The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 160)

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Practical Implications for Yulgok

Current scholarship on the Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yulgok has made a significant contribution to our growing understanding of the subject. But most works, including those in english, are concerned primarily with the metaphysical patterns of Yulgok’s Neo-Confucianism; his modern interpreters are impressed mainly by his philosophical writings, considering them a great systematisation of the Cheng-Chu tradition in Korea. But we are yet to understand the practical dimensions of his thought that closely relates to his Four-Seven thesis.

This chapter addresses this neglected, but important, topic: the context of Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis and its practical implication for self-cultivation. Our inquiry focuses on his interpretation of material force (ki), as well as on its vital relationship with what he called the nourishment of ki (yanggi), learning of sincerity (songhak) and practical learning (sirhak). Because he presented his own experiences and insights, we shall look at a few previously untranslated materials as well, especially those from his mature philosophical works and his biographical accounts that were written after his Four-Seven debate with Ugye. In short, we will see that the practicality and vitality of Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis closely relate to his theory and method of self-cultivation with emphasis on its realistic and pragmatic dimension of Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism in general, but, more important, for a better understanding of Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis and its implications for the Confucian way of life.

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