Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism

by Guang Xing (Author)
©2022 Monographs XXII, 346 Pages


This book investigates how Buddhism gradually integrated itself into the Chinese culture by taking filial piety as a case study because it is an important moral teaching in Confucianism and it has shaped nearly every aspect of Chinese social life. The Chinese criticized Buddhism mainly on ethical grounds as Buddhist clergies left their parents’ homes, did not marry, and were without offspring—actions which were completely contrary to the Confucian concept and practice of filial piety that emphasizes family life. Chinese Buddhists responded to these criticisms in six different ways while accepting good teachings from the Chinese philosophy. They also argued and even refuted some emotional charges such as rejecting everything non-Chinese. The elite responded in theoretical argumentation by (1) translations of and references to Buddhist scriptures that taught filial behavior, (2) writing scholarly refutations of the charges of unfilial practices, such as Qisong’s Xiaolun (Treatise of Filial Piety), (3) interpreting Buddhist precepts as equal to the Confucian concept of filial piety, and (4) teaching people to pay four kinds of compassions to four groups of people: parents, all sentient beings, kings, and Buddhism. In practice the ordinary Buddhists responded by (1) composing apocryphal scriptures and (2) popularizing stories and parables that teach filial piety, such as the stories of Shanzi and Mulian, by ways of public lectures, painted illustrations on walls and silk, annual celebration of the ghost festival, etc. Thus, Buddhism finally integrated into the Chinese culture and became a distinctive Chinese Buddhism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • List of Tables
  • Foreword by Professor Timothy H. Barrett
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Filial Piety in Early Buddhism
  • Introduction
  • Filial Piety as a Way of Repaying the Compassion of Parents
  • Filial Piety as a Chief Ethical Wholesome Action
  • Filial Piety as Dharma: The Social Order
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Early Buddhist and Confucian Concepts of Filial Piety: A Comparative Study
  • Introduction
  • Similarities in Confucianism and Buddhism
  • Differences in Buddhism and Confucianism
  • Two Special Aspects in Confucian Filial Piety
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Three: The Spread of the Buddhist Teaching of Filial Piety during the Six Dynasties: A Study Based on the Shanzi Jing and the Yulanpen Jing
  • Introduction
  • The Shanzi Jing (Śyāmā Sūtra)
  • The Yulanpen Jing (Ullambana Sūtra)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Buddhist Responses to Confucian and Daoist Criticisms of Filial Piety
  • Introduction
  • Translation of Sūtras Related to Filial Piety
  • Writing Scholarly Refutations of Criticism of Buddhists as Unfilial
  • Popularization of Stories and Parables on Filial Piety in China
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Five: “Filial Piety are the Precepts”: Chinese Buddhist Reinterpretation of the Precepts
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Argument for “Filial Piety Are Precepts”
  • The Buddhist Five Precepts and the Confucian Five Virtues
  • Promotion of the Idea “Filial Piety Are Precepts”
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Six: A Study of the Apocryphal Text: Fumu Enzhong Jing
  • Introduction
  • The Authentic Version of the Fumu’en Nanbao Jing
  • The Probable Date and Translator of the Authentic Fumu’en Nanbao Jing
  • The Apocryphal Text Fumu Enzhong Jing
  • Dating the Apocryphal Text Fumu Enzhong Jing
  • Causes for the Composition of the Apocryphal Fumu Enzhong Jing
  • Composing the Fumu Enzhong Jing: Making Buddhist Filial Piety Acceptable
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: A Study of Repaying the Four Kinds of Compassion
  • Introduction
  • The Four Kinds of Compassion in Indian Buddhism
  • The Four Kinds of Compassion in Chinese Buddhism
  • New Contents
  • Repaying the Compassion of Emperors
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Qisong’s Xiaolun (Treatise on Filial Piety): A Study and Critical Translation
  • Introduction
  • The Background to the Composition of the Xiaolun
  • An Analysis of the Thought Presented in the Xiaolun
  • Critical Translation of the Xiaolun Together with Preface
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←x | xi→


The research project of Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism was started in 2005, sometime fourteen years ago. During these long years, many people have helped me in different ways. I express my deep gratitude to the late Venerable Professor Anuruddha, Venerable Professor KL Dhammajoti, Professor Y. Karunadasa, and Professor Toshiichi Endo together with his wife Mrs. Prema Endo. They were my teachers when I was studying in Sri Lanka thirty years ago, and they are still my teachers as I continue to get advice from them from time to time. They have not only inspired me in my studies but also provided me with great help and support both in academic studies and during my life in Colombo. They have also expressed a special interest and given me valuable advices during the writing of this book. They are always willing to help whenever I have some questions. My special thanks go to Professor Timothy H. Barrett for his guidance and encouragement in my studies at SOAS and for his kindness to write the foreword for this book.

In the summer of 2007, I visited Japan in order to collect some articles and books related to filial piety written by Japanese scholars. Professor Hiroshi Kanno and Professor Toru Funayama helped me in many different ways so that I could get most of the material I need for my research projects. My sincere thanks also go to Professor Kiyotaka Kimura at the International College for Postgraduate ←xi | xii→Buddhist Studies in Tokyo, who also kindly offered me with much help when I visited the college.

