The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 105)


In his response to Ugye’s first letter, Yulgok presents a systematic dissuasion of the Four-Seven relationship. Being sharply aware of the textual ambiguities at the heart of classical texts and Cheng-Chu writings, he first points out that the words and explanations of the former sages and worthies are clear in some cases and subtle in other cases. He emphasises that one should not follow them blindly without one’s careful reflection, and one should interpret them correctly with one’s own experiences and views. This is the first objective of his thinking; it demonstrates his fundamental view that any subtle and unclear old teachings must be clarified to appreciate them fully.

For Yulgok, Toegye’s hobal theory is improper for understand the Four-Seven relationship, for it implies incorrectly that i and ki are “two separate entities,” one being prior and the other being posterior, each appearing independently.” Yulgok, then, criticises Ugye’s Four-Seven view in terms of the moral mind and the human mind. He refuses to assume any ontological division of the mind. Rejecting Ugye’s strict “distinction” of the moral mind and the human mind, he emphasises their mutual “relationship” of interdependence and harmony. From such a standpoint, Yulgok addresses the oneness of the mind: “The mind is one. To call it ‘moral’ or ‘human’ is to distinguish nature and destiny from physical form.” How can there be the terms for the mind? Yulgok states: “There are two names according to the source of primary manifestation.” This, he argues, is why Chu Hsi said: “What is precarious (human mind) is the sprout of human desires, and what is subtle (moral mind) is the deep mystery of Heaven’s principle. The mind is one; however, its name varies only according to whether or not it is rectified.” The human mind and the moral mind are intertwined being “each other’s beginning or end.” In other words, the human mind can overcome itself to become the moral mind, and the latter can end up with the former: “The mind of human beings comes straight from ‘the correctness of nature and destiny.’ Although it began as the moral mind, it ends up as the human mind if it does not follow the correctness of nature and destiny and becomes mixed with selfish intentions. when it is aroused by physical form and does not deviate from the principle of correctness and knows what it will end up as the moral mind, even though it began as the human mind.” Implicit in this passage is Yulgok’s emphasis on the mutual relationship of continuum and interdependence between the moral mind and the human mind. From a moral standpoint of self-cutivation, he means that, although one has a good intention and begins initially with the moral mind, one will end up with the human mind if one falls into “selfish intentions.” In this regard, Yi Pyong-do makes an interesting but unclear point that Yulgok saw the moral mind and the human mind as sharing “the possibility and relationship of overcoming each other.” To put in a correct way, the human mind can be overcome by the moral mind, as the latter serves its role as the former’s master. Furthermore, even if one begins with the human mind mixed with selfishness, one can still transform it into the moral mind if one decides to follow moral principles and overcome selfish desires.

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