Keimyung University, Academia Koreana
  • Yi T’oegye on Transcending the Problem of Evil: A Neo-Confucian and Interreligious Perspective

Evil is a key concept in Confucianism and other world religions. The problem of evil is therefore central to our interreligious discussion of human nature and the world. In Western scholarship, however, Confucian moral idealism is occasionally criticized for being too optimistic or unable to articulate the nature of evil; it is philosophically or theologically weak, also due to the absence of an omnipotent, omniscient God (divine law-giver). If we take the Confucian doctrine of innate human goodness for granted, how do we explain the active presence of evil in the human world?

This article discusses the heart of T’oegye’s thought by focusing on the problem of evil and the way to transcend it. Yi Hwang 李滉 (T’oegye 退溪, 1501– 1570) was an eminent Korean thinker who greatly influenced Neo-Confucian ethics and spirituality. By using a textual and interpretive approach, I present his major works including the Sŏnghak sipto 聖學十圖 (Ten diagrams on sage learning), Chasŏngnok 自省錄 (Record of self-reflection), and “Four-Seven Debate Letters.” T’oegye eloquently criticized the origin of moral evil and emphasized a self-transcending way to remove evil and do good. What is important about his [End Page 249] interpretation and how does it enrich our global understanding of good and evil? I conclude by considering this and related questions from a comparative and interreligious standpoint.


T’oegye, Yi Hwang, Korean, Neo-Confucian, evil, interreligious, comparative

I. T’oegye on the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is discussed in Korean Neo-Confucianism, especially T’oegye’s famous works such as the Sǒnghak sipto (Ten diagrams on sage learning), Chasŏngnok (Record of self-reflection), and Four-Seven debate letters.1 In general, the Confucian tradition developed a theory of “moral evil” in terms of human nature. It affirms the presence of evil acts in human behaviour and the world. In Korea, T’oegye studied and debated not only textual and philosophical questions about the problem of evil in terms of human nature, emotions, and cravings, but also the proper understanding of the difference between good and evil and its implication for moral and spiritual self-cultivation.

The challenging question for T’oegye was: what causes evil? T’oegye affirms the teaching of Mencius (372–289 BCE): “If one becomes evil (K. pulsŏn, C. bushan 不善), it is not the fault of one’s natural endowment” (Mencius 6A:6, my translation; see also Lau trans. 1970, 163). In other words, evil not inborn because it comes from one’s neglect to express our natural goodness inherent in the mind-and-heart (K. sim, C. xin 心) So evil is due to one’s failure to practice one’s good mind-and-heart (Mencius 6A:8, Lau trans. 1970, 165) or to control bad internal or external influences. In the Zhu Xi 朱子 Neo-Confucian context, this is because human existence is continuously subject to various material, physical, psychological, and social factors, which can lead to either good or evil.

As articulated by T’oegye, Mencius’ belief in “the original goodness of human nature” includes the “mind-and-heart” (K. sim, C. xin 心) of commiseration and that of the moral discernment of right and wrong, which are the “beginnings” (K. tan, C. duan 端) of our innate virtues such as benevolence and wisdom, respectively; therefore, All human beings have the mind-and-heart “sensitive to the suffering of others” (Mencius 2A:6, Lau trans. 1970, 82).2 According to Mencius, the “mind-and-heart” of commiseration is also a genuine [End Page 250] moral “emotion/feeling” (K. chŏng, C. qing 情) (Mencius 6A:6)3 aroused from inside. Everyone would have the innate moral feeling of commiseration (compassion), as the beginning of the virtuous action of benevolence (human-heartedness; in/ren 仁), to immediately save “a young child on the verge of falling into a well” (Mencius 2A: 6, Lau trans. 1970, 82). When one is benevolent, one not only expresses the virtue of benevolence but also acts out of the moral feeling (mind-and-heart) of commiseration (compassion).4 In this regard, T’oegye certainly supports Mencius’ deep ontological conviction that these innate qualities are the moral feelings and actions that make human beings fundamentally good (Chung 1995).

