Updated: Aug 27, 2022
We all want to be good people and live in a good world. To attain that vision, we need to build our virtues. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "Of a hundred virtues, filial piety is the first." I feel like the word "virtue" isn't in the common vernacular nowadays, so I'll phrase it as
"Of all the goodness, filial piety is the greatest."
If you're like most people in the west, you've probably never heard of the word "filial piety" before. Basically, it means to be a good child. Another way to explain filial piety is being grateful to the people that we owe most gratitude to, which for most of us is our parents.
This might sound a little abstract, so I like to use some concrete examples to explain filial piety from The Guide to A Happy Life:
When my parents call me, I will respond right away. When my parents ask me to do something, I will do it promptly.
When my parents try to teach me something, I will listen respectfully. When my parents criticize me, I will accept it respectfully.
What is good for my parents, I will do my best to provide. What is bad for my parents, I will do my best to eliminate.
If my body gets hurt, my parents will worry. If my virtues are bad, my parents will be ashamed.
If my parents have faults, I will encourage them to improve in a warm and gentle manner. If they don’t accept my encouragement, I will try again when they are happy.
Buddhism also explains four ways to be filial:
Nurture parents' physical health
Nurture parents' emotional health
Nurture parents' aspirations
Nurture parents' wisdom
These don't just apply to parents, they apply to anyone that we love and care about, such as our spouse and partners.
Nurturing parents' physical health involves their food, clothes, exercise, and living environment. We should help them have healthy living habits and eliminate unhealthy ones.
Nurturing parents' emotional health means giving them peace of mind, happiness, comfort, and joy. For example, responding to parents right away is to prevent them from getting upset. Providing them what they like is to make them happy. Whatever worries our parents, we should try to eliminate. Often times, parents worry about their children's bad habits, so filial children would work hard to improve themselves.
Nurturing parents' aspirations means being someone that our parents can be proud of. The more people we help in the world, the more glory we bring to our parents. On the other hand, being unethical would tarnish the family name and would be unfilial.
Nurturing parents' wisdom means helping them fix their bad and harmful habits, improving their way of thinking, and obtaining a higher sense of purpose or spiritual fulfilment.
While these ideas mentioned above sound simple, I've found them quite rare to see in real life! Now that we understand filial piety and know some concrete examples, let's return to the question: Why is it the first of all virtues?
Think about it: If a person doesn't appreciate the people who they should most appreciate, can they really appreciate anyone else? If a person doesn't care that they hurt their parents feelings, will they care if they hurt your feelings? If a child is lazy and doesn’t respond to their parents’ requests at home, can you expect them to be diligent and attentive at work? If a child often argues with their parents, can you expect them to be humble and harmonious with anyone else? If the person you are dating lies to their parents, can you believe that they will not tell lies to you? The root of all their behavior traces back to how they treat their parents!
I first heard about filial piety when my mother gave me the book Guide to A Happy Life shortly after I graduated university. When I read it, I was skeptical. I thought, “Listen to parents? But what if parents are wrong? What if they don’t know what is best?” Clearly, I was very arrogant back then. Later on, I realized that a lot of my unhappiness traces back to my conflicts with family. For example, I always tried to prove myself right in arguments with parents, and that behavior extended to arguments with romantic partners and even work bosses! In order to fix my arrogance, I had to start by respecting my parents. Once I respected my parents, I naturally started respecting everyone else. I also learned that in a romantic relationship, I should really pay attention to how the other person treats their parents. If they lie to their parents or hide things from their parents, it's a red flag that they will lie and hide things from you once they get very used to you. If they take their parents for granted and rarely appreciate them, they will treat you the same once they get used to you. If they expect their parents to treat them like royalty, they will expect (not appreciate) the same from you. As a teacher, I noticed that the students who are studious almost always are filial, while the students who are rebellious almost always have bad family relationships. But we can't blame the child. The child learns from the parents' examples and from the media they consume. Nowadays, many parents themselves were not taught filial piety at a young age, so they didn't role model respecting grandparents to the children. Worse is western media, which often shows unfilial role models. For example, the media will show people being angry and arguing and harshly criticizing others. It also shows people only caring about what they want and hurting others to get what they want. How can we expect children to be filial if they are consuming this kind of media? Hence, I've learned we can't blame the youth. Blaming doesn't help anyone. All we can do is to start with ourselves, to set a filial example in whatever situation we have, to respect and appreciate all the people we owe gratitude to.
Who do I owe most gratitude to?
What is something good I can give them or do for them?
What is something bad I can keep away from them?
Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #167
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