Filial Piety as Spiritual Cultivation

National Headquarters  |  September 13, 2019
Photo by Peter Lin

Let us appreciate, be grateful for, and repay the love of our parents. To be filial is in fact the most rewarding thing in life.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Filial piety, the virtue of respecting and taking care of one’s parents, is an important moral principle in Buddhism, and Dharma Master Cheng Yen often makes it a central theme in her teachings, revealing how it’s an integral part of spiritual cultivation. 

There’s so much to be grateful for if we contemplate the sacrifices our parents made while raising us to adulthood. Firstly, we should cherish our mother’s selflessness, her willing endurance of the discomforts of pregnancy; her suffering during childbirth, that severe pain immediately forgotten upon seeing our face; and her continual placing of our well-being above her own, even in old age. 

In fact, the altruistic and ceaseless love of both our parents is an example of great compassion; their kindness is so deep that it’s difficult to repay, as the Buddha explained to his disciples thousands of years ago:

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who aren’t easy to repay. Which two? Your mother and father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and you were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother and father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother and father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.

Kataññu Sutta [Aṅguttara Nikāya]

Filial piety as a way of repaying our parents’ great kindness is just the start of what’s involved in this spiritual practice. If we take into account the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, then each sentient being could have been one of our parents in a past life:

From a [non-discoverable] beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point isn’t evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on. A being who hasn’t been your mother at one time in the past isn’t easy to find... A being who hasn’t been your father […] isn’t easy to find.

Mata Sutta [Samyutta Nikāya]

Thus, our filial piety toward our parents should expand to embrace all sentient beings; our sense of compassion thereby growing without bounds.

Be grateful to your parents and to all sentient beings every day. In everything you do, never disappoint them.

Master Cheng Yen

The practice of filial piety is also a way to create good karma and generate blessings, as Master Cheng Yen teaches through the following sutra (scripture) about Buddha’s response to a filial yet destitute son.

During the Buddha’s time, there was a poor young man who had neither land nor money, but had aged and ill parents to look after. He dedicated all his time toward caring for his parents and begging for food to keep them nourished. He heard that the Buddha gave teachings on spiritual cultivation and charitable giving, and [pondering] where he was headed in life, he went to the Buddha for guidance. 


Bowing reverently, the young man told the Buddha of his dilemma, “All my time is spent taking care of my parents. They are weak and ill, and I need to make sure that they have enough to eat. Oh Buddha, I have no time for spiritual cultivation, and no means of giving, how do I create blessings when I have nothing to give?”

Hearing his dire situation, the Buddha comforted him. “You are already creating blessings!” The young man, who had been depending on the generosity of others to feed his parents, was puzzled. He asked doubtfully, “How could that be? I can’t even work to support my parents. I’ve been supporting them through begging.”

The Buddha then explained, “Besides begging, you spend all your time with your parents, caring for them with respect and affection: this, in itself, is a form of spiritual cultivation. Unlike some who might abandon their parents in such a situation, you haven’t abandoned them. You are accumulating merits. Also, by begging from people to feed your parents, you’ve shown them what filial piety is. You brought out their sympathy and gave them a chance to give. When you beg for food, you also form good affinities with people.”

“So,” the Buddha further convinced the young man, “in showing everyone how you practice being filial, which is your way of spiritual cultivation, you’re creating great blessings for your future lives. That’s why in your future lives, not only will you be wealthy, you’ll have the means to help others and do charitable deeds. If you care for those in need the way you care for your parents now, you’ll be able to help even more people. That’s walking the Bodhisattva Path, which leads to a bright future. Right now, you’re paving your Bodhisattva Path with your filial piety.”

The young man was very happy to learn that he was already engaged in spiritual cultivation, and creating blessings. He finally understood that even begging for food can bring others joy and an opportunity to give. He felt comforted in knowing this; encouraged to continue caring for his parents, he would continue to beg for food with respect as he’d done in the past.

If we want to cultivate spiritually, we need to practice filial piety toward our parents. By doing so, we develop respect for everyone, which is essential for spiritual cultivation. When we have the wealth or the strength to help people in need, we strive to care for them with the same kind of respect we would show our parents. This is how one walks the Bodhisattva Path.

Essentially, Master Cheng Yen wants us to understand that filial piety is “the foundation of human decency,” and an expression of “the original goodness of human nature.” It’s positive impact ripples out to the community, society at large, and the whole world.

How can we repay the grace of our parents? By appreciating our parents’ feelings and expectations and in turn cherishing ourselves and living with self-respect.

Master Cheng Yen

The section in italics consists of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team and Tzu Chi volunteers, based on Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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