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Filial Piety in Zen Buddhist Discursive Paradigm Essay

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Updated: Nov 5th, 2020


There can be only a few doubts that the Confucian concept of Xiao (filial piety) did play an essential role within the context of defining the main postulates of Zen Buddhism. Nevertheless, there appears to have been a phenomenological quality to the development in question, because during the initial phase of Buddhism’s expansion into China this concept used to be commonly regarded contradictory to the religion’s glorification of one’s willingness to indulge in social withdrawal, as well as to the Zen Buddhist outlook on the theological significance and practical implications of monasticism. In this paper, I will expound on how it was possible to the virtue of filial piety to end up being considered an essential part of the Zen Buddhist discursive paradigm. I will also outline the scope of the most powerful effects that the mentioned concept has had on the development of Zen Buddhism as we know it.

Analytical part

It is now assumed that Buddhism began expanding into China through the 3rd century BC. By this time, Confucianism has already been enjoying the status of an established religion throughout the country. Just as it has commonly been the case with humanity’s other ‘early’ religions (the ones that derived out of people’s animistic/primeval beliefs), Confucianism had a strongly defined utilitarian value to the sounding of most of its provisions, concerned with encouraging people to adopt a socially integrated mode of existence – the central precondition of socio-cultural progress. In this respect, the Xiao principle stands out particularly illustrative.

The reason for this is apparent – according to Confucius, one’s life can only be considered virtuous for as long as the person never ceases to apply a continual effort into maintaining strong ties with his close relatives. As the Master pointed out, “The noble person concerns himself with the root; when the root is established, the Way is born… A young man is to be filial within his family and respectful outside it. He is to be earnest and faithful, overflowing in his love for living beings and intimate with those who are humane”.1 It is understood, of course, that to be able to live up to the mentioned Confucian ‘commandment,’ an individual must be willing to lead a relatively secular (worldly) lifestyle while keeping in close touch with his/her close relatives and prioritizing his/her social duties above everything else.

Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that the introduction of Buddhism to China has been initially met with much resistance on the Confucian practitioners’ part. The reason for this is quite apparent – most Buddhist cannons can be the least referred to as ‘worldly,’ especially the ones concerned with interpreting the significance of meditation.2 This could not be otherwise – the Buddhist four main postulates presuppose that one’s intention to adopt the posture of a socially withdrawn individual is a pathway towards enlightenment, “(1) All life is inevitably sorrowful, (2) sorrow is due to craving, (3) sorrow can only be slopped by the slopping of craving, and (4) this can be done by (leading)… the life of concentration and meditation”.3

And, while experiencing the sensation of emotional alienation from the surrounding physical reality, people are simply in no position to consider caring about the family matters too much, if at all – something that naturally prompts these individuals to consider becoming monks. Given the fact that Buddhist monks were expected to take a vow of celibacy, this complicated the issue even further. After all, celibacy leads to childlessness, and the latter has traditionally been deemed one of the greatest vices in China. In this regard, Zürcher came up with the valuable observation, “Community the members of which profess to ‘withdraw from the household into the houseless state,’ to sever all social ties, to observe strict celibacy throughout life, to shave their heads… ran counter to the most fundamental principles of Chinese ethics”.4

Nevertheless, as time went on, the Xiao was being perceived increasingly compatible with the Buddhist paradigm, in general, and with the religion’s Chan (Zen) branch, in particular. The main reason for this was that throughout the 5th-12th centuries AD, many of the most famous Chinese-born advocates of Buddhism continued to apply a great effort in promoting the idea that the principle of filial piety does not only correlate perfectly well with one’s commitment to attaining Bodhi (enlightenment) but that it should be referred to as yet another instrument for lessening the severity of his or her egoistic anxieties. As Xing pointed out, “Chinese Buddhists responded (to the accusation that Buddhism contradicts the Xiao principle) by (i) translations of and references to Buddhist sutras that taught filial behavior; (ii) writing scholarly refutations of the charges of unfilial practices”.5 The foremost motivation for them to assume such an argumentative stance had to do with these individuals’ realization of the fact that both the Confucian virtue of Xiao and the Buddhist veneration of social withdrawal were resulting in virtually the same – helping the concerned person to objectify himself/herself within the surrounding environment. Of course, it is understood that this specific objective is entirely consistent with the Buddhist outlook on life; as such, that implies the ephemeral essence of one’s sense of personal self-identity.6

Master Mou is commonly listed among the Chinese intellectuals who contributed the most towards making it possible for the concept of filial piety to be incorporated as an integral element of Zen Buddhism. For example, while addressing the suggestion that the Buddhist outlook on the importance of meditation leaves very little room for filial piety, Mou used to point out at the sheer inappropriateness of assessing the issue from the cause-effect perspective, “If one has great virtue, one should not cling to minor matters7 Mou’s argument in this respect resulted in undermining the methodological soundness of the Confucian criticism of Buddhism. Mou was also the first Buddhist intellectual who refuted the Confucian claim about the unfilial nature of the Buddhist monastic customs. According to him, the metaphysical considerations of ‘virtue’ (extrapolated by the lifestyle of a monk) should be held in much higher regard than those concerned with ensuring the physical well-being of one’s body.

