The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 159)

This quest for self-realisation is identified with sagehood. from a standpoint of comparative religion, it does have a significant religious dimension for Toegye’s spirituality. By spirituality we mean a disciplined life of spiritual-mindeness, self-realisation, and spiritual exercise. for Toegye, it involves a combination of intellectual insight, contemplative practice, and spiritual development. It is expressed in terms of simhak, kyonghak, and sagehood; however, it is equipped with a religious goal and method of self-transcedence, a higher state of intellectual insight, virtuous life, and spiritual consciousness. This portrays the degree to which Toegye appreciated quite sitting as the way to unite the inner and the outer. Meditation was a major part of his spiritual exercise of self-transformation within the cheng-chu Neo-Confucian context. The ethic-religious dimension of Toegye’s Neo-Confucianism reveals spiritual experience of unity between the self and the universe. Implicit in his practice of cultivating Heaven’s principle as sagehood points to what Tu Wei-ming calls a covenant with Heaven, for it is to “fulfil the highest human aspirations of forming a trinity with Heaven and earth.” This perspective corresponds to Toegye’s faith that if human nature is endowed by Heaven’s principle, the realisation and nourishment of it is possible as an experienced reality both theoretically and practically.

In the Neo-Confucian tradition, such a conviction demands a spiritual discipline; nevertheless, it means to realise the ultimate truth of human nature as sag hood in daily existence. this religious path to self-transcendence involves what one call “the relationship between Heaven as a religious absolute and the sage as a transformed person.” For Toegye, however, it is quite different from one’s theistic quest as an isolated person in an ascetic, monastic setting. As far as he is concerned, quite-sitting meditation plays an important role in one’s search for Heaven’s principle right in one’s inner nature. Toegye’s own experience suggests a balancing synthesis of intellectual insight, emotional integration, contemplative reflection, moral effort, and spiritual cultivation, which can be contemplate only when it forms a continuum and harmony between the interior and the exterior.

The religious dimension of Toegye’s theory and practice of simhak also corresponds to his Neo-Confucian view of selfish human desires as evil. Obviously, it grew out of his Four-Seven thesis that sharply set the virtuous and spiritual order of principle before the emotional and material order of material force. In Toegye’s view, human nature in itself is to be found in sagehood because it shares the same reality with Heaven’s principle. Hence, the key to his kyonghak is that one must experience the ultimate reality of Heaven’s principle as one own inner nature. In a sense, this is religious, insofar as Toegye maintains that such a process should be done contemplatively and spiritually in the mind-and-heart, not through one’s theoretical speculation or textual study. In his view, the mind is not only a rational and emotional entity in the immanent sense, but, more important, something that has its own ultimate reality in the form of human nature in itself. He identified it as sagehood or Heaven’s principle. Obviously, Neo-Confucian religiosity addresses the immanent-yet-transcendent dimension of human nature: in the case of Toegye, it suggests a religious process of self-cultivation, the ultimate goal of which is to cultivate sagehood. this topic is discussed further in the concluding chapter.

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