The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 133)


His idea of the “original mystery of i” is somewhat similar to the philosophy of Tao; more specifically, his saying that “i penetrates, existing everywhere even in the ashes, excrement and dirt” closely alludes to Chuang Tzu’s theory of the omnipresence of Tao. It might have been influenced by Buddhism as well. Yulgok’s theory of tong kiguk is especially similar to the Hua-yen philosophy of the interaction of principle (i) and phenomenon (sa). One may argue that he formulated it according to the Hua-yen theory that principle is “penetrating” (tong) and phenomena are “limited” (kuk). But we cannot say for sure that it came directly from Hua-yen Buddhism. From an intellectual standpoint, Yulgok tended to tolerate certain Taoist and Buddhist ideas and insights to develop his own philosophy. In my own judgement, however, Yulgok’s philosophy rather derives out of his Four-Seven thesis, which is based on his own views and insights. In the Cheng-Chu context, it still reveals some traces of the influence of Chu Hsi’s metaphysics of i and ki, as well as the influence of Lo Chin-shun’s non dualistic reformulation of it with emphasis on its doctrine of “the oneness of principle and the diversity of its particularisations.”

In his eighth letter to Ugye, Yulgok argues that, after all, the sages and worthies intended certain meanings in their subtle teachings; therefore, as he points out, “not to seek these meanings, but to become trapped in their own words, is to do injury to their basic doctrine.” In his ninth and last letter, he utilises Taoist terms to explain the i-ki relationship: “In the past, Lao Tzu said, ‘Being is born from Non-being,’ and this saying is about the beginning of the Great One. If we suppose that i and ki had a beginning in time, they must be said to undergo the process of change so that there will be the moment when ki disappears. Since there was no beginning, there will be no end.”

For Yulgok, then, i and ki have no beginning and no end and cannot be spoken of as prior being or posterior being. But if one has to trace their origin logically and looks into the metaphysical “reason for being so” (soiyon), then i is the normative principle that can unavoidably considered to be prior. However, in the concrete phenomena, i and ki are never separable. To articulate his point further, he presents an analogy of the container and water: “The square and round containers are not the same, but water in these containers is one (and the same). The large and small bottles are not the same, but air in these bottles is one (and the same). The reason why i takes on the myriad variations is that ki is limited. In the original substance (poncho), the circulating movement is complete. In its circulating movement, the original substance is preserved.” Embedded this passage is that the i of human beings is the same as the i of things, and this is due to the universal and pervasive nature of i. This relationship is equivalent to the nonlogical case of the water in containers and that of the air in bottles. Although the containers of various shapes are different (limited), the water in them is fundamentally the same water (universal). In Yulgok’s view, this analogy conveys the fact that the oneness of i remains unchanged; it is similar to the case that the original essence of water (or that of air) remains one and unchanged in various containers. Moreover, the water in a vessel can take a particular shape, due to the shape of the vessel in which the water is placed. Similarly, human nature is not the same as the nature of things because the diversity of i’s particularisations is generated by the particular and limiting role of ki.

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