The Twelve Virtues
Filial piety is the root of Chinese culture, just like a big tree, it is the root. The people of ancient China say, "Of all the good deeds, filial piety is foremost." Confucius says, "Filial piety is the root of all virtues." Filial piety is the foundation of moral virtue and the principle virtue of our self-nature. Filial piety embodies the endless capability and goodness of our self-nature. So the awakening of a person's moral virtue begins with filial piety. Fulfilling one's filial duty is our self-nature's perfect manifestation of its innate capacity for good. If a person is not filial, no matter how many good deeds he performs, they are all false. Just like cut flowers in a vase, they are all very beautiful, but they have no roots. After a few days, they wither and die. Therefore filial piety is the most important; without it, we have no roots.
The character for filial piety 「孝」is an associative compound ideogram. On the top is the character for old "lao"「老」, on the bottom is the character for child, "zi" 「子」. Thus emerges a new character formed by these two characters. It signifies that the former generation and the later generation are one entity; with the former generation, and the generation before that, going back forever, and the next generation, and the generation after that, going on forever. Recognizing this, we can finally understand why we have to pay respects to our ancestors, carefully perform the funeral rites of our parents and remember them long after they are gone. Because our ancestors and our posterity are one whole entity, they cannot be considered separately. By extension, filial piety is what Buddhists would describe as a notion, "traversing through the past, present and future, and transcending time and space in each and every direction.” We, ourselves, are one living entity with the universe and all living things in it. This is just like what Zhuangzi said: "The heaven and earth co-exist with me; all things and I are one.
"If we look upon all living beings as if they are our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, every time we meet someone the same age as our mother and father, we will then show them the same respect and filial piety that we do to our own parents. Likewise, when we meet children at the same age as our own children, we must look upon them as our own children. So when can we finally realize that we are actually one entity? When we have seen thoroughly into our original nature, achieved perfect enlightenment, and when everything becomes clear; it is only then that we may realize that loving others is loving oneself.
Traditional Chinese education actually originates from filial piety. For instance, if we look at a baby, it can't speak, nobody teaches it, yet it unconditionally loves its parents, it trusts its parents. Its parents also unconditionally love their child. The ancient saints and sages saw this natural love between parents and their children as the most precious virtue in the entire world. They thought, how could we make sure that this natural love can be preserved forever; that is when they thought of education. This became the practice of filial piety. It is the foundation of all moral virtues. Chinese education simply teaches Filial Piety. As long as a person's love and compassion for his parents remains eternally constant, he will love his brothers, love his spouse, love his relatives, love his neighbors, love his friends, he will be loyal and love his country, and even be able to sacrifice his own needs for the needs of all living things. All is the result of the education of Filial Piety.
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Respect is the stem of Chinese culture, like the trunk of a tree, all the other branches grow from it. If we take filial piety and carry it out in the serving of our elder siblings, we may call this Fraternity or "Ti"「悌」. Fraternity means being respectful to and honoring those who are older than us. Brothers and sisters living in harmony are a representation of Fraternity. When we extend this idea, its means respecting our elders, respecting our teachers, and revering their teachings. So as students how we respectfully serve our teachers, this is also "Fraternity." This is the art of tradition handed down by the master to his student. Filial Piety is the root, honor and respect for one's teachers is the trunk. Traditional Chinese culture is found upon Filial Piety and respect for teachers and elders.
In life, when we receive karmic rewards and feel blessed and happy, what is the root cause of this? The root cause is filial piety and in respecting the teachings passed down to us by our teachers. Filial piety and respect for one’s teachers are virtues of equal importance that complement each other, like a car with two wheels, a bird with a pair of wings; one side does not work without the other. Filial piety represents the Way, Fraternity represents the Virtue and together they are the Virtuous Way. Respecting and honoring our parents is Filial Piety while serving and abiding by our teachers is Fraternity. So the Way of a saint or sage is simply the carrying out of Filial Piety and respect and honor for our teachers. If all people were to be filial to their parents and loved ones, and respectful to their teachers and seniors, society would be stable, people would live in harmony with each other, we might even say that all kinds of conflicts would be resolved, and that world harmony could be upheld.
