The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 156)

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Self-Cultivation as an Ethico-Spiritual Ideal

As we have already observed, Toegye’s approach to simhak emphasises Heaven’s principle and reverential seriousness. In searching for a convincing way of self-cultivation within the Cheng-Chu context, he accepted its general doctrine that “human nature is principle”; this is explicitly evident especially in his Four-Seven thesis. Hence, the general feature of his simhak and kyonghak received the philosophical and moral justification of the Cheng-Chu tradition. But its emphasis on the self-manifestig role of principle extends from metaphysics to quite-sitting meditation and spiritual cultivation.

Toegye’s simhak and kyonghak reveal certain religious dimension; this was a result of his creative synthesis of Cheng-Chu teachings. We need to look at it from a cross-cultural standpoint of comparative religion. The religious dimension of the Chinese Confucian tradition has been addressed in terms of its spiritual teachings of self-cultivation; in fact, this has been one of the most popular areas of research, one that need not be rehearsed here. Even though Neo-Confucianism is often considered merely as a form of “ethical humanism” or “metaphysical humanism,” such a conventional categorisation is misleading because it does not articulate the spiritual vitality of Neo-Confucianism. In a strict sense, it is incorrect, especially if we reflect on Toegye’s Neo-Confucianism in particular. We need to examine the ways in which Toegye intensifies Neo-Confucian religiosity in terms of spiritual cultivation. Of course, his ultimate quest for sagehood is very relevant here. Another issue is to understand how it relates to his Four-Seven thesis. If we want to understand the vitality of Toegye’s Neo-Confucianism, we should address its religiosity.

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