For T’oegye, the Four Beginnings of virtue—namely, the four-fold mind-and-heart (moral feelings) of commiseration, shame and dislike, courtesy and modesty, and discernment of right and wrong—pertain to the Mencian belief in “the original goodness of human nature” (K. sŏngsŏn chi sŏng, C. xingshan zhi xing 性善之性).5 The so-called child metaphor of the pure mind-and-heart (Mencius 7A:15, Lau trans. 1970, 184) therefore justifies the moral ideas of “innate knowledge [of good]” (K. yangji, C. liangzhi 良知) and “innate ability [to do good]” (K. yangnŭng, C. liangneng 良能). In other words, T’oegye concurs with this Mencian teaching that “the child-like heart” of original human goodness naturally enables everyone to love, to be filial to, one’s parents and to choose good over evil.

Nonetheless, the potential problem of evil as part of “inborn human nature” is also in the Book of Mencius: Gaozi 告子 (ca. 420–ca. 350 BCE), a controversial thinker, debated Mencius, arguing that human nature is (n)either good (n)or bad because it is “like whirling water.... It shows no preference for either good or evil....” (Mencius 6A: 2; see also Lau trans. 1970, 160; Chan 1963b, 52). T’oegye, like Zhu Xi and other leading Neo-Confucians, rejected Gaozi’s view by asserting that Gaozi failed to understand the inner “essence of human nature,” which includes four cardinal moral principles and virtues, such as benevolence (human-heartedness), righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. Gaozi’s flaw was therefore due to his shallow and narrow interest in analyzing only physical and psychological things, such as cravings for food and sex, as the inborn aspects of human nature.

About a century after Mencius, Xunzi 荀子 (c. 310–220 BCE) developed a philosophy of evil, according to which all human beings are born with their natural tendencies and inclinations for selfish profit and gain that will lead to evil if not properly regulated by institutional systems of rules and regulations (Xunzi, Hutton trans. 2014). T’oegye was aware [End Page 251] of Xunzi’s heterodox doctrine on the original evil in human nature, as well as of Confucian orthodoxy as represented by the tradition of Confucius and Mencius. In articulating the orthodox school together with Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism, T’oegye condemned Xunzi and did not see his ideas as worthy of mention. Like Zhu Xi, he rejected Xunzi’s theory that human nature is universally evil due to inborn selfish interests and cravings because Xunzi radically deviated from unifying Confucian, Mencian, and Neo-Confucian belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature.

In his Four-Seven debate letters to Ki Taesŭng (Kobong) 奇大升 (高峯, 1725–1772) T’oegye presented a moral philosophy of human nature and emotions. T’oegye wrote:

Even if we are referring to one single phrase “human nature” (K. sŏng, C. xing 性), it is what Zisi in the Doctrine of the Mean meant by “human nature mandated by Heaven” (K. ch’ŏnmyŏng chi sŏng, C. tianming zhi xing 天命之性) and what Mencius (2A:6 and 6A:6) called “the original goodness of human nature” (K. sŏngsŏn chi sŏng, C. xingshan zhi xing 性善之 性)

(Yi 1985 Chasŏngnok, section 18; Chung 2016, 125–126).

For T’oegye, then, what the Doctrine of the Mean and Mencius meant is “original human nature” (K. ponyŏn chi sŏng, C. benran zhi xing 本然之性) in its pure essence; that is, human nature-in-itself which is unmixed with physical endowment (or dispositions, K. kijil, C. qizhi 氣質). So this means original human goodness before the individual self is stimulated by certain external things or physical or psychological dispositions. T’oegye stated:

The point of reference in these classics was i/li 理 ([metaphysical] principle; [moral] ground of being), not ki/qi 氣 (vital energy; material force), so we can describe it in terms of pure goodness without any evil. Otherwise, we are not talking about the original essence of human nature (K. sŏng chi ponyŏn, C. xing zhi benran 性之本然)

(Yi 1985 Chasŏngnok, section 18; Chung 2016, 126).

T’oegye made this point repeatedly in the Sǒnghak sipto, Four-Seven debate letters, and Chasŏngnok. By discussing various Confucian classics and Neo-Confucian commentaries, he pointed out that the origin and problem of evil exist in the daily reality of “selfish cravings” (K. sayok, C. siyu 私欲) and emotions as they are disturbed by external phenomena.

