The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 130)


In his fifth Four-Seven letter to Ugye, Yulgok enclosed a poem on the inseparability of i and ki to explain a Buddhist metaphor of “air” and “bottle”:

The primal ki, where did it originate from?
The invisible is found in the visible.
The source, when found, is fundamentally one.
If the variations are followed, the multitude of feelings are seen.
Water takes the shape of a square or round according to its constrainers.
Air makes itself small or big according to its bottles.
Let not the seeming duality confuse you.
In silence, experience that human nature is feelings.

Commenting on his poem, Yulgok argues that “i and ki are originally united” and “those who want to separate them into two do not understand the Way.” This is why he argues elsewhere that “i exists in ki,” just as water exists in its container, and that “i must dwell in ki, and ki must carry i.” According to Yulgok, i and ki are “originally inseparable from each other,” and “i is the master of ki,” while “ki serves as the physical implement of i” in the entire process of cosmological transformation. Following Chu Hsi’s philosophy, he argues, in his sixth letter to Ugye, that i is “formless” (muhyong) and “non acting (muwi), whereas ki has form (yuhyong) and is acting (yuwi). In other words, i is the metaphysical and static principle, whereas ki is the physical and active material force. Therefore, i cannot manifest itself. This, of course, corresponds to Chu Hsi’s original thinking in the sense that ki is the actual physical energy manifested in all phenomena, and i is the reason for ki’s manifestation. This is why Yulgok criticises Toegye’s theory of “alternate manifestation”: “Toegye could not quite understand the ‘mysterious inseparability’ of i and ki.”

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