I also sincerely express my gratitude to Professor Lee Chack Fan, who has not only expressed great interest in my research on filial piety since the very beginning but also concerned about my living in Hong Kong. My colleague, Professor Zhihua Yao at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has also given me many valuable suggestions and inspirations. Venerable Professor Jing Yin and Venerable Hin Hung kindly helped me to get the research fund. I am deeply grateful to their supports. I am really grateful to my colleague Dr. Chung-hui Tsui who has kindly written the Chinese calligraphy of Xiao 孝 for the cover and I express my special thanks to her.

I would also like to express my sincere indebtedness to all others who have helped me when I wrote and revised my manuscript at different stages. Ms Chieko Yamada has helped me much by taking me to libraries and bookstores in Tokyo in the summer of 2007, which has saved me a lot of time. Dr. Mingyuan Gao has helped me in translating many difficult passages, particularly passages related to Yogācāra ideas, and proofread the entire manuscript. Dr. Lin Lin has also helped in making draft translation of three chapters of my writings, and Dr. Dipen Barua, Miss Lingfeng Tan, and Miss Xia Yun proofread the chapters. My special thanks also go to Maitripushpa Bois who has proofread the entire manuscript. I am equally grateful to Dr. Wang Bing, Venerable Dr. Yanzheng, Venerable Dr. Dawu, Venerable Dr. Sumana, and Venerable Hongxiang who have helped me by collecting copying materials for my research. Here I also thank the anonymous reviewer who has provided me with many valuable suggestions for revising the manuscript. I express my hearty thanks to my wife Sara Li who single handedly takes care of our daughter Jasmine when I revise my manuscript for publication.

Many people have encouraged and supported me in various different ways. I express my deep gratitude to them for their compassion. They are Venerable Master Wei Wu, Professor Richard Gombrich, Professor Lewis Lancaster, Professor Damien Keown, Professor Tadeusz Skorupski, Professor Chien-Huang Chen, Professor Yau-nang Ng, Professor Sheng Kai, Professor Wei Shan, Professor G. A. Somaratne, Professor Georgios T. Halkias, and Professor Chengzhong Pu.

Most of the chapters in both English and Chinese are published in some international academic journals. I am grateful to the following journals for permission to reprint them. They include the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, the Journal of Chinese Philosophy, the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture, the Religious Studies, Studies in Humanistic Buddhism, the Foxue Yanjiu, and IBC Journal of Buddhist Studies. ←xii | xiii→However, all these chapters have been revised extensively with improved arguments and presentation as I have found some new material and ideas. Particularly, I have deleted the last section “Filial Piety in Mahāyāna Buddhism” in Chapter One, while section on “Avenging Parents versus Showing Compassion” has been added in Chapter Two, and section on “The Compassion of Emperors” has been added in Chapter Seven. Last but not least, thanks also go to the acquisition editors Li Na and Suma George of Peter Lang Publication.

This research is initially sponsored by the Li Chong Yuet Ming Buddhist Studies Fund of the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Their sponsorship enabled me to purchase some precious books in Japan. I am equally sincerely grateful to them.

Guang Xing
Associate Professor and Director
Centre of Buddhist Studies
The University of Hong Kong

←xiv | xv→







Supplement to the Dazangjing 大藏經補編

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association 中華電子佛典協會

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha









Jiaxing Zang 嘉興藏

The Long Discourses of the Buddha




The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha




Pali Text Society, London, Oxford

The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha

Pelliot Collection of Dunhuang Manuscripts.







Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiaka. T2887 means Taishō Text No. 2887. T55, 29c means Taishō Volume 55, page 29, column c.

Tangut Khara-Khoto Collection of Woodblock Editions of Buddhist Texts Preserved in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences←xv | xvi→







Pāli Vinaya

Shinsan Dai Nihon zokuzōkyō (Xuzang Jing)

Dunhuang Mogao Ku Neirong Zonglu 敦煌莫高窟內容總錄

Zangwai Fojiao Wenxian 藏外佛教文獻

←xviii | xix→


Timothy H. Barrett

Professor Emeritus, East Asian History, SOAS, University of London

About the time that Marco Polo was in Mongol-ruled China in the late thirteenth century, the rulers there produced a version of the Classic of Filial Piety (Xiaojing) translated into their own language, most of which survives to this day.1 It appears unlikely that the Mongols needed information on how to look after their parents: most of the peoples of the world have their own traditions of respectful care for the elderly, after all. But the Chinese discourse of filial piety occupies such an important place in the cultural and political life of Chinese speakers that all outsiders are well advised to familiarise themselves with its complex manifestations. To at least one observer today family values would seem to have always been lain at the very heart of the Chinese way of life over the centuries.2 What is more, while another observer takes a very different view, starting from the role of the state, the conspicuous spending associated in times past with filial observances does get a well-deserved mention in that work too, even if only to illustrate the criticism of outsiders.3