T’oegye often discussed the Neo-Confucian philosophy of i/li and ki/qi in terms of good and evil.6 In Song China, Zhu Xi developed this philosophy on the basis of earlier Song [End Page 252] thinkers, including Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017–1073), Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032–1085), Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033–1107), and Zhang Zai 張載 (1020–1077). T’oegye articulated this part of Zhu Xi’s thought in an engaging way. In short, T’oegye’s metaphysics and ethics emphasize the transcendent and moral reality of i/li, which is always pure and good, over the material, physical, and emotional world of ki/qi, which is good or evil depending on whether or not it is properly controlled.7

In the Mencian and Zhu Xi Neo-Confucian context, T’oegye believed that any evil tendency or action does not represent “the original essence of human nature” (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 18; Chung 2016, 126). In the Sŏnghak sipto as well, he explained “original human nature” in terms of i/li and pure goodness, whereas “physical human nature” (K. kijil chi sŏng, C. qizhi zhi xing 氣質之性) meant what is conditioned by ki/qi involving either good or evil.8 T’oegye does not mean that ki/qi is originally or always bad. Rather, it becomes bad if the self does not control it properly as one’s mind does not follow moral principles (i/li).

For T’oegye, Cheng Hao’s explanation of evil in terms of inborn human nature and ki/ qi (Cheng and Cheng, n.d., 1:7b-8a; Chan 1963b, 528)9 was therefore problematic and thus unacceptable. As Cheng said,

What is inborn is called human nature.10 Human nature is the same as ki/qi, and vice versa. They are both inborn. It is reasonable for both good and evil to exist in one’s endowed ki/qi.... Due to the endowed ki/qi, some people may become good from childhood and others become evil. Human nature is certainly good, but we cannot also say that evil is not human nature because what is inborn is human nature

(Cheng and Cheng n.d., 1:7b, my translation; see also Chan 1963b, 527).

So endowed ki/qi exists in all human beings. Cheng Hao basically elaborated on the controversial position given by Gaozi, Mencius’ debater: “That which is inborn is called human nature,” (Mencius 6A:3, my translation; see also Lau trans. 1970, 160) and evil exists because some people were likely born with bad dispositions in their endowed ki/qi; these people can eventually become evil during their lives. In this regard, the endowed ki/qi may not be entirely identical to the evil ki/qi, which some people develop in their selfish interactions with material, social, or other things. [End Page 253]

T’oegye criticized Cheng Hao for following the wrong position taken by Gaozi that “Due to the endowed ki/qi, some people may become good from childhood and others become evil” (Cheng and Cheng n.d., 1:7b–8a; Chan 1963b, 528). Zhu Xi corrected Cheng’s view:

What we call evil is not original evil; it [rather] becomes evil only when a person deviates from the Mean. All beings are originally good, but [some have simply] degenerated into evil

The problem with Cheng Hao’s thinking is that both good and evil originally exist in innate human nature. For Zhu Xi and T’oegye, this is an unacceptable position because it would damage not only the celebrated Mencian theory of the original goodness of human nature (Mencius 2A:6 and 6A:6, Lau trans. 1970, 82–83, 163), but also the fundamental Neo-Confucian doctrine that human nature is principle (i/li), so its moral essence is purely good (Cheng and Cheng n.d., 18:17b; Chan 1963b, 567).

In the Mencian and Zhu Xi Neo-Confucian context, T’oegye argues that human nature is innately good but one can become evil when neglected as one’s mind and body are dominated by selfish cravings, feelings, or thoughts. Nevertheless, this certainly does not imply Cheng Hao’s misunderstanding that both good and evil exist in human nature or inborn ki/qi nor does it even slightly support Xunzi’s incorrect theory that human nature is originally evil because all human beings have universal tendency or potential to be evil. In other words, T’oegye believes that there is no original evil in the ontological sense; the problem of evil is ultimately not the absence of original human goodness but rather the individual’s neglect of or deviation from this goodness.

T’oegye’s major works explain that original human nature is the perfectly good state of our nature before the arousal of emotions or desires, whereas physical human nature is the actual state involving either good or evil after the emotions or cravings are aroused. According to Zhu Xi, there are therefore differences in “the physical endowment of ki/ qi” (Zhu Xi 1880, 5:3b). In other words, as T’oegye confirms, evil can happen when one becomes immoral due to one’s unclean ki/qi acting against moral principles (i/li). Therefore, the root of evil seems to be this unclean ki/qi.11

