Ancient cultures and centuries-old traditions around the world believe that heaven has arranged all our relationships—a predestined gift from the divine.
Truth is, everyone has a unique situation with their parents and ancestors, and people of faith do acknowledge that we have been made in the image of the Creator. So perhaps our families too have been divinely bestowed to us here on Earth.
However, when the roles are enacted in the grand performance called life, some relationships play out close and warmhearted, while others are distant and cold. And just like how scenes change with the rise and fall of curtains, tables of fate do change. But one virtue that can not only preserve any family but also transform its struggles over time is filial piety.
The magnanimity of filial piety has been expressed in the stories left by history, demonstrating its virtuous influence to transform wrongdoings and preserve family honor.
Filial Piety Is a Higher Virtue
In today’s era, we all shift blame and point fingers at times. Children are no different; they complain that their parents are overly demanding or hard to reason with, while the adults complain it’s the kids who are unruly. It is worth reflecting on how cultivating filial piety—rather than our typical immature fighting and conquest of who’s right and who’s wrong—guided our ancestors to conquer this same challenge more effectively.
Filial Piety is a moral code. It is not an outdated, old-fashioned principle or lifestyle statement of raising children right. Nor does it involve children becoming spoiled, nor the opposite extreme of neglect under the guise “children should be seen but not heard.”
It is not about parents or children’s demands going to the extremes, where egos are stroked and indulged. Rather, it is a moral calling that brings children and parents closer to the divine by selflessly serving each other—but also extending the warmth of this same virtue beyond their familial ties, embracing friends, strangers, and their societies.
Filial piety bears honor and respect toward parents throughout their lifetime and after death. Outside the home, filial piety would be expressed as serving one’s country and this would bring about greater social harmony.
Practicing the art of filial piety calls for a magnanimous character. Ideally, it would start within a person’s innermost self, a sense of wanting to do the right thing and being a good person. Then, this magnanimous spiritual aspiration one cultivates within would lead to embracing one’s family, through respecting one’s parents and ancestors, to expanding outside the home.
In the East and West, every culture talked about raising children the right way. Filial Piety is a virtue that the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.) emphasized as most important to keeping the social order of society to function harmoniously while also honoring the divinity within each human being.
Filial Piety is discussed in “The Analects.” These are teachings Confucius left behind, to guide proper conduct, and can be summed up in the Chinese character for filial, xiao (孝)—a traditional principle that paid due respect to parents and gave way to cultivating a great character within oneself.
The Chinese character xiao (孝) consists of the character for a child (子) underneath the character for an aged person/parent (老), signifying the virtuous role of the young in taking care of the elderly.
There are different levels of filial piety according to Confucius’s teachings.
At a low level, one labors for the parents, holding dear to the memories of their kindness and not putting too much emphasis on one’s own hardship. The middle level is concerned with honor for them in one’s accomplishments, which includes respectful and responsible behavior. At the highest level, one practices being filial by having no omissions, and this includes spreading kindness so that all benefit.
Perhaps the highest form of being filial is cultivating magnanimity to the point of being the best person one can be, with the highest attainment being that one becomes enlightened and gains deliverance.
Practicing Filial Piety Brings Good Returns
One may wonder, what does magnanimity mean in the context of being filial? In many cultures around the world, there is the idea of reciprocity that is built into filial piety. And if no benevolent reciprocity existed, to create it, through behaving filial, would naturally bring about good fortune.
The hearts of those who endeavor to be filial and introspective are pure and sincere. And filial piety helps both parents and children to cultivate a sense of respect for the relationship that was arranged by the higher forces of the universe.
Even if the parents are immoral, it is supported by Confucian ethics that the filial child is to point out the wrongdoing while forbearing the karmic ties, while transforming their resentments and hardships to a more benevolent state. Practicing filial piety can also help one transform the difficult situation with their family.
One should always pay attention and give thanks to their ancestors, no matter how humble their beginnings have been. Paying respect to their family and extending that goodwill outside the home will bring good returns, hence the law of karma.
The following story about the legendary Chinese emperor named Yu Shun (or the Great Shun) is one of the countless stories of filial piety left to history from ancient China—ages before the Chinese Communist Party came into power.
Shun was born into a family where his kindhearted mother died early, leaving him to endure a particularly difficult father and stepmother. He was not favored and endured abuse from his family, while being forced to do hard labor, eat poor quality food, and wear thin clothes in freezing winters. Despite this harsh treatment from his family, he maintained respect for his parents and took responsibility for his younger step-siblings.
Shun’s first thought when his stepmother or siblings mistreated him was: “I must have done something wrong that caused them to be angry and treat me this way.” Reflecting on his shortcomings while practicing filial behavior led him to cry out one day in the field in which he worked: “Why can I not bring joy to my family?”
The legend says that people were touched by Shun’s selfless concern in spite of his lowly role in his family. It is said that his sincere heart was also seen in the heavens. Later, when he worked outside, he was rewarded with an elephant that came to assist in plowing the fields, and birds came down to remove the weeds. As time went by, this young man was the talk of the town.
Years later, when the elderly Emperor Yao sought a successor, he turned to his fellow officials for help in finding the best replacement, and they recommended Shun. They all thought that, since Shun had endured much hardship and did so gracefully, in the noble spirit of showing filial respect, which included looking within, it was enough to ensure that he could take care of the kingdom.
When Shun became an emperor, he still thought the same way as he did in the past and even stated: “Even now, my parents still do not like me. What is the point of being an emperor?”
His people were touched by his words and so were his parents, and in the end, they treated him well. The higher virtue of filial piety practiced by Shun demonstrates that, with a forgiving heart, sacrificing and maintaining harmony in one’s life will bring about good fortune.
Filial Piety In Different Cultures
From Europe to North America, cultures honor the passing of their parents and ancestors by lighting a candle to remember them, but also visiting their graves with flowers.
Many Asian countries have the tradition of children bowing to their parents and ancestors to express their gratitude. While in India, children touch their parents’ feet, because symbolically, heaven’s way is connected in their footsteps, and this humble connection is to be honored and respected today.
Looking at many countries, filial piety extends to national “holidays.” These holidays acknowledge those who served and those who lost their lives defending their country at times of war. For example, “Remembrance Day” is held yearly in many Commonwealth countries. Canada and Australia have their Remembrance Day on November 11. The United States celebrates “Veterans Day” on the same day.
Needless to say that some family traditions are worth breaking and creating anew. And wherever you came from, it is truly divine to pay respect to how one came to the world, by cherishing your family and those around you in society at large.
So what kind of filial piety does your family or culture practice? How has it made you a more magnanimous person? Let us know in the comments section!
Arshdeeep Sarao contributed to this report.
November 11, 2021 1:23 pm