The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 172)

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In his letter to Ugye, a letter written prior to their Four-Seven debate, Yulgok describes variations of success in learning and self-cultivation in terms of difference between the “sage” (songin), the “superior person” (kunja), and the “learning person” (hakja): “one who investigated things to the utmost, extended knowledge to the utmost, made the will sincere to the utmost, and rectified the mind to the utmost is a sage”; one who tried all of these but” could not achieve them to the utmost” is a superior person; and one who “wishes to do them” is a learning person. In this regard, sincerity itself is thought to be “true knowledge.” Accordingly, the sincerity shown by the sage is the norm that others should follow. One’s attainment of true knowledge is impossible without cultivation sincerity.

Another important question is, How does Yulgok’s idea of sincerity relate to his Four0Seven thesis, as well as to his understanding of the nourishment of ki? In the Songhak chipyo, he asserts that the original substance (pinch) of the mind is “tranquil, void, and bright like a clean mirror and a still beam of a balance.” He explains further: “But when it is stimulated by external things, the Seven Emotions are aroused and respond to them. This is the functioning of the mind. When ki is confined to selfish desires, the original substance of the mind cannot be established; therefore, the functioning of the mind deviates from its correctness.” The principles of myriad things are, Yulgok argues, complete in the mind; for example, the benevolence of two sages, Yao and Shun, the righteousness of King Wu, and the Way of Confucius and Mencius are all innate characteristics of human nature. But when they are disturbed by selfish material desire, a good person will be confused. sincerity extends the mind-in-itself (“real mind”) that is “the real principle of Heaven” and “the original substance of the mind” as well; therefore, in pursuing self-cultivation, one must first make one’s will sincere. Because the mind is the full manifestation of Heaven’s principle, it follows for Yulgok that it can fully realise sincerity. Obviously, this argument corresponds to his theory of “the nourishment of ki.” In the context of his Four-Seven thesis, it also means emotional harmony in the practice of self-cultivation. Because the mind commands and directs human nature and feelings, to control the Seven Emotions is embodied within one’s cultivation of sincerity.

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