T’oegye was highly concerned with the difference between moral virtues and selfish cravings in terms of i/li and ki/qi, respectively. In his Sŏnghak sipto, Four-Seven letters, and Chasŏngnok, he frequently emphasized that one should never misidentify the innate moral essence of human nature represented by i/li with the selfish cravings that can easily become evil due to one’s uncontrolled ki/qi. T’oegye therefore argued that feelings and emotions may be discussed in terms of their two related group names: the Four and the Seven. The Four Beginnings of virtue, including the moral feeling, or mind-and-heart, of commiseration [End Page 254] all pertain to original human nature. The Seven, denoting the Seven Emotions of pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred, and desire, are associated with the physical and psychological side of human nature in response to external stimuli. In his first Four-Seven debate letter to Ki Kobong, T’oegye articulated the difference between the Four and the Seven as follows:

Where do [the minds-and-hearts of] commiseration, shame and dislike, courtesy and modesty, and discernment of right and wrong come from? They are aroused from the [original essence of] human nature consisting of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. Where do the emotions of pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred, and desire come from? They are aroused from the inside under certain conditions when they become active as external things in contact with physical form

T’oegye also maintained that like i/li and ki/qi, the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions should be clearly distinguished from each other (Yi 1985, section 18; Chung 2016, 125–127; Yi 1971–85, 16:10a, 16:30a, V1: 406, 416). The Seven refer to ki/qi because they are our ordinary emotions that can arise from external influence as stimulated by ki/qi. Accordingly, as our physical and psychological feelings, the Seven can easily become evil if the mind fails to control them properly. Anger, hatred, and desire – the key examples of the Seven – are not necessarily moral feelings (K. chŏng, C. qing) like the Four Beginnings of virtue including the mind-and-heart of commiseration. Therefore, the Seven can become inhuman if they are not controlled properly. When these emotions do not comply with moral principles (K. i, C. li), they can deviate from their proper expression and become precarious due to the activity of their turbid ki/qi associated with the selfish mind or body (for details, see T’oegye’s Four-Seven letter in Yi 1971–85, 16:21a, V1: 412; Kalton, et al. 1994; Chung 1995). In other words, there are proper ways to be joyful, angry, hating, and desiring; experienced improperly, however, they can become evil. The Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions are definitely different in the moral context.

II. T’oegye on Transcending the Problem of Evil

In his Four-Seven letters, T’oegye highlighted the moral nourishment of the Four and a measure of control over the Seven in order to transcend the problem of evil. This was the method of “controlling ki/qi” (Yi 1971–85, 16:37b, V1: 419) by regulating cravings and emotions. His other major works emphasize that one should never fall into the serious trouble of misunderstanding ordinary cravings (K. inyok, C. renyu 人慾) as heavenly principle (K. ch’ŏlli, C. tianli 天理) (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 18; Chung 2016, 129). T’oegye stated:

The ordinary mind is the source of our cravings. The mind of ordinary people who go against heavenly moral principles will indulge in material cravings (K. muryok, C. wuyu 物欲 [End Page 255] )... Material cravings are selfish

T’oegye articulated an explicit view of selfish cravings – material, physical, or psychological – as potentially evil. If these selfish cravings are not controlled properly, they can become immoral and lead to evil. T’oegye did not necessarily mean that all human cravings are originally or always bad; they are potentially evil if the mind fails to regulate them properly according to moral principles (i/li).

In his Sŏnghak sipto and Chasŏngnok. T’oegye discussed the way of transcending the problem of evil as a key topic in terms of mind cultivation simhak (C. xinxue 心學).12 He emphasized moral practice in terms of the removal of selfish cravings (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 12; Chung 2016, 85). Quoting Cheng Yi, he wrote, “‘Be orderly and dignified’ and ‘be solemn and austere.’”13 In this way, the mind... naturally will not go wrong” (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 7; Chung 2016, 68). “If you cultivate yourself this way for a long time, moral principles (K. tori, C. daoli 道理) will be clear”14 (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 7; Chung 2016, 68). T’oegye’s letter to his disciple, Nam Sibo encourages mind cultivation as follows:

In your daily life you should... purify the mind by controlling its fondness and cravings... so that your mind’s vital energy (K. ki, C. qi) may always remain pure and smooth. Let it not deviate or become disorderly so that you do not resent or get angry. This is the essential method.

(Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 1; Chung 2016, 52)

What T’oegye meant by the phrase “purify the mind” in this quotation is not the same as the Buddhist way of self-emptying. Zen Buddhism emphasizes za-zen meditation on the sudden awakening of the mind by means of stopping all kinds of thoughts and conscious cravings.15 The Confucian way requires consistent and dedicated effort at mind cultivation and moral practice over a long period of time, together with the study of daily principles and human relationships.16 This is a matter of regulating and cultivating the mind: “Confucius said, ‘Hold [End Page 256] onto it and it will remain, let go of it and it will disappear.’”17 As discussed above, this includes: overcoming selfish cravings and emotions and controlling one’s ki/qi by means of following the i/li moral virtues such as benevolence and propriety in the daily reality of things and human relationships.

Overall, this task is to take “reverence (K. kyŏng, C. jing 敬)18 as the master of the self.” The virtue of reverence is a key topic that T’oegye emphasized throughout his entire system of ethics and spirituality. He was convinced that kyŏng essentially differentiates Confucianism from Buddhism or Daoism, as articulated in the Chasŏngnok.19 T’oegye reminded his disciples:

For entering the Way, there is nothing more than reverence20... [this is] also revealed through the Mencian teaching, “Never let it out of your mind; make no selfish effort...”21 In other words, the sagely method of the mind

(K. simbŏp, C. xinfa 心法) is thus (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 13; Chung 2016, 91).

T’oegye referred here to Zhu Xi’s doctrine of mind cultivation (simhak/xinxue) as well. He also quoted Cheng Yi: “Be reverent (K. kyŏng, C. jing) in order to rectify the self internally.”22 T’oegye’s letter to Yi Yulgok makes similar points:

If you neglect kyŏng even for a moment... it will quickly demolish your effort in dealing with things in daily life... One does not comprehend [moral] principles (K. I, C. li) truly because, as one often neglects to hold fast to reverence; this, too, is a common defect among many scholars

(Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 14; Chung 2016, 101). [End Page 257]

This is why T’oegye emphasized that the Confucian way requires one to cultivate reverence consistently and faithfully. “Build your true learning with continuous effort for a long time in order to make it pure and skillful,” and “cultivate... heavenly principle (K. ch’ŏlli, C. tianli) daily... and remove the selfish sprouts of ordinary cravings (inyok/renyu).” (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 13; Chung 2016, 90). One’s mind should remain truly self-aware and calm so that there will not be any “disorderly and perplexed thoughts” causing worry or anxiety. One should take up reverence to control oneself (Yi 1985, Chasŏngnok, section 13; Chung 2016, 90).

As far as T’oegye’s interpretation is concerned, ordinary cravings or their sprouts are not originally bad. As we noted in the foregoing section, however, evil can arise when these cravings become immoral as the mind fails to control them properly according to moral principles (i). This requires a way to transcend the selfish cravings.23 In the Sŏnghak sipto, T’oegye wrote that one should do so by practicing reverence.24 The spiritual core of T’oegye’s Neo-Confucianism centers around reverence as the essential way to control the entire self and to remove evil.

III. Conclusion: Neo-Confucian and Inter-religious Remarks

T’oegye’s interpretation is a type of moral philosophy that embraces spiritual teaching and practice. For T’oegye, our emotions, feelings, and desires are not necessarily evil if they follow our true mind-heart according to innate moral principles. Evil originates in moral failure, insofar as it is caused by uncontrolled selfish cravings and acts in our daily existence in the dynamic world of ki/qi. This is why T’oegye’s ethics and spirituality are strongly grounded in i/li principle preferring good and virtuous life. He therefore emphasized the method of controlling ki/qi; one should remove dehumanizing evil tendencies by practicing our innate, moral nature. According to the common teaching of Mencius and Neo-Confucianism, this effort means to extend our innate knowledge of the good and innate ability to do good in daily life and society. According Wang Yangming’s (1472–1529) interpretation, it is simply to “do good and remove evil” (Chuanaxi lu, pt. I, sec. 129 and pt. III, sec. 315; Chan trans. 1963a, 86 and 244, respectively) or “love good and hate evil” (Chuanxi lu, pt. I, sec. 119; Chan trans. 1963a, 76–77) by being absolutely sincere to oneself as well as to others.

Like leading Buddhist or Christian thinkers, T’oegye was highly concerned with the question of evil and why one should follow a self-controlled and virtuous life. Like T’oegye, we in our modern times might also think that despite the basic ideal goodness of human nature of Confucian thought, the human person in his/her real life could be misled to evil [End Page 258] or may even be capable of doing evil. Similarly, one might ask: Why so, given the Buddhist belief in the potentially enlightened mind or the optimistic version of Christian belief in the good image of God in human nature and fellowship? T’oegye argued that our dilemma about the existential problem of evil demands a way of self-regulation and self-transformation.

