like a bright pearl. It is the most precious jewel in the world. We cherish jewels and protect them as carefully as our very lives, because we are afraid of damaging them. Yet we fail to protect our filial piety, the bright pearl within us; instead, we carelessly spoil it. Our priorities are truly confused!.
The previous section discussed how we should handle matters. The next two lines discuss receiving things. We shouldn't casually take even a very small object, thinking our parents won't know about it or won't care. Such behavior would actually cause them a lot of grief. Anyone feels hurt when he is ignored, how much the more so our own parents.
Filial piety begins with respect. If we feed our parents but don't respect them, how is this different from raising cats or dogs? We should show our respect by letting our parents know about everything we do. We shouldn't think, "Oh, I don't want to bother them with these small matters," or "I'm just trying to be more independent." Such thoughts would only undermine the precious virtue of filial piety and hurt our dear parents.
Confucius' disciple Zeng Zi was renowned for his filial piety. When his father Zeng Dian (one of Confucius' earliest disciples) was still alive, Zeng Zi would serve him his food and then respectfully ask him who should eat the leftovers, should there be any. While eating, his father would sometimes ask if there was any more food. Zeng Zi would always say "yes," so his father could eat without worrying whether there was any food left.
Later, when Zeng Zi's son Zeng Yuan served Zeng Zi, after Zeng Zi finished eating, Zeng Yuan would put away the food without asking about how to deal with the leftover food. When Zeng Zi asked his son if there was any food left over, his son would say "no." Zeng Yuan did this because he wanted to save the food and serve it to his father at the next meal. Mencius'
judgment of the situation was that while Zeng Zi knew well how to serve his parents and comply with their wishes, Zeng Yuan only knew how to feed his parents. Think it over: Even in such a small matter --such a minor detail--Zeng Zi dared not do as he pleased; he dared not keep anything for himself. No wonder people praised Zeng Zi as the "greatly filial Zeng Shen" and Confucius had no second thoughts about teaching the "Classic of
Filial Piety" to him.