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Filial Piety with a Zen Twist: Universalism and Particularism Surrounding the Sutra on the Difficulty of Reciprocating the Kindness of Parents

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Abstract This article examines the Sutra on the Difficulty of Reciprocating the Kindness of Parents and its reinterpretation by the Japanese Rinzai Zen monk Tōrei Enji 東嶺圓慈 (1721-1792). In the context of the Tokugawa period (1600-1867) where filial piety was upheld as one of the pillars of morality and Neo-confucian orthodoxy, Tōrei’s commentary of this sutra skillfully combined the particularist understanding of filiality as limited to one’s relatives with its broader construal as a universal attitude of reverence directed toward all sentient beings. The father is envisioned as the wisdom and the excellence of the Buddha, the mother as the compassionate vows of the Bodhisattva, and the children as those who emit the thought of awakening. Tōrei further pushed this interpretation by adding the distinct Zen idea that the initial insight into one’s true nature needs to be surpassed and refined by perfecting the going beyond (kōjō 向上) phase of training, where the child/disciple’s legacy and his indebtedness towards his spiritual mentors is recast in terms of overcoming one’s attainments and attachment to them.

Affiliations: 1: University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Honolulu USA


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