For T’oegye the problem of evil is neither a revolt against God nor a deviation from God’s perfect creation; evil acts do not necessarily originate from humanity’s first fall or original sin in the biblical sense. Modern Christian thinkers, however, pay more attention to the image of God in humanity. Thomas Merton (1915–1968), a twentieth-century Christian mystic strongly influenced by Buddhism, talked about discovering the divine seed in human nature. This was a ground-breaking experiential insight. The way of salvation means to discover one’s true being through the death of ego (Merton 1967; 1973; 2004). Furthermore, leading comparative or ecumenical theologians like John Hick or Hans Küng are very interested in discussing what we may call a humanistic theology beginning with the question of human nature and ultimate self-understanding rather than God or the Christ only (Hick 1989, 3).25 I concur with Küng that the Confucian tradition in particular has rightly criticized the Christian doctrine of original sin, especially from a humanistic, ethical standpoint (Küng and Ching 1989, 117).

T’oegye’s insights cannot be understood fully in terms of theodicy and yet, to some extent, it might be interesting to relate T’oegye’s interpretation to some theodicean literatures, especially from a moral perspective. For example, the fifth-century theologian Augustine argued that evil exists as the loss of the good (Augustine 1955). Therefore, the neglect of the good is what explains moral evil as sin. Similarly, Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), an early eighteenth-century German thinker, talked about one form of evil in introducing theodicy in 1710: moral evil as sin.26 God lets evil to happen for the sake of greater goods in the world. Overall, we can debate the extent to which these kinds of theological theodicy actually apply to non-theistic Confucian spirituality but we might suggest that T’oegye’s interpretation somewhat relates to the Augustinian or Leibnizian theodicy without its theistic foundation.

We have a critical question, one that was important in T’oegye’s own time as well. It is about our existential situation of being between the ideal and the real. We may suggest that the early Confucian thinker Xunzi is more consistent with philosophizing the fundamental evil of human nature or its natural tendency for selfish gains. It is also not difficult, however, to accept the more optimistic and idealist Mencius on the universal innate goodness of human nature, as the leading Neo-Confucians such as T’oegye, Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, and others did centuries ago. Or one can follow someone like Xunzi by assimilating his philosophy of [End Page 259] human nature as evil with a kind of Augustinian theodicy and regarding human nature as universally sinful or arguing that the presence of evil is the lack of the good. Yet another option is to insist on something similar to the naïve yet accepted biblical creation story on the historical fall into sin as literal accounts of humanity. Nonetheless, this is likely a theoretically arid exercise in convenient reasoning.

From a broader comparative perspective, T’oegye’s call for cultivating kyŏng (reverence), following moral principles, and removing selfish cravings and attachments would be compatible with other spiritual teachings. For example, in his thought-provoking mystical theology Meister Eckhart (1260–1327), an early 14th-century German Catholic monk and thinker, noted that salvation, the ultimate path to God, requires detachment from all forms of personal selfishness (Eckhart 1981). Accordingly, the converging point between T’oegye’s reverence and Eckhart’s insight seems to be this moral-spiritual practice to transcend and remove selfishness.27 Like Eckhart, St. John of the Cross (1542–1591), a great sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, also emphasized that the imitation of Jesus Christ absolutely demands what he calls the death of ego and detachment from all selfish cravings and self-indulging attachments (John of the Cross 1987, “Spiritual Canticle”).

These kinds of Christian insights basically concur with, or at least do not contradict, not only T’oegye’s insights but also the basic Buddhist doctrine of attaining nirvana by extinguishing cravings or the meditative Zen way of satori. In terms of compatibility with our modern world, what T’oegye’s moral spirituality potentially shares with other spiritual traditions is the ultimate quest for good over evil: a sagely, enlightened, liberated, or blessed being that may be variously described in terms of sagehood, buddha-nature, moksh spiritual liberation, or salvation. In line with the modern interpretations of world religions and philosophies,28 we are talking about the way of wisdom and compassion that can bring about an experience of self-transcendence,29 which can empower the spiritual transformation of the self and the world.30 [End Page 260]

The wise person ultimately transcends the separation between self and other, thereby extending the reverential wisdom and compassion of the individual in order to embrace all living beings. At the heart of T’oegye’s religious thought is this profound belief in the oneness of the human and transcendent realities; such holistic thinking is deeply embedded in his ethics and spirituality of good and evil. It is important to harmonize the inner and outer pillars of self-cultivation. T’oegye therefore emphasizes kyŏng as an integrating and unifying way of learning, self-control, mind cultivation, and virtuous life. The true essence of the Confucian way is indeed a holistic path that empowers the intellectual, moral, and spiritual transformation of human existence.