Sun Chuo was another famous contributor to proving the possibility of syncretism between Confucianism and Buddhism, within the context of how both religions go about defining the significance of filial piety. Specifically, Chuo used to argue the one’s decision to become a Buddhist monk can be considered the highest expression of the Xiao principle at work. The reason for this is that, according to the Buddhist scholar in question, such a decision does not only represent a high moral value as a thing-in-self but also provides much esteem to the parents of a person who comes up with it, “Filial piety is important because it is to establish [their] character by the practice of the [filial] course to forever glorify their parents”.8 Chuo was able to formulate yet another important argument in favor of the idea that there is nothing incompatible between the principle of filial piety and Buddhism, by referring to Buddha’s conversion of his own father. This, of course, helped to legitimize the Xiao principle within Buddhism even further.

The emergence and sub-sequential development of the Chan branch of Buddhism established even more preconditions for the Confucian principle in question to be recognized as one of the most fundamental cornerstones of the Buddhist religion, as a whole. In this regard, we will need to mention the intellectual legacy of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng – the founder of the ‘Southern’ school in Chan Buddhism, known for its affiliation with the ‘instantaneous enlightenment’ postulate.9 The reason for this is that this postulate implied that even those strongly committed to acting on behalf of their parents and close relatives while leading a thoroughly secularized existence, were still in the position (although purely theoretical) to aspire for the eventual attainment of Buddhahood. As a result, there emerged even more reasons for the Chan practitioners in China to consider their outlook on life perfectly consistent with the Confucian insights into the meaning of one’s existence.

What has been said earlier implies that Xiao’s concept was objectively predetermined to have a strong effect on the very formation of most Zen Buddhist conventions. The validity of this statement can be illustrated with ease, regarding the unmistakably ‘Confucian’ sounding many Zen Buddhist principles and affiliated practices. The most notable of them are as follows:

  • There has always been a ‘familial’ quality to the functioning of Zen Buddhist monasteries. That is, Zen Buddhist monks never ceased being expected to treat each other as brothers, in the quite literal sense of this word. And, there can be only a few doubts as to the fact that the Xiao virtue did play an active role in bringing about such a state of affairs. As Schlutter noted, “Chinese monastic Buddhism adopted organizational models and interrelational terms borrowed from the Chinese family kinship system, establishing a kind of ‘fictive’ or ‘putative’ kinship, as anthropologists have called it”.10 This shows that there is indeed much rationale to the suggestions that Zen Buddhism is reflective of the workings of what now is commonly referred to as one’s ‘Oriental’ (or ‘Asian’) psyche.
  • Zen Buddhism contains several implicit provisions that aim to ‘commodity’ women, in the sense of presupposing that there is a positive correlation between the notions of virtue and virginity/chastity, “The Buddhist priest sleeps alone because women (have to) guard their chastity”.11 In its turn, this is best discussed as one of the consequences of embedding the principle of filial piety into the Buddhist paradigm’s very core. After all, the concerned principle never ceased to reflect the strongly patriarchal (male-chauvinist) essence of the relationship between men and women in Chinese society.
  • Even though Zen Buddhism presumes that the weaker a person’s willingness to engage in worldly affairs, the better are his chances to succeed in reaching the state of Buddhahood. The concerned religion nevertheless praises the virtue of one’s loyalty to a secular authority, as something that has the value of its own. As it was mentioned in Schlutter’s book, “The (Buddhist) clergy displays a touching loyalty to the throne, for at every religious ceremony they pray for the well-being of the State”.12 This again can be deemed as yet another consequence of Buddhism’s willingness to appropriate Xiao. The reason for this that the religion’s veneration of loyalty (as an abstract category) has an easily notable ‘familial’ (utilitarian) quality to it, concerned encouraging people to think tribal.


I believe that what has been said earlier correlates well with the paper’s initial thesis. There is indeed a certain rationale to think of the integration of the Xiao principle within Zen Buddhism as being phenomenological to an extent. Nevertheless, as one can infer from the provided discursive clues, there were many objective prerequisites for the concerned development to occur early in the history of this religion-philosophy. The main of them has to do with the fact that, just as it is the case with the principle of filial piety, Zen Buddhism calls for the suppression of one’s ego – the main reason why it did not prove particularly challenging for the early Buddhist practitioners to appropriate Xiao. Thus, it will be appropriate to regard the discussed development as such that provides us with a better understanding of what has made possible the upsurge of religious syncretism between Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in China.


De Bar, William; Bloom, Irene and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Schlutter, Morten. How Zen became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

Sosa, Ernest. “Confucius on Knowledge.” Dao : A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 14, no. 3 (2015): 325-330.

Xing, Guang. “A Buddhist-Confucian Controversy on Filial Piety.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37, no. 2 (2010): 248-260.

Yampolsky, Phillip. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Zurcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. Leiden: Brill Press, 2007.


  1. William De Bar, Irene Bloom and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 45.
  2. Phillip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 135.
  3. De Bar, Bloom and Adler, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 146.
  4. Erik Zurcher. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China (Leiden: Brill Press, 2007), 281.
  5. Ibid., 249.
  6. Ernest Sosa, “Confucius on Knowledge.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 14, no. 3 (2015): 327.
  7. Guang Xing, “A Buddhist-Confucian Controversy on Filial Piety.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37, no. 2 (2010): 250.
  8. Ibid., 251.
  9. Morten Schlutter. How Zen became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 19.
  10. Ibid., 55.
  11. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, 306.
  12. Schlutter, How Zen became Zen, 108.
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