Filial Piety in Buddhism

In Confucianism, filial piety is an important virtue and primarily means children or younger persons’ duty to respect, obey, and care for one’s parents and elderly family members. It is usually the obedience aspect that causes great problem and suffering resulting in the famous story like ‘Liang Zhu’ (梁祝) etc.

In the early days of Chinese Buddhism, filial piety was not regarded as an important feature, but in order to make Buddhism more acceptable to the Chinese population, Buddhism incorporate it into its scripture. The idea of filial piety did not exist in Indian Buddhism, as can be seen in the original Pali or Sanskrit texts where there is no such term corresponding or equivalent to the idea of ‘xiao’ (孝 filial piety in Chinese). The term ‘xiao’ found in the Chinese translations of sutras, therefore, must has been coined and added.

Interestingly to find that there are two Suttas in the Pali Canon that pointed out that performing unwholesome deeds for the sake of parents (or obeying the parents) will eventually meet with punishment. Kamma is supreme, not filial piety.

In another sutta, the Buddha says that there is no way one can repay the debt to one’s parents unless one does the four things to them: establish faith; morality; generosity; and wisdom. Please take note that the phrase used here is ‘repay the debt’ (报父母恩 and not 孝). Meaning that ‘filial piety’ is not an original Buddhist virtue.

Moreover, there is a famous Mahayana sutta called ‘佛说父母恩难报经’ of which scholars found it to be a fabrication of another real sutta called ‘佛说父母恩难报经’. According to them, this fake sutta is using Buddhism to spread Confucianism. Please ‘Baidu’ to find out more. Just more prove that the two things are quite different. Hence, don’t confuse ‘filial piety’ with ‘repay the debt’ in Buddhism.

Filial Piety Issue in Buddhism

Buddhist scholars like Kenneth Ch'en have argued that the teaching of filial piety was a special feature of Chinese Buddhism as a response to the Chinese culture. Others, among them John Strong and Gregory Schopen, have shown that filial piety was also important in Indian Buddhism, but Strong does not consider it integral to the belief system and Schopen did not find evidence of it in early writings he examined. In this article, through an analysis of early Buddhist resources, the Nikāyas and Āgamas, I demonstrate that the practice of filial piety has been the chief good karma in the Buddhist moral teaching since its inception, although it is not as foundational for Buddhist ethics as it is for Confucian ethics. The Buddha advised people to honor parents as the Brahmā, the supreme god and the creator of human beings in Hinduism, as parents have done much for their children. Hence, Buddhism teaches its followers to pay their debts to parents by supporting and respecting them, actions that are considered the first of all meritorious deeds, or good karma, in Buddhist moral teachings. Moreover, according to the Buddhist teaching of karma, matricide and patricide are considered two of the five gravest bad deeds, and the consequence is immediate rebirth in hell. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed the idea of filial piety further and formulated the four debts to four groups of people—parents, sentient beings, rulers, and Buddhism—a teaching that became very popular in Chinese Buddhism and spread to other East Asian countries.


In the original Indian version, Gautama Buddha is cremated: that's very Indian. In China, the dead Buddha lies in a “golden coffin”: oh, so Chinese. To the point that the Chinese considered cremation barbarous. In Thailand, sculptures portray Buddha as Thai court royalty: ah, so Siamese. In Korea, Jesus becomes a Chinese-style mandarin with almond eyes who wears the typical Korean hat in a Jerusalem that looks like Peking, with pagoda roofs etc. In China, Catholics portray baby Jesus in the yellow robe of a baby Emperor.

Even Gautama Buddha (Mahayana Mahamaya Sutra) rises from his golden coffin to preach a last sermon to his distraught mother who had descended from heaven; he then lies in his coffin, and closes the lid over himself: the tomb is both occupied and empty. In Mahayana Japanese Buddhism, the golden coffin story is told as an epitome of filial piety

In the Chinese tradition, respect for elders and filial piety go hand in hand. It depends on the lore, however. The Tibetan Buddhist Udanavarga (Appendix, p.206) sees Gautama Buddha being rebuked by a 100 year old Brahman who accused him of lacking respect for elders. Buddha confronted the Brahman and concluded:”I am an elder for the whole world”.