The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven
By Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
From the 1998 issues of Vajra Bodhi Sea
Translated by The International Translation Institute
The Concept of Propriety
The word propriety is defined by a homonym in Chinese which means “to set up” or “to stand.” Therefore, Confucius said, “If a man has no sense of propriety, he has nothing to stand on.” He also said, “Serving [one's parents] with propriety when they are alive, burying them with propriety after death, and making sacrifices on their behalf with propriety is filial piety.”
Confucius' disciple, Zi Xia, asked about filial piety. The Master replied, “It consists in not getting angry.”
When Zi You asked about filial piety, the Master replied, “Filial piety nowadays consists of supporting one's parents.”
No matter what people do, they should have good manners. If you don't have good manners, then this shows a lack of education; you will appear rough and impolite. The word propriety is defined by a homonym in Chinese which means “to set up” or “to stand.” Propriety is what you establish your character on; with propriety you can have a good personality. Therefore, Confucius said, “If a man has no sense of propriety, he has nothing to stand on.” If a person doesn't show any courtesy to others, then he's no different from an animal. He cannot keep his standing for long. If he doesn't have any manners, there is no place for him in society or in the world.
He, Confucius, also said, “Serving [one's parents] with propriety when they are alive. Serving them with propriety means attending to them with courtesy. For example, in the morning one greets one's parents and asks if they slept well the night before, or if they were disturbed and could not sleep. At night, one makes sure one's mother and father have gone to bed and are sleeping peacefully. One checks to see if they are fully covered by their blankets. If not, one arranges the blankets to cover them. Before one goes out, one should tell one's parents where one is going. Upon returning, one should first go to see one's parents. This is all part of propriety. This is serving [one's parents] with propriety when they are alive.
Burying them with propriety after death. You cannot neglect them when they die. Their funeral arrangements should also be made in accord with propriety. And making sacrifices on their behalf with propriety. Is it the case that once they are buried, it's all over and there's nothing else you have to do? No. After their burial, you must make sacrifices. On certain special days, such as the day of their death and their birthday, you should go to their grave to make offerings—perhaps bringing some incense, flowers, or fruits. Ordinary laypeople may bring some wine or meat and invite their parents to partake of them. Such sacrifices should also be done in accord with propriety. You should set up an altar as when we bow to the Buddhas, and make a few bows. This is filial piety. This can be called filial piety.
Confucius' disciple, Zi Xia, asked about filial piety. Confucius often discussed the principles of filial piety with his disciples. After many such discussions, his student Zi Xia still didn’t understand. Zi Xia's surname was Gu, and his given name was Shang; Zi Xia was his alias. He said, “Teacher, today you spoke about filiality. I still don't quite understand exactly how we should fulfill our filial duties.” He didn't understand how to serve his parents with propriety when they were alive, how to bury them with propriety, and how to make sacrifices with propriety on their behalf after death, so he inquired about the meaning of filial piety.
The Master replied, “It consists in not getting angry.” What is meant by filial piety? The biggest problem in being filial and obedient to one's parents is to avoid getting angry. If one can avoid getting angry, just that is filial piety! To maintain a pleasant demeanor in serving one's parents is very difficult. This means not losing one's temper at one's parents. Because Zi Xia was a rough fellow who would glare at his parents and get mad at them, when he asked Confucius how to be filial, Confucius said it consisted in not getting angry. All you have to do is not get angry.
When Zi You asked about filial piety, the Master replied, “Filial piety nowadays consists of supporting one's parents. Keeping one's parents alive is considered filial piety nowadays.”
“But one could support dogs and horses in the same way. If there is no respect involved, what is the difference between the one kind of support and the other?”
This section is very crucial. All of Confucius' efforts in life were concentrated on this point. It's very important. All of you should pay attention. Even if you cannot put it into practice, you should understand this principle. If you can practice it, that's even better. We should know our proper role as children.
But one could support dogs and horses in the same way. If you merely support your parents the way you raise dogs and horses, does that mean dogs are your fathers and horses are your mothers? You take good care of your pets. At that time in China, people liked to raise dogs, just as in America nowadays people treat their dogs as if they were precious treasures.
Some people are fond of horses. Mao Zedong wrote a sixteen-character verse about riding a swift horse up the mountains. He said that upon applying the whip to the swift horse, before he could dismount, he looked back and saw that he was only three feet three inches from the sky—he was already that high. He was always exaggerating.
If there is no respect involved, what is the difference between the one kind of support and the other? If you don't show your parents any respect, what difference is there between supporting your parents and raising horses or dogs?
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness and the Master replied, “It consists of subduing the self and returning to propriety.” The disciple asked, “What is meant by subduing the self and returning to propriety?”
The Master replied, “Look at nothing improper, listen to nothing improper, say nothing improper, and do nothing improper.”
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. Yan Yuan had studied with Confucius for a long time. Confucius was always talking about humaneness, righteousness, and virtue, but Yan Yuan still didn't understand what humaneness was all about, so he said to his teacher, “I've heard you discourse upon humaneness, but I'm still unclear on the meaning. What is meant by humaneness?” And the Master replied, “It consists of subduing the self and returning to propriety.” Actually Confucius gave many different answers to this question, but this is the reply he gave in this situation.
What does it mean to subdue oneself? It means to subdue one's selfish desires and false thoughts. If you are able to subdue your desires and return to divine principle, then that is humaneness. The disciple, Yan Yuan, asked, “What is meant by subduing the self and returning to propriety? I really don't understand. What is meant by subduing selfish desires and returning to divine principle?” He was asking a level deeper. The Master replied, “Look at nothing improper. Don't look at anything that does not accord with propriety. For example, if people are fighting or someone is scolding another person, don't watch or listen to them. Quickly walk away. If there is a striptease performance going on, where women take off their clothes and dance in the nude, you shouldn't watch it. If you watch, then you are not in accord with propriety.
Listen to nothing improper. You shouldn't listen to love songs that talk about how I love you and you love me. If you listen to that kind of music, you'll get so confused that you won't know whether you're alive or dead. A thug could hold a knife to your head and you wouldn't even be aware of it until you opened your eyes. So one should not listen to improper kinds of music. Say nothing improper. Do not say things that are impolite. Do not talk recklessly. And do nothing improper. Don't do anything that is not in accord with propriety. See how wonderful these words are! If you can really put them into practice, you will be genuine, good disciples of the Buddha.