The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 171)

The Neo-Confucian concept of the mind is understood as the master of one’s body and the commander of human nature and feelings. Yulgok states: “Without sincerity, the original essence of Heaven’s principle cannot exist.” Because sincerity itself combines Heaven’s principle as its substance and the mind of the human being as its function, it can be realised and nourished in human beings. Yulgok writes: “Sincerity is the truth that has no falsehood; it is that which has the real principle. What is called knowledge can be discussed from the standpoint of sincerity.” The mind can be conceived of as the essence of the effort of uniting oneself with Heaven. As Yulgok asserts, the way of Heaven (condo) refers to the “real principle,” whereas the human way (info) is called the “real mind.” Furthermore, the principle characterised by sincerity refers to the clear and pure physical nature of the sage; therefore, sagehood can be attained by cultivating complete sincerity.

What does Yulgok means? In the light of Doctrine of the Mean, he means that sincerity-in-itself refers to the Heavenly way as the real principle, and the human way can become sincere to realise and preserve it. The Confucian conviction is that Heaven by nature is completely sincere; hence, the profound responsibility of human beings is to transform themselves into sincere persons in accordance with moral principles endowed by Heaven’s principle, or real principle, itself. As Tu Wei-ming comments, the reason that one has to cultivate the sincere will is because “our nature is originally so endowed” from Heaven’s principle. Sincerity is the essential force that makes one a true human being so that one can relate oneself to Heaven, Earth, and other human beings. From Yulgok’s epistemological and moral standpoint, it includes both the real principle for actualisation of things and the real mind as the originator of knowledge. On the metaphysical level, it is equivalent to i-in-itself; in concrete phenomena, however, it can be cultivated and realised in one’s mind-and-heart. In sincerity, then, human beings can be united with moral principles and the myriad things. If one acquires complete sincerity, one can become a sage: “Nothing can exist without sincerity. The nature of the sages is sincerity. A superior person is the person of sincerity.” The sages are, therefore, completely authentic and sincere. This is why Yulgok believes that even the superior persons and ordinary people cannot lack sincerity; one must strive for it constantly, so that one can cultivate “complete sincerity.”When one possesses sincerity, one will become a morally upright person.

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