But what Guang Xing’s thoroughly researched monograph reconsidering the meaning of filial piety from the perspective of Buddhism achieves is to explain how important discourse in this area was at every level. It was not just a solely domestic matter, nor was it an empty rhetoric current only amongst educated polemicists, divorced from real concerns. Indeed, the knitting together of domestic observance ←xix | xx→and state ideology through the promotion of the Classic of Filial Piety seems to have been one of the most characteristic features of imperial China, going back to its foundations under the Han dynasty, well before Buddhism found its own place in Chinese society.4 In his seventh chapter Guang Xing, drawing on the research of Hou Xudong and others, shows how in China, Buddhists adapted to this ideological dimension in the practice of filial piety even before the Tang period, though it was during that dynasty that scholars first noticed how prevalent this feature of practice was.5 The state, as it happened, especially when under the control of non-Chinese speakers, made the practice of filial piety a matter of explicit concern right to the end of the imperial period.6

Yet the Buddhists plainly did not submit to wholesale Sinification: as the recent work of Shayne Clarke has shown, the celibate Buddhist clergy of India show a remarkable familiarity with family life, and the opening chapters of Guang Xing’s study document in some detail how much learning concerning filial piety they brought to China with them.7 References in Indian texts translated by the Chinese word for “filial piety” may be found even in the earliest translations.8 The importation of fresh materials to enlarge the discussion was not solely confined to discourse, either: the entire conception of filial piety in China was imaginatively enriched by new literary examples as well. Thus one could point, for instance, to Ajātaśatru as a new Indian model of less than filial conduct.9 The Buddha’s filial conduct towards his mother might also be adduced.10 What is more, Chinese Buddhists responded imaginatively themselves, with new literary creations concerning figures like Mulian and Miaoshan, so Guang Xing devotes much attention to these materials in the forms in which they emerged in China. It is worth pointing out, too, that their impact extended much further than the linguistic world in which they were first composed, to other Buddhists speaking other languages beyond the Sinophone world. In this way the story of Mulian has been known in Tibetan for over one thousand years; for several centuries Miaoshan has been an important figure in Vietnam.11

So Guang Xing’s solid work can form the basis for many further explorations of this important aspect of Chinese culture in relation to other ways of life, from India onward. Particularly impressive is the way in which just as was the case with the Mongol translators of Marco Polo’s time, a very carefully translated Chinese source forms the crowning achievement of this enterprise. The eleventh-century essay by Qisong giving a considered account of filial piety after almost a millennium of the encounter between Chinese Buddhists and their critics is a document of great value, but to produce a version in English has been no easy matter. Qisong was a great stylist in an age when prose style was a matter of intense ←xx | xxi→debate, so rendering his complex arguments into another language demands both skill and knowledge. We are all very much in Guang Xing’s debt for the findings presented in the following pages.


←xxii | 1→


When Buddhism was first introduced into China in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), it faced strong challenges from existing elements in the local Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism. This was because Confucianism had become the dominant ideology in Chinese society with the support of Emperor Wu of Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE). The idea of “ruling the state by using filial piety” was conceived of and implemented in this dynasty, and continued until the end of the imperial rule at the beginning of twentieth century, as loyalty to the emperor was also considered part of filial practice in Confucian thought. Thus, the criticisms of Buddhism by Confucian scholars were mainly on ethical grounds, particularly from the perspective of filial piety. This is because filial piety is an important moral teaching in Confucianism, and it “has shaped nearly every aspect of Chinese social life” as demonstrated by Keith N. Knapp in his study.

Not taking the filial piety stories seriously is a mistake because from AD 100 straight to the 1949 Communist takeover of China, they were immensely popular among all social classes. Their enduring popularity was due to the effectiveness with which they illustrated the paramount cultural value of xiao (filial piety), which has shaped nearly every aspect of Chinese social life: attitudes toward authority, patterns of residence, conceptions of self, marriage practices, gender preferences, emotional life, religious worship, and social relations. In fact, during the imperial ←1 | 2→age, Chinese largely defined good behavior in terms of whether or not one was a good son or daughter. Xiao has had such an extraordinary impact on Chinese social life that Chinese and Japanese scholars have claimed that it is the basis of Chinese culture. One student of Confucianism has even claimed that xiao was and still is the basis of East Asian religiosity.1

On the other hand, the Buddhist way of life primarily focuses on liberation through inner transformation and moral perfection. This is very different from Confucianism, which chiefly focuses on relationships between people (family, ruler) and society. One clear example of this difference is the life of Buddhist monks, who were required to be celibate, shave their heads, and leave their homes and families. This was incompatible to the Confucian practice of filial piety as found in the Xiaojing (Book of Filial Piety). This attitude is reflected in the Mouzi Lihuolun (Mouzi’s Resolve to Chinese Doubts), a book written in the second century CE to refute such criticisms.2


XXII, 346
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism Guang Xing Filial Piety Parents Father and mother Confucian Criticism Fumu enzhong jing Family Qisong Xiaolun
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XXII, 346 pp., 9 tables.

Biographical notes

Guang Xing (Author)

Guang Xing (PhD, School of Oriental and African Studies) is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong and a Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia. His publications include The Concept of the Buddha, The Historical Buddha, and many papers.


Title: Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism
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