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The character for“Loyalty" "zhong" 「忠」is a combined associative character. On top of the character for "heart" "xin" 「心」, is the character for "center" "zhong" 「中」. The mind is neither biased nor deviated, this is the meaning of "Zhong" or Loyalty. In everything we do, we do our utmost. In regard to our country, in regard to our families, we are always loyal and devoted. We must not be biased or have deviated thoughts. As soon as we become biased, we hurt others and ourselves. When our hearts are not biased we are able to behave benevolently and without personal interest. Everywhere we go we give thought to others.
In Confucianism it is known as the Doctrine of Mean, in Buddhism it is known as the Middle Way. Both of these represent the meanings of "Zhong" or Loyalty. Loyalty means giving one's whole heart, being sincere and forthright. Half-heartedness is not Loyalty; it would carry bias and evil-mindedness. In Mahayana Buddhism it is known as Sincerity. Loyalty is sincerity; two notions contain the same meaning. The Qing Dynasty politician Mr. Zeng Guofan once explained the word "sincerity" as in "Without giving rise to even a single thought is sincerity." This is also the meaning of Loyalty, being truly sincere.
When we have even a little bit of bias or deviated thinking, we have become deluded. This delusion is a result of our deluded mind. So in our daily lives, we must maintain a clear, impartial, and pure mind. In this way, our character will be righteous and honorable; this is displaying our utmost Loyalty.
If we study Buddhism, we can summarize the Buddha's teachings as having a sincere mind, a pure mind, an impartial mind, an awakened mind, a compassionate mind; this is all Loyalty. In regard to dealing with people, matters, and things, using a loyal and devoted mind, is following the Middle Way. Following the Middle Way means, being purified of defiling illusion, impartial, and having proper awareness; this is the way of the saints and sages and the Buddha.
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Trust is about keeping one's word, to speak and keep one's promise. This is one of the most basic principles of being a good person. Those who speak and keep their word perform tasks responsibly. They do what they say and never deceive others. This kind of person will receive society’s help and support. Confucius says, “Without credibility, one cannot establish himself." Our ancient ancestors regarded the virtue of Trust as the basis of all moral behavior. The success of all things comes from the virtue Trust. If there is no Trust, it is impossible to accomplish anything.
The sutras say, "Trust is the mother of all good merits; it nurtures all the goodness of our true nature." Trust is the entrance to the Way. The merits achieved in worldly matters and spiritual matters alike all arise from our ability to believe. If we do not have any faith or trust in the Way, we cannot cultivate or achieve any merits. So the greatness of our success is entirely based on the deepness of our faith or Trust.
We must have faith in our ancestors, in the ancient saints and sages, and in the Buddha. We must establish our faith; believe that human nature is originally good, that all living beings are originally a Buddha. Our Trust can be built on this foundation. Those who truly believe can achieve what Professor Fang Dong Mei explained as, "life's greatest enjoyment". They can live happily and free.
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Propriety is the standard in which we regulate our behavior. Our each and every movement, word, smile all must be in accordance with Propriety. Buddhism teaches about, "maintaining a solemn and dignified manner." Maintaining a solemn and dignified manner simply stated means being courteous, observing etiquette. Confucius says, "Those who do not know propriety have nothing to stand upon." In a society in the past, if one did not understand propriety, he or she would have no standing in society. So since ancient times, China has been called the land of propriety and righteousness, a place where everyone knows and upholds Propriety.
Everyone likes to be around individuals who uphold propriety and observe precepts. If we are able to make everyone we meet like us and not dislike us, it means that we have conducted ourselves successfully. So propriety is a virtue we must cultivate.
Propriety is about codes of conduct. It is society’s order, established standards and customs. People are social animals. If there are no established standards and rules society becomes a mess. So families have household rules, countries have national laws. The text "the Guidelines for Being a Good Person (Di Zi Gui)" is one hundred and thirteen rules every family can collectively follow. In addition, every family also has its own special rules, all of which can be compiled into a family genealogy, allowing the whole clan to collectively follow it.
Today's laws are also included as Propriety. So, the scope of Propriety is extremely vast. If all people could abide by the rules, abide by the law, uphold Propriety, and show mutual respect for each other, everyone could live in harmony together, resolve conflicts, reach a stable society and achieve peace on earth.
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Righteousness is adhering to proper principles; doing the right thing and abiding by the rules of nature. In other words, whether in regard to others or ourselves, our thoughts, words and actions are fair, reasonable, and compliant with the law and do not violate the moral principles, this is Righteousness. This is what we call nature’s conscience. Righteousness is fulfilling one's duty. Serving all living things and not seeking karmic reward or being concerned about rights, this is called duty. Today we call this doing volunteer work. Doing volunteer work simply means not wanting a reward. It means voluntarily serving society, serving the country, serving all living things; this is one kind of Righteousness and justice.
