The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 175)

As revealed in Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis, as well as in its implications for self-cultivation, he was not concerned with the inner-directed, religious practices of Neo-Confucianism. Unlike Toegye, he did not talk about spiritual exercises such as quite-sitting meditation and personal cultivation. On the basis of what we have observed so far in this chapter, we can see why Yulgok rejected Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis, as well as its implications for the contemplative and inner-directed way of self-cultivation that closely relates to Toegye’s philosophy of i. A Pragmatic thinker and active politician, he was more interested in formulating an empirical philosophy of ki as the basis of his Four-Seven thesis and other writings. In other words, he addressed the realistic dimensions of the Neo-Confucian way of learning and self-cultivation, especially in the context of such a philosophy. this is why he emphasised the following points: second, ki should be nourished in the process of learning and self-cultivation; third, one must establish one’s revolve for such a task; and finally, one must cultivate sincerity to nourish ki and harmonise feelings and desires. Unlike Toegye’s version of Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism, then, Yulgok’s version is more practically oriented toward the objective reality of ki in relation to the matters of daily life including politics and society. Hence, we have no evidence to suggest that Yulgok’s systematisation of Neo-Confucianism involves any religious dimension.

To Yulgok, then, the “learning for sincerity” must extend goodness to one’s active daily life. The completion of a “sincere person” is impossible unless it forms a concrete network with all levels of Confucian culture. This process is significant, especially for establishing and maintaining a healthy and prosperous Confucian society. By sage Yulgok means an ideal political terms, he developed it further into a political ideal. The core of his theory and practice of self-cultivation thus points to such a pragmatic theme. It developed into what he calls practical learning (sirhak), the focus of our next investigation.

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