The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 169)

Embedded in this passage is the idea that the Confucian way of self-cultivation results from the cultivation of sincerity. Speaking more in the light of the Doctrine of the Mean, Chou Tun-i said: “Sincerity is the foundation of the sage.” He talked about both metaphysical and ethical aspects of the idea of sincerity. Sincerity is not only the source of all cosmic phenomena, but also the foundation of our moral nature: “Sagehood is nothing but sincerity. It is the foundation of the Five Constant Virtues (humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness) and the source of all activities. When tranquil, it is in the state of non-being, and when active, it is in the state of being. It is perfectly correct and clearly penetrating. Without sincerity, the Five Constant Virtues and all activities will be wrong.” Chou meant that sincerity can be spoken of as having substance and function. In its state of tranquil reality, sincerity is has no activity; in its state of active manifestation, it is called the subtle, moving virtue. The idea of sincerity is so important that he considered it as the basis of his metaphysics and ethics. As Chou argues, “The sage is the one who is in the state of sincerity.” A sage is, then, the most sincere person who is truthful to human nature, as well as to Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.

What is Yulgok’s interpretation of sincerity? His interpretation of sincerity appears in most of his philosophical works, especially the Songhak chipyo, the Songchaek (Treatise on Sincerity), the Saja on song chaek (Treatise on Questions About the Statements on Sincerity in the Four Books), and his political memorials. In his Four-Seven thesis, Yulgok argues that self-cultivation is “to make one’s will sincere first” and to harmonise feelings. Following the Doctrine of the Mean and Chou Tun-i’s philosophy, he believed that the sincere will is the foundation of the moral nature, and one can arrive at sagehood through self-cultivation with it. According to his Songhak chipyo, sagehood.” In the light of the Great Learning, he argues that “to make oneself sincere” is the beginning and end of one’s effort at the learning for sagehood, and it includes “the investigation of things” and then putting it into practice. Sincerity is what enables one to nourish one’s ki, and the extension of knowledge is invalidated unless it is always accompanied by sincere self-determination. It is thought to be the absolute “truth without any falsehood,” which is identical to “Heaven’s principle.” This implies that sincerity is the real authentic mind of the human being.

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