In the final analysis, the modern interreligious meaning of T’oegye’s message is to envision the ultimate reality of our nature as something to be discovered through this transformation. Whatever we call Confucianism in dialogue with Buddhism, Christianity, and other spiritual teachings, we can conclude that the converging horizon between Confucian spirituality and other world religions is their shared commitment to the moral and transcendent reality of human existence. In this regard, T’oegye’s Neo-Confucianism is a leading legacy of Korean thought as well as a living and highly engaging vision of ethics and spirituality. [End Page 261]

Edward Y. J. Chung

Edward Y. J. Chung ( is Asian Studies Director and Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Religious Studies, University of Prince Edward Island.


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* This article is the revised version of a paper I presented at the International Conference on Good and Evil in Korean Philosophy, Religion, and Spirituality: Korean Ideas and Their Global Implications, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, June 14–15, 2018. I am pleased to have organized this conference in collaboration with the NAKPA (North American Korean Philosophical Association). In particular, the conference was generously funded by an international Seed Program for Korean Studies grant (AKS–2017– INC–2230001) through the Ministry of Education, Republic of Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service (KSPS), the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS).

1. For a full English translation of the Sŏnghak sipto, see Kalton 1988 or Chung 1995. For Four-Seven debate letters, see Yi 1971–85, 16:8a–17:6b, V1: 402–30; Kalton, et al. 1994; Chung 1995. Chung 2016 is a full translation of the Chasŏngnok with annotation, commentary, and a comprehensive introduction.

2. The following passage also explains his basic Confucian doctrine: “All human beings have the mind-and-heart of commiseration, the mind-and-heart of shame and dislike, the mind-and-heart of respect and reverence, and the mind-and-heart of moral discernment of right and wrong. The mind-and-heart of commiseration pertains to benevolence... Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are. . . within us originally [in our nature].” (Mencius 6A:6, my translation; see also Lau trans. 1970, 163).

3. In this article, we translate the term chŏng (C. qing) as “emotion(s),” “feeling(s),” or more inclusively “emotions and feelings.” This important Confucian idea generally refers to “emotions” as well as “feelings”; we therefore use two English words “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably. As we know, the word “emotion” refers to “a moving, stirring, agitation and perturbation,” whereas the word “feeling” means “the sense of touch in the looser acceptance of the term, in which it includes all physical sensibility not referable to the special senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell” (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary 1971, s.v. “emotion.”). Overall, the term chŏng therefore means both feeling and emotion, engaging the body as well as the mind-and-heart. Emotion, as in the case of T’oegye’s moral philosophy and psychology, refers to an aroused physical or psychological state, often the result of a stimulation of the mind.

4. For including this point here, I would like to thank the second anonymous reviewer of the previous manuscript of this article.

5. See T’oegye’s first Four-Seven debate letter in Yi 1971–85, 16:9b, V1:406.

6. Zhu Xi’s philosophy of i/li and ki/qi is a well-researched topic that does not need to be rehearsed here. In short, i/li is commonly translated as principle, metaphysical principle of existence, or the moral ground of being present in each thing in its fullness; it is the ultimate and omnipresent principle of all things in full goodness and truth. In relation to human nature and feelings, i/li also represents the original human nature that is purely good. By contrast, ki/qi refers to the material force or vital energy that actually brings each phenomenon into concrete existence and also determines its transformation, which may lead to either good or evil. In relation to human nature and emotions, ki/qi represents physical dispositions and psychological matters as well. For Zhu Xi’s metaphysics and ethics of i/li and ki/qi, see Chan 1963b; Chan trans. 1967; de Bary and Kim Haboush eds. 1985; Mou 1975; Gardner trans. 1990.

7. For a detailed discussion of this topic, see Chung 1995, Chung 2004, Chung 2010a Chung 2016; Kalton 1988; Tomoeda 1985; Tu 1982. For Zhu Xi’s key statement about the mutual inseparability of i/li and ki/qi in concrete phenomena, see Zhu Xi 1880, 1:2b; Zhu Xi 1714, 49:1a; Chan 1963b, 634.