If members of a group were able to understand this logic and were able to uphold the principle of placing importance on collective duty and less on personal benefit; simultaneously if people could take the love and kinship felt for their parents and children and extend it to the relationships above and below themselves, we would all be able to care for each other, be more tolerant to each other, cherish one another, protect one another and work together to mutually exist and mutually prosper.
When all the people of a group respect the group, love the group, do not slander the group or harm the group, we can consider this a Righteousness and moral group. This kind of group is a good example of Righteousness for the rest of the world to follow. When our hearts are Righteous, our moral and benevolent, caring and grateful behavior can influence society and help save all living things; to help all living things return to goodness. This is precisely how a modern sage fulfils his duty.
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Integrity means being honest and clean not corrupt, not seeking improper rewards, and not taking even the slightest advantage of anyone. In China, since the Han dynasty, over two thousand years ago, when an emperor wanted to select the best officials there were two qualifications that each candidate had to possess. One was Filial Piety, and the other was Integrity.
Being frugal is a virtue. In everyday life, by fulfilling one's responsibilities, not being wasteful with even the slightest bit of food or drop of water, and by leading a simple, frugal life and not indulging in luxuries, we are practicing the virtue of Integrity. We must often reflect on the reality that there are still many people in the world on the verge of starvation, without food, clothing or shelter. So if we are able to drink even one glass of water, eat one bowl of rice, we must be grateful for this privilege. At the same time, we must open our hearts, to be constantly mindful of those suffering, and do our utmost to help them.
In regard to material things, we must practice conserving. We should not waste or discard things at will. We have to often think about the difficulty of obtaining such material resources; they do not come easy, and should not be taken for granted. We must not covet extravagance. Our abundant goods should be given to others, to aid those who are suffering. When our body and mind are pure and at peace, our physical strength is naturally ample. Thus plain and simple food is sufficient to maintain our health and well being.
When we live a life that is austere and without luxury, our hearts are less likely to harbor greed, anger, ignorance and arrogance. We become immune to corruptions, live selflessly, and are able to resist the negative stimuli around us. Buddhism emphasizes practice rather than words. Thus, we must be able to actually put into practice what the Dharma teaches and be an example for others to follow. We must not become even a little bit affected by fame and fortune or the five desires brought about by our six sensations. If we work diligently and persistently, focusing on our practice and cultivation without seeking rewards, naturally we will be rewarded.
By encouraging ourselves to act in this way all our lives, others will take notice of our integrity. They will be deeply moved and turn around and wish to study with us. This kind of transformative influence can have a significant impact and rectify the present corruption in society.
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Shamefulness is the awareness of shame, having remorse, feeling ashamed when not being able to live up to one's duty. In Chinese moral education, having a sense of shame is about maintaining a clear conscious in thoughts, words and actions.
The character "can" 「惭」means reflecting on whether our words can live up to our conscience. The character "kui" 「愧」is about facing public opinion and the criticism of the outside world so as to have a sense of apprehension about committing crimes. By not going against our conscience on the inside, we will not be vulnerable to public criticism on the outside. This is the virtue of Shamefulness.
Knowing Shamefulness helps us to set standards for our behavior. So with our rise of thoughts, words and actions, we must think as to whether or not we have violated such standards. We must reflect upon whether or not our actions will let down our parents, ancestors, or our own conscience. Will these actions cause others to criticize and denounce us? This is having a sense of shame, using our internal and external strength to reflect upon ourselves.
"The awareness of shame is akin to courage.” Why are people able to boldly dedicate themselves to progress and be strongly determined to succeed? This strength is nothing more than knowing shame. This is a person's motivation to forge ahead diligently. Buddhism teaches, "to boldly and powerfully forge ahead", Confucianism teaches to, "make constant progress day after day". Who can do this? Those who have a sense of shame are able to do this. If we can know Shamefulness, we can definitely make a determined effort and be diligent in improving ourselves.
