The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 32)

In my view, however, the fundamental reason for Yulgok’s interest in Buddhism was quite serious, in both intellectual and spiritual contexts. Yulgok himself later confessed to the king in one of his memorials: “Your minister was originally a student of Confucianism. Unfortunately, however, when I lost my mother, I studied Buddhist scriptures seriously to erase my sorrow. I then retreated to a mountain in an attempt to devote myself to Zen.” It is true that his initial interest in Buddhism helped relieve the sorrow of his beloved mother’s death. Another apparent reason he could not tell others was that his stepmother did not get along with him. According to an account of Yulgok by Song Si-yol (Uam, 1607-1689), “At the age of ten, Yulgok already mastered the Confucian classics, but he began to doubt the Way of the Sages and worries. As result, he studied both Taoist and Buddhist texts as well. After entering the Diamond Mountains, he united Neo-Confucianism and Zen.” Of course, Yulgok’s early interest in Buddhism and Taoism was to fulfil his diverse pursuit for learning and self0cultivation. After he decided to leave home, he told his friends: “Material force (ki/chi) can be transformed by nourishing it. Everyone is born with it. When it is well nourished, the mind can control it; when it is not nourished properly, the mind becomes its servant. When the mind controls ki, the body can serve as the master; therefore, one can become a sage or wise person…It was Mencius who, among ancient people, nourished ki well…Where can wise and benevolent people go to except mountains and water in order to nourish their ki? I’ll go to a Buddhist monastery.” This passage indicates not only Yulgok’s serious interest in searching for the truth revealed in the Buddhist scriptures, but also his strong determination to lead a Buddhist monastic life of study and meditation for spiritual self-cultivation. During his stay in the Diamond Mountains, Yulgok often practiced Zen meditation and debated with a few Buddhist monks on the conflicting issues on Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. He won a good deal of admiration from the Buddhist monks who called him a reincarnation of the Buddha.

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