The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 174)

As the foundation of self-cultivation, sincerity enables one to nourish one’s own ki, such that one can transform bad thoughts, feelings, and desires. Perhaps, Yulgok argued from a standpoint of his own experiences and insights. He means that sincerity is not merely specific concept of moral action, but, more important, pertains to the metaphysical and ethical foundation of all phenomena. This somewhat accords with the tradition of the Doctrine of the Mean and Chou Tun-i’s interpretation, which explained sincerity in a similar manner. However, Yulgok’s interpretation seems to go beyond the Chinese tradition by addressing specific questions and issues in both metaphysical and ethical contexts, as well as by relating them to the other theoretical themes and practical implications of his Neo-Confucianism, notably emotional integration and the nourishment of ki cording to his Four-Seven thesis. As the foundation of all reality, sincerity ties principle and the mind together, thereby providing the theoretical and practical basis that sagehood through the self-cultivation of sincerity is possible.

Presenting Yulgok’s philosophy of sincerity in terms of the unity between theory and practice, Young-chan Ro corruptly points out that it has a “pragmatic” theme that closely relates to his philosophy of the mind. But Ro goes on to argue that “the practice of cheng (sincerity) is not limited to the moral and intellectual dimensions, but extends to a religious dimension as well” and “through the concept of cheng this process of moral cultivation takes on a decidedly religious meaning, embodying a vision of the total transformation of social and cosmic orders as well.” Ro’s argument seems to suggest that, from a standpoint of the ultimate reality of sincerity, Yulgok tended to affirm the continuum of the transcendent and the immanent and the inseparability of metaphysics and ethics. Nevertheless, Ro’s interpretation does not seem to clarify the extent to which the “religious dimension,” or “religious meaning,” of Yulgok’s thought, if any, is relevant to what he calls the pragmatic themes of it.

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