July 14, 2024


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Filial obligation or piety is the idea that children owe a debt or an obligation to defer to parental wishes and to meet their parent’s needs.  Filial piety is a central tenet of Confucianism and involves taking care of, and being good to one’s parents, and exhibiting respect, love, courtesy, support, reverence, and loyalty to them. This concept by extension also applies to the relationship between master and disciple in the martial arts.

According to Debt Theory, one owes repayment for whatever investment of resources has been made their behalf, regardless of the giver’s needs or the receiver’s ability to repay.  In other words, children have specific obligations to their parents and must repay their parents’ “investment” in rearing them.  The rationale is that parents contribute resources to raising their children, including time, money, energy, and so on. Each of these resources could have been devoted to something other than raising the child.  Consequently, the parent has fewer resources than he or she would otherwise have. Therefore, the child owes repayment of this debt.  Again, the same can be considered true of a martial arts instructor and his or her students.

However, unlike a true creditor-debtor relationship, in filial piety neither the teacher’s needs nor the student’s ability to respond determine the content of the obligation. The student (child) owes repayment regardless of his ability to repay the “loan,” and regardless of whether the teacher (parent) needs or asks to be repaid.  Just as a debtor’s obligation of repayment is not contingent on a current ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship, the student owes repayment regardless of the nature of his current relationship with his teacher.  Filial obligations arise from and are determined by the teacher’s investment in educating their student.  The concept of filial piety dictates obedience, devotion, and care, and demonstrating it every day is an essential predicate for fulfilling that obligation.  It certainly is a basic element in the relationship between the martial arts master and student.

The Chinese character for “human”, is one single line, leaning against another. This is to symbolize that humans cannot stand-alone. Once an animal grows up it forgets its family because it lives a totally independent life.  Humans on the other hand need constant care and attention for many years, and the parent must accept this responsibility.  This is the natural order of things. The purpose of this type of filial relationship is to teach humans to understand the idea of inter-dependence so necessary for their species to survive. 

Because of the nature of the relationship between teacher and student, martial arts participants must all have such filial piety.  Just as a parent should give everything to ensure the success of their child, so such piety benefits the martial arts.  True masters give everything for the success of their disciples and their art.  This of course may not be in terms of financial or material well-being, but it should be in terms of the education they impart and the concepts they teach their students regarding humanity and morality.

If it were not for your instructor, you would not have the skills you possess. Think about who struggled to teach you, and never disobey or disparage your instructor.  Never blame your instructor for your failings. If you follow their teachings in good manner, you will never lead a bad life.  All a true master (parent) wants for the student (child) is a better life for you.  Students also need to remember that they must always be a model for those who follow them.  Someday the student will be the master and others will follow his or her example.  If you treat your martial arts master well, then your students will learn to treat you well.  Your students will learn everything you did. You can even envision your own memories in the movements and lives of your students. That is why in life, martial arts instruction must include morality, loyalty, and filial piety.

          The relationship between a martial art instructor and his students is in a sense the same as that of a parent and child. The way a parent instructs their child in the way of human morality, is the same way a martial art instructor should teach their students.  Because the instructor is teaching dangerous skills, a relationship must be maintained in which the instructor is like a parent and the student like their child.  An instructor and student cannot be friends, just as a father and son cannot be friends. We must maintain the proper relationship, respect, and filial duties that our positions dictate. In essence it is a two-way street:  Parent to child and child to parent.  Master to student and student to master.   That way an honorable martial art can be passed down from generation-to-generation, just as the family name and its traditions are passed on through time.

About the author: R.W. Stone is a veterinarian in Florida.  He is an avid horseman, martial artist, best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. Currently Stone is ranked a sixth dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, a third dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki TaeKwondo.  He is the Master Instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies in Ocoee, Florida. Read his daily thoughts on Martial Arts at www.facebook.com/groups/koreanmartialarts For more information visit www.kmaia.org