The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 129)


In Ming China, Lo had opposed Chu Hsi’s dualistic statements on the relationship of i and ki, such as “i and ki are definitely two things.” Without asserting their unmixability, Lo stated that “principle is not a separate entity which depends on material force in order to exist.” The following passage embodies his point further: “Li is only the li of chi. It must be observed in the phenomenon of revolving and turning of chi…What acts and reacts is chi, while the fact that a particular action involves a particular reaction without there being the slightest possibility of error is principle… I have therefore said that li must be identified as an aspect of chi.” Lo’c view of the oneness of i and ki seems to have a significant impact on Yulgok’s theory of the inseparability and harmony of i and ki, which serves as the philosophical core of his Four-Seven thesis. Unlike Kobong, Yulgok argues more systematically that what moves and becomes manifest is ki, while the reason for its movement and manifestation is i. The same kind of argument is evident also in his Chondo chaek (Treatise of the Heavenly Way), one of his early works: “That which is in movement and tranquility is ki; that which makes it move and become tranquil is i.”

Yulgok praises Lo as a distinguished Neo-Confucian scholar who had addressed the problem of Chu Hsi’s dualistic philosophy of i and ki. But “Lo lost his reputation by misinterpreting the moral mind as substance and the human mind as function.” Nevertheless, Toegye’s mistake is, Yulgok asserts, greater than Lo’. Yulgok states: “According to Buddhism, it is said: ‘Although bits of gold are very valuable, if pit in one’s eyes, they causes a disease.’ This explains the fact that although the sayings of sages and worthies are valuable, they can become harmful if we misunderstand them…They would rather become harmful if we are confined to written words only, without understanding their intended meanings.” For Yulgok, certain textual ambiguities are at the heart of classical texts and Cheng-Chu writings; therefore, subtle old teachings should not be followed blindly, and one has to clarify them through one’s own reflections and experiences.

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