The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 173)

How does one learn to be sincere and abide in sincerity? More specifically, what is the actual method of attaining complete sincerity? According to the Doctrine of the Mean, human nature is said to be a genuine manifestation of Heaven because it is imparted from Heaven. From the Confucian ontological and moral standpoint, the human way and the way of Heaven share the same reality. Sincerity itself is, therefore, the means of uniting the Heavenly way and the human way; in complete sincerity lies the harmony and union between Heaven, Earth, and human beings. Yulgok says: “When one has already made one’s learning sincere, one must, then, rectify the distortion of physical endowment to recover one’s original human nature.” This is precisely the reason why he emphasised the nourishment of the physical endowment of one’s nature through the moral integration of one’s feelings and desires. Of course, his Four-Seven thesis, which is focused on a philosophy of ki, is highly relevant to his philosophical and moral arguments about the idea of sincerity.

The Confucian understanding of sincerity does not imply an extraordinary or unusual state of our mind. The virtue of sincerity is, rather, to be nourished in daily life. To borrow Wing-tsit Chan’s terminology, it means to be understood as something relevant to the “ordinary deeds” of “ordinary” persons. It involves a constant process of moral cultivation and action. For Yulgok, it is the essence of human nature, and the completion of a person is not possible without cultivation it and without extending it to other beings and things. The beginning and end of the learning for sagehood are, Yulgok argues, sincerity from which the practice of other Confucian virtues take their proper place in the external and physical reality of ki. As Young-chan Ro correctly points out in his recent study of Yulgok’s philosophy, “Making reality sincere is inseparable from the individual’s own personal cultivation of sincerity, as the individual’s sincere mind must necessarily find expression-through into action-in the world around him.” For Yulgok, then, the task of self-cultivation is to illuminate goodness that innately culminates in sincerity. The cultivation of sincerity and the actual practice of it in one’s daily life are equally significant.

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