The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 167)

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According to Yulgok, the concrete prerequisite is to “make the resolve” (ipchi) before the practice of nourishing ki and of harmonising feelings. A key passage from his “Sugi” (Self-Cultivation) elucidates it as follows: “Nothing is prior than to make the resolve. If one’s resolve is not established first, one cannot achieve one’s learning completed. Thus, in this chapter on self-cultivation, I put the section on the making the resolve at the beginning.” As he argues, even the king must make sure that his resolve for learning and self-cultivation is clear and firmly established before he can establish a good, virtuous government.

One’s goal of self-cultivation should be clear and determined. “One must have one’s resolve first and model oneself after the norm of the sages.” In his Manon pongsa (Ten Thousand-Character Memorial), a political treatise presented to the king, Yulgok argues that the prerequisite needed in the proper way of governing people is “to model himself after the sages.” Furthermore, the Kyongmong yogyol (Essential Instructions of Kyongmong), a systematic guide of learning, and the Hakkyo mobom (Model for an Academy), a treatise on the education of youth, illustrate a practical message that beginners of learning should, first, make their resolve and work toward the “goal of sagehood.” Yulgok urges the significance of making a resolve in terms of ki: “Resolve is the commander of ki. If it is one and undivided, there is nothing that ki moves. When one is unsuccessful…It is only due to the fact that one’s resolve is not quite established.” In other words, one needs to be determined, and one’s will toward learning should be firm before one attempts to nourish ki.

The unique feature of Yulgok’s philosophy is precisely a pragmatic teaching: making the resolve is the basis of self-cultivation, and the nourishment of ki is the practical method of self-cultivation. It means to seek one’s self-transformation right in one’s established resolve. An important question arises here, How does one establish one’s resolve for self-cultivation? Yulgok explicitly states: “When one is sincere, one’s resolve is naturally established.” “Sincere will” is what really accomplishes self-cultivation. We can now examine this topic in relation to Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis and its implications for self-cultivation.

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