The stress on filiality in Chinese Buddhism is so great that it would be impossible to cite all pertinent evidence. Undoubtedly this was in part a (natural?) response of the tradition when encountering such a distinctly family-centered and Confucianized culture, where parental reverence and ancestor worship were de rigueur, and where there was no socially sanctioned pattern of religious mendicancy. As in India, we also find indications of the prominence accorded to filiality in Chinese Buddhism in the material culture. For example, the caves at Longmen, famous for their Buddhist carvings, are replete with inscribed prayers for parents and ancestors from both laity and monastics alike. The best evidence, though, comes from various literary texts. A close look at a few should show how Buddhism not only accepts and approves of filial respect, but extends it beyond immediate relatives to the world at large.
One of the earliest Chinese Buddhist texts to explicitly focus on filial piety is the “Biography of the Nun Anling Shou”, a work set in the fourth century C.E. This tale picks up one of the great tropes in Chinese literature, the filial daughter, but makes its point with a particularly Buddhist twist. As a young girl, Anling Shou expresses her desire to become a Buddhist nun but is soundly denounced by her father for such a “selfish” wish. She protests that her motive is to save all beings, especially her parents. Her father speaks of this to the Buddhist thaumaturge Fo Tudeng, who assures him that his daughter not only was a great monk in a past life, but will in her present life truly aid all her relatives and bring her parents to Nirvana. Her father then permits her to leave home and she brings benefits to people from all walks of life. In fact, so wide is her renown that her father is given a government position. Not only does Anling Shou display all the virtues of a filial daughter, she is able to surpass ordinary filial accomplishments through the allegedly “anfilial” act of leaving home. Perhaps even more significantly, it is Fo Tudeng, the monk who ordains her and so becomes her “Dharma father”, who explains just how filial she is. In a real sense, then, she never leaves home for she gains a “second father” while still serving her first. Her duties, then, are expanded, but she fulfills them quite admirably. Clearly Chinese Buddhists by this time were already “one-upping” their Confucian critics by indicating just what real (i.e. Buddhist) filial devotion meant.
Turning from this text to some actual Sutras, we see how Buddhism takes up the virtue of filial respect and expands upon it even more. The Brahma Net Sutra (Fan wang jing) is a detailed list of various precepts which are meant to guide Bodhisattvas to enlightenment. This Sutra was brought to China by Kumarajiva, the famous late fourth-early fifth century translator, but according to the traditions of the Tian tai school it was first spoken by the Buddha when he emerged out of samadhi upon his enlightenment. For our purposes, however, it is important to note that it was said to have been spoken out the Buddha's own realization of the great debt he owed his parents. So it was on this filial basis that the Buddha issued these moral guidelines. Once again, we see the association of filiality with ethics.
The Sutra provides moral precepts (ten major, forty-eight minor) to be followed by all Bodhisattvas. These are said to be a basic part of the Dharma so that just by being a Bodhisattva one is bound by them. Interestingly, Master Hui Seng in his commentary sums up all these precepts as filiality: “Extensively speaking, they are the Ten Major and Forty-eight Minor Precepts, but in general, they can be described as the practice of filiality. Not to respectfully uphold them is simply not to be filial.”
To be continued