The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 163)

To accomplish the learning of sagehood, the method of self-cultivation, then, requires one to nourish ki. And everyone is capable of accomplishing it because each person is originally born with “upright” and “penetrating” ki. In his Four-Seven debate with Ugye, Yulgok makes an interesting statement about the task of self-cultivation:

Heaven and Earth received what is perfectly upright and penetrating in ki; therefore, they have the fixed nature and, as a result, there is no change in them. The myriad things received what is partial and blocked; therefore, they also have fixed nature and, as a result, no change in them. Human beings received what is upright and penetrating in ki. But they have myriad variations of clarity, turbidity, or impurity and, thus, do not have the same purity of Heaven and Earth. And yet, the mind is open, clever and penetrating with the myriad principles complete in it. For this reason, what is turbid can be transformed to become clear, and what is impure can be transformed to become pure. Because only human beings have the effort at the practice of self-cultivation, they have to bring about the ultimacy of such a practice, just like the case that Heaven and Earth remain in fixed places. We can nourish and accomplish the myriad things. Only after this is done, our works will be complete.

Here Yulgok means to do full justice to the Neo-Confucian conviction that human beings receive the best of ki, with range covering various grades of purity. The sages are endowed with “the purest ki” and, therefore, able to “serve as the norm of others,” in the same way as Heaven and Earth do as “the norm for the sages.” In other words, the achievement of sagehood is theoretically and practically possible in human beings only.

Self-cultivation is achieved by transforming the physical endowment of human nature. In his Kyo kijil (Straightening of Physical Endowment), a treatise on self-cultivation, Yulgok emphasises: “One must straighten and control what is partial and turbid in one’s physical endowment of ki.” Hence, Chang Tsai’s saying that “the great benefit of learning lies in the transformation of physical nature” corresponds to his own approach. One should rectify and nourish ki and should integrate one’s practice of self-examination and self-correction. This is, then, what Yulgok means by the nourishment of ki from a practical standpoint of self-cultivation. Such a discipline, of course, involves the moral and emotional harmonisation of feelings, the focus of our next inquiry.

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