The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 153)

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How did Toegye interpret this key confucian concept in the context of his Four-Seven thesis and simhak? Reverential seriousness is his central goal and method of moral and spiritual cultivation. Chu Hsi merely emphasised it in the Neo-Confucian learning of mind cultivation, without giving an elaborate interpretation of it. On the contrary, Toegye preached in Korea that kyong is the most important virtue to be cultivated. It is said to be the foundation of his great synthesis of the Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism of Self-cultivation. In his view, simhak is none other than kyonghak, the key to the learning for sagehood. In the Chonmyong tosol, Toegye refers to the learning for sagehood. In the Chonmyong tosol, Toegye refers to the “learning of the superior persons” (kunjs chi hak) as the “learning of reverential seriousness” (kyonghak), maintaining the Mencian doctrine that the task of “preserving (the mind-and-heart) and nourishing (human nature)” is the essence of kyonghak. He articulates it in terms of the mind before and after the arousal of feelings: “If one does not take reverential seriousness to be the first principle of learning, how can one establish the original mind? Hence, before the mind is manifest, the learning of the superior person is to take reverential seriousness as the first principle and to give full effort to preserving and nourishing. After the mind is manifest, it is to give full effort to self-examination and self-reflection. This is manifest, it is to give full effort to self-examination and self-reflection. This is, then, the reason why the learning of reverential seriousness completes the beginning and end (of the learning for age hood).” In the context of his Four-Seven thesis, this passage implies that one has to be conscientious about not only the observable patterns of one’s behaviour, but also the incipient tendencies of one’s inner feelings and desires. The term kyong also means “mindfulness,” conveying the Neo-Confucian technique of maintaining serious determination and constant concentration in mind cultivation. In fact, reverence may refer to the inner motivation that inspires the practice of self-regulation. the cultivation of reverential seriousness pertains to the Mencian doctrine of preserving the mind in itself and nourishing the original goodness of human nature. It also takes the manifest mind as the basis for self-introspection and self-realisation. To Toegye, then, this represents the essence of learning for sagehood.

Summarising his major work, Songhak sipto, in terms of reverential seriousness, kyong, Toegye argues: “Reverential seriousness is the beginning and end of the learning for sagehood (songhak).” He does not ignore the traditional Confucian teaching that the external dimension of self-cultivation is to maintain a good character according to the proper observation of the rules of property. For example, “be cautious and watchful in the hidden, secluded places” and “be properly ordered and controlled, grave, and quite.” As he instructs his disciples, “When I am inactive, I am watchful of myself and cultivate reverential seriousness.” The following passage from the Songhak sipto articulates his point further: “The method (of simhak) is to be gravely cautious and watchful over what is not seen and heard, as well as to be more reverential and serious. It is to practice self-watchfulness and self-reflection in a more refined way where things are invisible or subtle and when one is alone.”

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