The sutras tell us: “All things possess the Buddha-nature.” “All Tathagatas are one Dharma body.” If there is still a sentient being that has not become a Buddha, it is because he has not yet fully realised the virtue of his self-nature. Knowing this should remind us of a sense of shame. In this way, we can understand why all buddha’s and bodhisattvas respond to the needs of all living things seeking enlightenment. As a result, those who have just begun on the path to enlightenment feel incredibly grateful and a sense of shame naturally arises.
Only those who truly understand the principle of shamefulness can abide by the teachings of the Buddha and diligently cultivate. They are grateful for the help of the buddha’s, bodhisattvas, teachers and virtuous friends. This is known as “repaying the Four Kindnesses above and relieving the sufferings of those in the Three Realms below.” Thus, shamefulness is an extremely important virtue in our cultivation and can help us achieve moral virtue and benevolence.
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Benevolence & Love
The character "Ren"「仁」is also an associative compound character. One who is benevolent understands others. When he thinks of himself he immediately thinks of others. Himself and others are not separate entities. He uses a sincere, genuine and compassionate mind to put others before himself. "Do not do unto others what you do not wish others to do unto you." The things we are not willing to do, we cannot demand others to do. Loving others is loving oneself. Compassion, benevolence and universal love are all the meaning of "Ren" 「仁」Benevolence. A Benevolent person cherishes others. Loving others is the expansion of our natural love; expanding it to know that "each and every person needs our love".
We feel sympathy for people in today’s world. They do not know to love themselves, and similarly do not know to love others. Failure to maintain one’s innate goodness means not loving oneself. The Buddha said, “All living beings are originally Buddhas.” They have just regressed to the state of deluded beings creating negative karma, this is not loving oneself. We must love ourselves in order to love others. Loving others starts with loving our parents, our spouse and children, our family and relatives. It then gradually expands to loving all people.
Buddhism states that not only do we need to love all human beings, we also need to love all trees, plants, mountains and rivers. We have to use our sincerity, purity, impartiality and enlightenment in our interactions with all things. Just as the heaven and earth are without even the slightest selfishness, discrimination or attachment in sheltering and accommodating all living things, we must show compassion and love for the entire universe.
When people understand this love for others, they will not harm others. Today, most people’s thoughts relate to personal benefit at the expense of others. This is because they have lost compassion. “One who is benevolent has no enemies.” Benevolent people possess boundless compassion; their hearts know no enemies, no opposition. If everyone were to advocate benevolence and love, society would be harmonious and positive and all conflicts would be resolved.
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Harmony & Peace
Chinese people emphasize harmony and peace. This simply means, living in harmony with each other and treating each other equally. We often say "Peace, Harmony and Happiness." If we have harmony, we are peaceful and happy. If we want to have peace of mind, we must first be impartial. Only when we are impartial can we have peace of mind. Today our hearts are not impartial, how can we achieve impartiality? In the Chinese word, harmony is a precondition to impartiality. When we engage with others we have to be kind and harmonious. In this way, our hearts will naturally become impartial.
The Buddha teaches us to cultivate "the Six Principles of Harmony”. This is the foundation of all Buddhist precepts. The first of "the Six Principles of Harmony" is "Sharing the same viewpoints or goals. ”This means establishing common understanding. This is where Harmony takes root. Everyone shares a common view, a common way of thinking, and strives toward a common goal and direction. This is the basis of Harmony. Second, “Abiding by the same precepts". This means abiding by the laws and rules. In China, the text "The Guidelines for Being a Good Person (Di Zi Gui)" is the epitome of all social conventions. This is the common subject of learning for all families. The third is, “Living and practicing together harmoniously ". If we consider the greater environment, everyone shares the earth. If we consider the smaller environment, we live together in a city, town, or even a cultivation centre. Therefore, everyone must regulate their own words and actions, so as to not disrupt others, thereby allowing everyone to have a positive learning and living environment.
The fourth is, "Speaking without controversy." This means not engaging in disputes. The fifth is, “Experiencing the inner peace and happiness from practicing together harmoniously." This means everyone is happy and finds happiness in cultivating. The Sixth is, "Sharing benefits harmoniously." This means everyone's basic needs are met fairly. If a group can truly achieve the Six Principles of Harmony, everyone will enjoy equality. With such equality, they can attain peace of mind. And with peace, there comes happiness. The attainment of such peace and happiness is what Buddhism refers to as “breaking through delusion, realising enlightenment, ceasing suffering and attaining happiness.”
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The twelve virtues sums up the core ethical teaching. But how are they applied in governance and policy making? Let's find out!