When I serve my parents in filiality,
I vow that living beings
Will serve the Buddhas skillfully
And protect and nourish everything.
~Pure Conduct Chapter,
Flower Adornment Sutra
In China there is a Classic of Filial Piety, which says, "As for filial piety, it is the heavenly mandate, the earthly morality, and the practice of the people." Filial piety is an excellent virtue that has traditionally been honored in China. It is the basis for our life and our relationship with the world, as well as a guideline and standard for governing the nation and world.
How did the sage emperors of old influence the people and win their loyalty? It wasn't through the use of harsh punishments or laws, nor through the use of a skilled army or generous rewards; rather, it was by means of virtue and reason that they caused the people naturally to be kind and affectionate, so that there was no resentment between the nobles and the commoners, or between the older and younger generations. Hence Confucius said, "Filial piety is the basis of all virtuous deeds; it is also the source from which all teachings emerge."
The Classic of Filial Piety and the
Confucian Analects are the most well-known texts of Confucian philosophy. In ancient times, of the more than three thousand offenses meriting the five severe punishments (tattooing, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration, and capital punishment), none was considered worse than being unfilial. During the reign of Emperor Ren of the Song Dynasty, the
Classic of Filial Piety became one of the texts covered in the imperial examination. As a result, the Song Dynasty had a particularly large number of loyal ministers. In the He Tuo Chapter of the
Northern History's Annals of Scholars, it is recorded, "Su Wei once said to the Emperor: 'My late father often admonished me, saying: 'The study of the
Classic of Filial Piety alone provides a sufficient basis for one's life and for the managing of the nation's affairs; what need is there to study additional texts?'" During the reigns of Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty and Emperor Xuan of the Tang Dynasty, those emperors even wrote commentaries on the
Classic of Filial Piety and instructed all the people to recite and practice it. From this we can see what importance the Chinese place upon filial piety.
How can one be filial to one's parents? Section Eleven of the
Classic of Filial Piety says, "Serve your mother with the same spirit that you serve your father, using the same kind of affection. Serve your king with the same spirit that you serve your father, using the same kind of reverence. In serving your mother, use such affection. In serving the king, use such reverence. When both affection and reverence are present, that is the spirit in which you should serve your father."
What do you have to do to be considered filial to your parents? The Xiaoya Xiaowan Chapter in the
Book of Odes says, "From the time you rise in the morning till you retire at night, do nothing that would bring disgrace to those who gave birth to you." Is that enough? The section of the
Classic of Filial Piety that talks about filial conduct says, "In serving your parents, you should also pay attention to the following: If in a high position, do not be arrogant and conceited; if in a subordinate position, do not commit offenses and incite rebellion; get along with your colleagues and avoid contention... If you cannot avoid the three evils of arrogance, rebellion, and contention, causing your parents to worry constantly about you, then even if you served beef, mutton, and pork to your parents every day, you would not be considered filial!" In other words, filial piety consists of changing your own bad habits.
When serving your parents in filiality, you should think of skillfully serving the Buddhas, for while our parents have given us our bodies and lives, the Buddhas rescue our wisdom life. We ought to use the same affection and reverence with which we serve our parents to serve the Buddhas, rising early and retiring late, working diligently, and not doing anything that would bring disgrace to the parents of our wisdom-life, that is, the Buddha. Is that all we have to do to be filial to the Buddhas? If you still don't change your old habits of arrogance, contention, greed, and other faults, you will cause the Buddhas to worry about you, and how can that be considered filial piety?
Filial piety is the source of all the Buddha's Sutras. In a former life, Earth Store Bodhisattva was a filial Brahman woman. Venerable Maudgalyayana, wishing to free his mother from the path of hungry ghosts, went to ask the Buddha to rescue her, and thus the Ullambana Ceremony came about. In Buddhism, killing one's father and killing one's mother, along with shedding the Buddha's blood, are classified among the Five Rebellious Offenses that merit falling into the unintermittent hells.
If a person who is not filial to his parents prays for blessings, there is no way he or she will obtain them.
In the Buddha's time, there was an evil and foolish person in Rajagriha who was unfilial to his parents, cheated good people, did not respect his elders, caused his family to fall into ruin, and had all kinds of bad luck. He decided to go worship the fire spirit in order to seek its protection.
The method of worship involved making prostrations to the sun at sunrise, and making prostrations to the moon when it ascends into the sky at night, bowing continuously until the sun sets behind the mountains, and the moon sets in the west. He bowed like this for three years, but still didn't receive any blessings or protection, so he changed to worshipping the heaven spirit. Every day he lit incense and made prostrations to the heavens, making offerings of fresh flowers, fine wine, and dried pork, mutton, and beef, hoping to obtain blessings. In bowing to the heavens, he wore himself out until he was too sick to leave his house. Then he heard that there was someone known as the Buddha in Shravasti, whom all the heaven spirits worshipped. He thought he ought to go worship Him as well, for it would certainly bring him blessings.
He went to Shravasti and met the Buddha, and told the Buddha what he had been doing for the past nine years, saying that now that he had met the Buddha, he hoped the Buddha could bestow blessings upon him.
The Buddha told him, "If you worship spirits hoping for blessings, you will find that you will not gain even a quarter of what you put in. It would be better to venerate good and worthy people. If you can be virtuous, humble, and sincere, always respecting your elders and seniors, the four blessings will naturally increase and you will enjoy health, longevity, and peace." (Chapter 17 of the
A person who is unfilial to his parents and disrespectful to his elders cannot possibly attain blessings and protection. In Buddhism, we consider all living beings to be our parents from past lives. "All men have been my fathers. All women have been my mothers." The scope of filial piety is expanded and becomes an impartial filial piety directed not only towards our own parents in this life, but towards all our parents in the past, present, and future. This kind of impartial spirit could be said to be the utmost state of filial piety.