The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 146)

Remain refined and sing minded: Hold fast the Mean.” This instruction of the sage-king Shun to his successor Yu contrasts the “precariousness” of the human mind with the “subtlety” of the moral mind, emphasising the practice of mind cultivation. Chu Hsi, Chen Tu-hsiu, and others utilised this passage as a short “creedal” formula of the Neo-Confucian philosophy of mind cultivation. For example, it appears in Chu Hsi’s preface to the Doctrine of the Mean:

The mind-and-heart as the pure intelligence and consciousness is one and undivided. But there is a difference between the moral mind and the human mind, depending on whether it arises from the selfishness identified with physical form or originates in the correctness of Heaven and destiny, in accordance with which consciousness differs. The human mind is precarious, and the moral mind is subtle. All human mind is precarious, and the moral mind is subtle. All human beings have the physical form; so, even the most intelligent people possess the human mind, while the most stupid have the moral mind. If the moral mind and the human mind are not distinguished, then we do not know why we have to control them. Accordingly, the precarious will become even more precarious, the subtle will become even more subtle, and the impartiality of Heaven’s principle (chilli) will have no way of overcoming the selfishness of human desires (inyok).

This passage was cited also in the opening passages of Chen Tu-hsiu’s Heart Classic. Of course, Chu Hsi contrasted the “precariousness” and “instability” of the human mind with the inherent goodness of the moral mind; the former is always “prone to error” and “partial” involving both good and evil, whereas the latter is always “subtle” and “impartial.” For him, then, the way of mind cultivation means to overcome selfish desires aroused from the human mind. However, it is not that the “moral mind” is one and the “human mind” is another. Chu Hsi meant that “the moral mind is the master of the human mind, and the latter takes the former as its moral norm.” More specifically, the human mind refers to the mouth’s desire for taste, the eyes’ desire for colour, and so on, whereas the moral mind refers to the “moral principles” such as humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. Nevertheless, all of these belong to human nature nature because even the sages like Yao, Shun, and Confucius had their desires for food and colour, and even the most ignorant people have a human sense of moral consciousness. How does Toegye understand this kind of distinction between the human mind and the moral mind?

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