The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 152)


Sagehood and the Learning of Reverential Seriousness (Kyonghak)

To get rid of evil and follow good is, according to Toegye, to “abide in reverential seriousness” (kogyong). This approach leads one to realising Heaven’s principle, the ultimate reality of sagehood. Toegye speaks of kyonghak (learning of reverential seriousness) and songhak (learning for sagehood) as complementary terms, and this is clearly stated in his major writings such as Songhak sipto, Chonmyong tosol, and Yukcho so.

The locus classicus for the Confucian idea of kyong includes the Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and Analects. According to the first classic, :The superior person applies reverential seriousness in order to straighten the inner life and righteousness in order to square the outer life.” In the Book of Rites as well, we read: “The superior person never lacks reverential seriousness.” And Confucius emphasised: “Be serious and reverent in handling all affairs.” Sung Neo-Confucians cited these passages to emphasise reverential seriousness in the Confucian way of self-cultivation. Cheng Hao, for example, said: “Reverential seriousness simply means a way of managing oneself.” It also means “unselfishness.” When one lacks it, “thousands of selfish desires arise to insure one’s humanity.” As Cheng I said, “self-cultivation requires reverential seriousness.” Chu Hsi emphasised that one should apply it to the practice moral cultivation and maintain righteousness in handling daily affairs. For example, he said that “one must cultivate one’s mind with reverential seriousness” and “be serious and reverent at all times.” On the whole, then, these Chinese Neo-Confucians interpreted reverential seriousness as an attitude of reverent piety toward Heaven and Earth, as well as an intellectual and moral seriousness in handling things and human relationships.

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