Meditation & Health #25 Contents

The Highest Octave of Filial Piety

By Lan Huai & Jiahui


Filial piety (xiao孝) takes many forms and can be shown in a small or great way: accompanying, caretaking, gifting, making your parents and older relatives happy, and so on. When we speak of filial piety, a son or daughter providing for their parents and looking after them is what immediately comes to mind.


However, in the Classic of Filial Piety, demonstrating great filiality is not restricted to within one’s family. Filial piety stands before all other virtues; it is the foundation of Tao,or the Way. It starts with serving one’s parents, progresses with serving one’s leader, and ends with establishing oneself. It is a way of being that benefits numerous people, achieves a good reputation that lasts for generations, and brings honor to one’s ancestors.

Others Before Self

Since ancient times, filiality and loyalty have stood side by side. Zhang Jiu Ling, the noted poet, once wrote, “Treat one’s nation like one’s family; turn one’s filiality to loyalty.” In other words, the spirit of filial piety that is shown to one’s parents should also be directed toward society’s leaders. Expanding the definition of filial piety to encompass loving all people is the highest octave of this concept.

Yue Fei, who lived during the Southern Song dynasty, was widely known as a loyal and righteous military general. To fulfil his mother’s hopes for him and live up to the words “Serve the country with utmost loyalty (精忠报国),” which were etched on his back, he turned filiality into loyalty, and defended his nation and his leaders fiercely on the battlefield. He benefited his nation, taking on the welfare of the people as a personal responsibility. His contributions brought immense honor and glory to his ancestors. Even today, Yue Fei remains a household name and a deeply respected symbol of heroism.

The widely known story of Hua Mu Lan, who took her father’s place in the army, also puts great emphasis on the intersection between filiality and loyalty. Worried that her aged father would not survive the draft, Hua Mu Lan did not hesitate to enter the army. Dressed as a man, she sprung forward and fought bravely where others retreated in battle. Even after emerging victorious, she did not demand a high rank or a large fortune; she simply returned home to reunite with her parents and continue to serve them. Her display of both filiality and loyalty gives her undeniable status as a female hero.

Lead by Example

An ancient saying goes, “The path to loyalty lies through the door of filial piety.” One who can treat their nation with the same respect andlove they show their parents, and who cherishes their people, is capable of ensuring the peace and stability of their nation.

Emperor Wen of Han, Liu Heng, was a model for his people when he showed great filiality toward his mother. When his mother was ill, he took on the role of caregiver and personally prepared her medicine, even tasting it to ensure it was warm before giving it to her.

Buddhism has established four debts of gratitude: debt to one’s parents, to sentient beings, to leaders, and to Buddhism. This concept is comparable to three Confucian values: filial piety, humaneness and ritual.

During his rule, Liu Heng treated all elderly people as if they were his own parents. He lightened the burden on his subjects, ensuring that every person over 80 years old had a stipulated amount of rice, meat, wine, and other food items each month. Those who were over 90 years old were entitled to cotton and even silk clothing. While keeping his own lifestyle frugal, this dedicated leader ensured his country was peaceful and prosperous. His upright and virtuous conduct inspired his subjects’ devotion and loyalty to him.

Confucius, the great philosopher of Ancient China, advised on how a leader could ensure that their people were faithful, reverent and diligently seeking virtue. “Let him preside over them with gravity; then they will revere him. Let him be filial and kind to all; then they will be faithful to him. Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent; then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous.” In other words, those in power must be dignified, loyal and compassionate. When they approach their people with wisdom and a heart of compassion, then people will naturally respond with love and respect.

Leaders, by default, have great influence. By using that influence to spread the virtues of filial piety through setting a compassionate example, a leader will help to create a peaceful and prosperous nation.

Highly Valued Virtue

There is a common misconception that leaving home to pursue a Buddhist path is an unfilial act. In fact, filial piety is a highly valued virtue in Buddhism. A great number of Buddhist scriptures relating to it are still widely circulated today,such as Kşitigarbhasūtra, The Sutra of Filial Piety, and The Ullambana Sutra.

Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was a model of filial piety, always displaying gratitude. As a youth, Siddhartha Gautama came to deep realizations about the cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Thereafter, he left home to pursue the true essence of life and help fellow sentient beings understand life’s suffering. After experiencing many struggles, he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

The enlightened Buddha returned to his country to share Buddhist teachings with his father, King Śuddhodana. When the king passed away, the Buddha again returned to personally carry his coffin and attend his burial. He also expounded on Buddhist teachings on his late mother’s behalf, allowing her to ascend to Heaven. The Buddha was devoted to the care and wellbeing of his parents, and broadened his love and devotion to include all sentient beings.

Kşitigarbha, a bodhisattva, swore an oath to save his mother from pain and suffering. Not only did he ensure that his mother was able to find salvation, he allowed all beings to recite Kşitigarbhasūtra, thus achieving infinite merits and virtues. He made a vow to help sentient beings everywhere break free of evildoing and suffering, declaring that unless hell were empty of suffering souls, he would not ascend to buddhahood.

Buddhism has established four debts of gratitude: debt to one’s parents, to sentient beings, to leaders, and to Buddhism. This concept is comparable to three Confucian values: filial piety, humaneness and ritual. Clearly, being filial is a fundamental part of life’s pursuits, as well as an indispensable quality for those with great undertakings.

The Pinnacle of Filial Piety

Many people of today feel that providing one’s parents with money and goods is an act of filiality, but is this what parents truly want? Master Lian-chi said, “In Buddhism, giving one’s parents a good life is only the elementary facet of being filial; bringing lasting glory to one’s parents and ancestors is great filial piety.”

Be upright and virtuous and work to benefit others and contribute to society. Such traits and behaviors are the greatest gifts one can give their parents. These qualities and actions are the pinnacle of filial piety.

Since ancient times, people have been moved by stories of great filial piety. One common trait of heroes was that they broadened their individual love into greater love for all, which eventually became boundless compassion. By taking the welfare of all people as a matter of personal importance, they made heroic contributions and brought glory to their parents.

Everyone chooses their own mission; we can choose to have a great ambition, and to work toward it by learning as much as possible and improving ourselves constantly. If we can use our abilities and knowledge to benefit people and help them find a way out of life’s suffering, it is a form of great filial piety. If you are already doing this, and you wish to go further in your cultivation, what can you do?

We can help our parents believe in and practice compassion while they are alive, and help their souls find salvation after death. These are the most profound ways in which we can repay our parents. Such filial piety can transcend the limits of time and space, rippling out much further than we can comprehend.

“The trees may be still, but the wind does not subside, and time stops for no one.” We all wish to repay our parents. Regardless of how we are able to show filial piety based on our own choices and values, what matters most is the respect, love and gratitude we harbor for our parents and for all sentient beings.



Meditation & Health #25 Contents