The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 158)

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In Chu Hsi’s philosophy, the focus of the investigation of things is generally on the search for knowledge through one’s intellectual comprehension of the essence of things. This process of investigation was part of self-cultivation and become an extensive, if not exhaustive, path that involves both intellectual aims and ethical implications. According to Toegye’s own experience, however, the task of self-cultivation is simply simhak. As his Four-Seven thesis illustrated, it is to be integrated by preserving the mind-and-heart and nourishing human nature in one’s daily life. He says: “One’s effort at learning should be maintained with solemnity as (one’s self is) controlled and united…One’s mind-and-heart must be calmed down in accordance with the reality of moral principles only. If this is done over a long period of time, one’s mind-and-heart will be realised naturally and be in the state of quit etude, so that one can overcome the maladies of forgetting and hurrying.” Self-cultivation means a path to realisation of human nature in itself as the authentic manifestation of Heaven’s principle; that is to say, one’s transformed self should form a unity with Heaven’s principle, moral principles, and all phenomena. This is why Toegye repeatedly affirmed i as a self-manifesting and self-sustaining principle capable manifesting, for example, the Four Beginnings. The essential feature of his simhak is that the mind-and-heart is the intellectual, moral, and psychological master of the self that commands and apprehends human nature and feelings. In the context of his Four-Seven thesis, it also entails integrating all feelings by maintaining the command of the moral virtues such as Four over the physical-mental emotions and material desires such as the Seven.

According to Toegye’s kyonghak, Heaven’s principle is not just a philosophical and moral concept; it has religious meanings and implications. The fundamental Cheng-Chu teaching is that “human nature is principle.” This implies that “Heaven’s principle is the principle of human nature.” To realise the ultimate truth of human nature is, in the Mencian sense, to look inward to seek its inherent goodness. In the spirit of Doctrine of the Mean, Toegye’s notion of human nature refers to what one may call “potentially a genuine manifestation of Heaven.” In the process of self-cultivation, the self can penetrate deeply into its own ground of existence, so that the mind-and-heart establishes a harmonious rhythm with Heaven, Earth, and all phenomena.

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