The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 170)

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For Yulgok, one can become a sage if one follows Heaven’s principle in complete sincerity, attaining what he calls the totality of sincerity that can reach Heaven, Earth, and the mind-and-heart. A statement from the Songchaek elucidates Yulgok’s point further: “Heaven has the merit of transformation and nourishment of all things with its real principle (silly). The human being has a real mind (silsim) and can bring about reciprocity and response of what is felt and penetrating. The real principle and the real mind are nothing but sincerity itself. One who possesses the purity of Heaven’s principle and acquires complete sincerity entirely is a sage. One who truly possesses a part of Heaven’s principle and acquire partial sincerity is a wise person.” The reality of Heaven’s principle and the reality of the human mind-and-heart are understood in the sense of forming a harmony in sincerity. sincerity refers to the constant substance of Heaven’s principle. In the Songhak chipyo, Yulgok says: “Human beings have a real mind; therefore, their effort of learning can become broad and bright without flaw. If one does not preserve it, one deviates from Heaven’s principle.” For him, then, the starting point and final end of the learning for sagehood must be founded on sincerity, from which all rational and moral endeavours take their proper places.

Speaking in the light of the Doctrine of the MEan, Yulgok writes: “It is said that even the investigation of principle is impossible without sincerity.” This is, he argues, because sincerity is the source of self-cultivation required for the gradual path to sagehood. even the extension of knowledge is invalidated unless it accompanies sincere will. Yulgok thus underscores that, when one investigates the principles of things to the utmost in sincerity, one will attain what he calls true knowledge (silchi) and become a sage. Sincerity consists of both “substance” and “function.” In this regard, Yulgok followed Chou Tun-i but moved beyond his understanding of sincerity. He states: “As foundation, sincerity is extremely subtle and mysterious. As function, sincerity is absolutely manifest and supremely broad. Its substance is everything and becomes the beginning and end of things. Therefore, origination, flourishing, advantage, and firmness are the sincerity of Heaven; benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are the sincerity of human nature.” Commenting on the practice of self-x=examination, Yulgok also argues: “Sincerity is the real principle of Heaven and the original substance of the mind-and-heart.” The substance (reality) of sincerity is said to be very moral “subtle”; however, when it is manifest in human beings, it functions as moral principles. to put it in another way, sincerity is something that the human being already possesses as an inherent moral virtue within the mind (sim).

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