Back to the Basics

Filial piety
Credits: Taipei: National Palace Museum.

Our last post called out to the wide public to abandon our inclination to ideologize and return to our common humanity but the notion of humanity itself may be subject to ideologization. This piece will serve to guide us to the root of our humanity. Some may immediately point to the quality of humaneness or love between two persons which may either be emotional or physical. Others may equate it with kind-hearted interactions or mutual interdependence - the so-called kindness of strangers. Yet, other others may claim that humanity is ingrained in each person. To get to the root of it, one needs to go back to the cradle, literally.

Science has shown that when humans grow up alongside animals, they act like animals. To be human, one must be raised by true humans who are most of the time their parents. To go back to the cradle is to trace the connection and love we inherit from our life-givers. Such connection endures from cradle to grave in many cultures while in others young people cannot wait to break away from it and live in their own cocoon or ivory tower. The simplistic dichotomy of collectivistic versus individualistic societies has become a cliche in popular culture. Each has its own pros and cons. Rather than debating this old topic, this post will focus on its original goal.

The full moon of the seventh lunar month, Trung Nguon, is the day of atonement to the dead, the Vu Lan/ Yulan day, and a special day that the Supreme Being dedicates to praying for unredeemed souls to be saved. It is also a day to pray for one's parents to enjoy peace in their old age. If one's parents have passed away, s/he should pray for them and the ancestors to be reborn in the Eternal Realm.

This major holiday arouses filial piety in each person. It is a common virtue of everyone, regardless of skin color, hair color, and religion. It has occupied a very important place in human life. On this earth, there is no greater love than a mother's love; there is no closer relationship than that between father and son. The father gives life and upbringing; the mother nurtures and teaches the child to become a human. Such care is beyond comparison. A folk song has made such an attempt:

A father's love is as tall as a mountain,

A mother's flows endlessly like water from a source.

From this simile, the folk song advises that children should try their best to be filial.

Honor and revere one's parents,

Fulfilling piety is the duty of children.

Compared to folklore, religions tend to hold filial piety in an even more special place. Indeed, for Confucians, it is ranked first in life:

Thiên Địa tứ thời, Xuân tại thủ,

Nhơn sanh bách hạnh, Hiếu vi tiên.

Of the four seasons, spring is the best,

In a hundred virtues, filial piety goes first.

Why is it ranked above all? Because it is the source of love for one's parents, one's brothers and sisters, one's relatives, one's neighbors, one's compatriots, and all mankind. It can be said that filial piety gives birth to a heart of humaneness which gives birth to benevolence... Therefore, being filial is the key to everything, and being unfilial is to lose everything including humaneness, righteousness, compassion, etc., and even human dignity. In stressing the broad implication of this virtue, an ancient saying goes: “A loyal minister could only be found in the family of filial children.”

Confucian teachings also propound that the root of the human Way is love and respect which are the foundation of piety. Thus, humaneness and piety always fuel each other. Indeed, without piety, how can one grow a humane heart? On the contrary, if one does not have a heart of humaneness, how can one think about piety? Whenever we talk about piety, we must speak of the heart of humaneness which cannot do without love and respect.

Since love and respect are the foundation of piety, Confucians affirm that those who are pious must first take care of their parents with due respect. Without respect, they are not pious. This is demonstrated very clearly through the story about Ziyu. Ziyu asked about filial piety and was answered by Confucius: "Kim chi hiếu dã, thị vị năng dưỡng. Chí ư khuyển mã, giai năng hữu dưỡng, bất kính, hà dĩ biệt hồ?" This means that today, filial piety is being equated with supporting one's parents. Dogs and horses are also fed by people. Without respect, what is the difference?

After addressing what constitutes filial piety, we need to ask the question:

How can we fulfill the duty of filial piety?

Below is a brief answer:

  • While one's parents are still alive, do not do anything to make them sad and always respect them. When one's parents grow old, try one's best to take care of them.

  • When a parent passes away, praying and worship should not be neglected.

  • Pay attention to their health, food, sleep, etc. in daily life. If one's parents are poor, the children must devote themselves to helping out.

"Filial piety in the past did not refer only to serving your parents when alive and mourning after death. The important thing is to make a name for your parents. Serving when alive and mourning after death are certainly filial acts. However, if a son can study and establish himself, transfer filial piety to loyalty and win great renown, so that people can trace his virtue to his parents and say, “how lucky to have a son like this,” this is called making a name for your parents and the greatness of filial piety." (Teon, 2016)

Helping one's parents in difficult times may depend on the circumstance. If one is rich, everything will be easy; on the contrary, if one is poor, one's support is even more valuable however small it is. That is a worldly matter. The matter is similar from a spiritual perspective. Indeed, when one's parents pass away, if one has accumulated a lot of merit and blessings, prayers will soon be fulfilled, just like rich children paying for their support. On the contrary, if one has poor virtue, s/he is like poor children who cannot afford to support their parents.

In a sutta chanted by Cao Dai followers when a parent passes away, two verses also convey this message:

Thong dong cõi thọ nương hồn,

Chờ con lập đức giúp huờn ngôi xưa.

My soul basks in the leisure of the eternal realm,

May my children's virtues bring me back to a lofty height.

The word 'may' implies that the children do not have enough to help. To avoid waiting, they need to think of how and be ready to commit to cultivating their virtues and accumulating merit. First, they should themselves live a virtuous life; and then, their adequate merit will aid in praying for their parents' salvation when they pass away.

During a seance on October 1, 1926, God revealed to Ms. Huong Hieu (before she was ordained the Lady Cardinal):

"Although you spent a lot of riches on praying for your mother's salvation, it was not possible. Only since the day you worshipped Me, has she been allowed into the White Heavenly Palace, without you ever seeing."

The examples above reaffirm the significance of religious cultivation and guidance to sentient beings on the path of liberation for oneself and one's ancestors. Therefore, His Holiness Ho Phap used to give this advice: "Unless we seek salvation for our ancestors in this age, we will never be able to anymore."

Above are two ways to practice filial piety towards one's parents during their life as well as after their decease. They apply to one's relationship with one's earthly parents; how is it different with the Divine Ones?

Cao Dai adepts know that a person has three constituents: the first is the physical body born of one's mortal parents; the second is the peri-spirit created by the Divine Mother/ the Mother Buddha; the third is the spirit, which comes from the Supreme Being. The deeper we delve into Cao Dai teachings, the greater gratitude we feel towards the Divine Creators.

What should we do to fulfill our filial duty towards the Supreme Being and the Divine Mother/ Mother Buddha? In this regard, His Holiness Ho Phap once reminded us: Serving living beings and saving sentient beings is filial piety to the Supreme Being; loving living beings and helping the disabled, the needy, etc., is filial piety towards the Divine Mother/ the Mother Buddha. The best example of these virtues can be found nowhere else other than His Holiness himself. His teachings on mortal and holy piety are innumerable and only accessible by those who know Vietnamese. International audience and those who would love to study them are strongly encouraged to learn Vietnamese.

Adapted from an essay written by the late Pham Van Kham.

Filial piety in the three religions


The Analects of Confucius. Chinese Text Project, Retrieved on August 5, 2022.

Teon, Arise. Filial Piety (孝) in Chinese Culture. The Greater China Journal, March 14, 2016.