The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 31)

Yi I (Yulgok, 1536-1584)

Toegye and Yulgok are
often mentioned together as the two greatest minds of Choson Korea. Modern Koreans respect Yulgok not only as a great Neo-Confucian scholar, but also as a distinguished politician and reformer. As a thinker, statesman, and educator, his short life of forty-nine years was filled with many remarkable accomplishments. No other Korean Neo-Confucian before and after Yulgok can match his far-reaching vision of history, practical learning, and politics. As an original and liberal political thinker, he advocated Confucian principles to reform the contemporary political, economic, social, and military institutions of the Choson dynasty.

When Yulgok was a young boy, many people praised him as a genius. For example, at age five, Yulgok began to commit himself seriously to mastering literary Chinese and basic Confucian classics, under the guidance of his mother, Lady Sim-sa-im-dang, who was so highly respected not only for her intellectual and ethical devotion to the education of her son, but also for her knowledge of Confucianism and her talent in painting and poetry. Unlike most other sons of elite families, Yulgok, at the age twelve, passed the preliminary literary licentiate examination (chins chose) on skills in composing Chinese literary works such as poetry, rhymed prose, documentary prose, and problem essays. In his teens, Yulgok was attracted to both Buddhism and Taoism as well. When he found the Confucian texts not quite sufficient for his needs, he began to study Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Zen Buddhist scriptures. His mother’s early death in May 1551, when Yulgok was only fifteen years old, left him with a deep sorrow. He built a small hut near his mother’s grave and mourned her for three years. In his period, he devoted himself to extensive reading in Neo-Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and philosophical Taoism. As his memory of his late mother grew more painfully, he underwent a profound conversion of his mind. In March 1554, Yulgok, then eighteen years old, went to a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Diamond Mountains. Reading a Buddhist scripture, he became deeply moved by its doctrines on the problem of life and death unanswered by Confucianism; consequently, he decided to pursue a Buddhist monastic life of study and mediation. According to a biographical account of Yulgok by his master against charges that he was interested in studying Buddhism or influenced by it.

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