1. Filial Piety as a Way of Requiting the Debt to One's Parents
In the KataÃ±Ã±u Sutta of the Anguttaranikaya it is said:
Monks, one can never repay two persons, I declare. What two? Mother and father. Even if one should carry about his mother on one shoulder and his father on the other, and so doing should live a hundred years, attain a hundred years; and if he should support them, anointing them with unguents, kneading, bathing and rubbing their limbs, and they meanwhile should even void their excrements upon him - even so could he not repay his parents.
Moreover, monks, if he should establish his parents in supreme authority, in the absolute rule over this mighty earth abounding in the seven treasures - not even this could he repay his parents. What is the cause for that? Monks, parents do much for their children: they bring them up, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.(10)
According to the *Mahisasaka Vinaya, the parents of Pilindavatsa (Bhikkhu)(11) were poor and he wanted to offer them his robes, but he was not sure whether he was doing the right thing. So he went to the Buddha and asked for advice. The Buddha, on this occasion, assembled the bhikkhus and taught them the above message, and also made it a rule that bhikkhus should support their parents wholeheartedly and throughout their life.(12)
In this passage, it is quite explicit that the Buddha taught filial piety. This passage is also found in the Chinese translation of the *Ekottaragama; the same message is given, although the wording is slightly changed.(13) This suggests that the passage must have come down from a very old source before the split of Buddhism into different schools since it is common to both Theravada and Mahayana. Hajime Nakamura, in his endnotes 38 of chapter 23 "Esteem for Hierarchy" of his book Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, listed many references to the idea of filial piety in the Pali canon, but he missed this single important passage.(14) As a result, Jan Yun-hua misinterprets that filial piety was a minor virtue in Buddhist ethics of India.The Chinese translation of the sutra stops here, but the Pali version continues with the Buddha's advice on how to repay parents' debt.
Moreover, monks, whoso incite his unbelieving parents, settles and establishes them in the faith; whoso incite his immoral parents, settles and establishes them in morality; whoso incite his stingy parents, settles and establishes them in liberality; whoso incite his foolish parents, settles and establishes them in wisdom - such a one, just by so doing, does repay, does more than repay what is due to his parents.(15)
This passage, however, with the same message, appears three times in the *Mulasarvastivada Vinaya translated by Yijing at the beginning of the eighth century.(16) In this passage the Buddha recommended four ways of requiting the debts to one's parents, which are all for spiritual progress: faith, morality, liberality and wisdom, in contrast to the material and physical ways discussed in the previous passage. So in other words, helping one's parents in their spiritual progress is considered much more important than helping them in a material or physical way. However, this does not mean that Buddhism emphasizes only the spiritual aspect in filial piety. This will be clear as we progress in our discussion.
In another passage of the same Anguttaranikaya, the Buddha told the monks that mother and father should be worshipped and venerated as Brahma;, as the teachers of old, and that they are worthy of offering.
Monks, those families where mother and father are worshipped in the home are reckoned like unto Brahma;. Those families where mother and father are worshipped in the home are ranked with the teachers of old. Worthy of offerings, monks, are those families where mother and father are worshipped in the home. 'Brahma;,' monks, is a term for mother and father. 'Teachers of old,' monks, is a term for mother and father. 'Worthy of offerings,' monks, is a term for mother and father. Why so? Because mother and father do much to children, they bring them up, nourish and introduce them to the world.(17)
In the Itivuttaka, the message is found again, however, with one more addition: mother and father are venerated as "the early devas."(18 ) In the Chinese translation of the *Samyuktagama, the same message is also found but mother and father are worshipped, apart from as Brahma;, teachers and all devas, as Mahadeva, and the family is also respected by others if parents are supported with all kinds of things.(19) Then the Chinese *Samyuktagama explains further:
Brahma;, the king of all gods, was able to be born into the Brahma; world because he supported his parents righteously (in the past). If one wishes to make offerings to teachers, one should make offerings to parents because parents are teachers. If one wishes to worship one should first worship parents. If one wishes to worship fire one should first worship parents. If one wishes to worship gods one should first worship parents because parents are gods.(20)
The Bhagavat continues: "If one wishes to worship Brahma;, the god of fire, teachers and other gods, one should support parents. (Because in doing so) one will obtain a good name in this life and will be born into heaven in the next life."
Here we can see that the message in the Anguttaranikaya, the Itivuttaka and the Chinese translation of the *Samyuktagama is the same: that parents should be honored, respected and worshipped as Brahma;, as teachers and as gods and that they are worthy of offerings although new items have been added in the latter two texts.
In the Anguttaranikaya, a Brahman asks the Buddha about sacrifice that involves a lot of killing of cows and other animals. The Buddha describes, with sacrificial terminology, three types of fires: parents, family members and religious men, which should be attended with care and honor, instead of worshipping the actual fire, which was considered a heretic practice.
The first fire is parents who should be honored and cared for; the second fire is one's wife and children, employees and dependents; the third fire represents religious persons who have either attained the goal of arahantship or have embarked on a course of training for the elimination of negative mental traits. The Buddha said to the Brahman: "these three fires, when esteemed, revered, venerated, respected, must bring best happiness."(21)
This sutra is also found in both Chinese translations of the *Samyuktagama; the first is named the root fire because all children are born from parents. Therefore the root should be respected, honored and supported, and should be made happy. The second is named family fire because a good man lives in a family sharing both happiness and difficulties with all other family members. A man should support all family members and make them happy. The third is named field fire because religious men such as Sramanas and Brahmans are the field of merit and should be offered necessities by family men.(22)
Thus in both the Pali and Chinese versions of the sutra, parents are considered the first fire that should be maintained, honored and respected by good family men, followed by other members of the family and religious men.
In the Samyuttanikaya, it says: "Mother is the good friend dwelling in the home."(23) The same expression is also found in the other Chinese translation of the *Samyuktagama.(24) However, in Gunabhadra's translation of the *Samyuktagama, the expression is quite different. "A good faithful virtuous wife is the good friend dwelling in the home."(25)
Then in the Vasala Sutta of the Suttanipata, which is also found in the Chinese *Samyuktagama, the Buddha discusses what an outcast consists of with a fire-worshipping Brahman. The Buddha says that not by birth but by ethical conduct does one become an outcast or a Brahmana. The Brahman caste consists of many ethical conducts, among which are supporting and venerating one's parents. This of course is a reinterpretation by the Buddha of the caste system.
Whosoever being rich does not support mother or father when old and past their youth, let one know him as an outcast. Whosoever strikes or by words annoys mother or father, brother, sister, or mother-in-law, let one know him as an outcast. (26)