8. For more relevant sources, consult Zhu Xi 1880, 4:11a–13b; Zhu Xi 1714, 42: 4b, 42: 6b–7a, 9b–10a, 43: 2b–4a; Chan 1963b, 613, 616–17, 623–24. In his Four-Seven debate, T’oegye addresses this whole topic in terms of human nature and emotions, i/li and ki/qi, and self-cultivation, see Kalton et al. 1994; Chung 1995, 47–48, 60–61, 66–69, 80–84, 104–6.

9. This was further mentioned in Zhu Xi’s “Commentary on Cheng Mingdao’s Discourse on Human Nature,” see Zhu Xi 1930a, 67: 17a–b; Chan 1963b, 598–99.

10. This sentence is Gaozi’s original saying in the Mencius 6A: 3.

11. For making this relevant point about the “unclean ki/qi,” I thank the second reviewer of the previous manuscript of this article.

12. Before T’oegye’s time, Neo-Confucians in Song China such as Zhu Xi and Zhen Dexiu discussed the idea of simhak (Chan 1986; de Bary 1981). For T’oegye’s interpretation of simhak, see his Sŏnghak sipto, especially the “Simhak to” 心學圖 (Diagrammatic treatise on mind cultivation), in Yi 1971–85, 7:29a, V1: 208, and “Sim t’ong sŏngjŏng tosŏl” 心統性情圖說 (Diagrammatic treatise on the saying that “the mind commends human nature and feelings”), in Yi 1971–85, 7:23a, V1: 205. For these diagrammatic essays in English, see Kalton 1988, 160–64, 120–27; Chung 1995, 62–64, 128–32, 168–72. The moral-spiritual nature of T’oegye’s simhak is also discussed in Chung 2016.

13. The locus classicus of this frequently quoted teaching (“be orderly and dignified” and “be solemn and austere”) in the Neo-Confucian literature is the Book of Rites, “Meaning of Sacrifices” (see Legge 1970, Li Ki 2: 216).

14. T’oegye is quoting the Yishu, 15:6b (Chan 1963b, 555). This key statement also appears in the Jinsi lu 近思錄 (Reflections on things at hand) 4:45 (Chan trans. 1967, 142).

15. In other words, the goal of this meditative way is to attain enlightenment as the absolute emptiness of the self. This is taught as the ultimate spiritual experience of the undifferentiated unity of all existence, which is also expressed in terms of Buddha nature, true self, or absolute detachment. Here I have in mind the teaching of the famous Chinese Zen master, Huineng (638–713) (Yampolsky, trans. 1967; de Bary ed. 1969, 211–24).

16. For details on T’oegye’s critical views of Buddhism and Daoism (Chung 2016, 29–32, 91).

17. T’oegye is likely quoting the Mencius, 6A:8 (see also Lau, trans. 1970, 165; Chan 1963b, 63). Cheng Yi, Zhu Xi, and T’oegye frequently cited the Mencian teaching, “preserve the mind and nourish human nature.” See Cheng’s and Zhu’s discussion of “holding onto it and preserving it” in the Jinsi lu, 4:6 (Chan trans. 1967, 143).

18. The idea of kyŏng embodies several meanings; for example, Zhu Xi taught it as an attitude of reverence toward Heaven and Earth, as well as seriousness in handling daily matters and human relationships. According to the Book of Rites (1:1a, “Summary of Ceremonies”), one the Five Classics, the self-cultivated person never lacks reverence. Confucius as well said, “Be reverent (K. kyŏng, C. jing) in handling affairs” (Analects 13:19). Other meanings of kyǒng are “mindfulness” (Kalton 1988, 175–89) and moral seriousness. Kyŏng can also mean respect, reverential virtue, seriousness, engaged self-awareness, or holistic attentiveness. Overall, I prefer reverence. For more details on this topic in the moral and spiritual context, see Chung 2011a; Chung 2011c; and Chung 2016 (Introduction); Takahashi 1986.

19. For more annotated commentary on this topic, see Chung 2016 especially the following notes that I have provided in translating, annotating, and interpreting T’oegye’s letters to Chŏng Chajung, Kwŏn Homun, Kim Tonsŏ, and Yi Yulgok: Chung 2016, n. 100 (p. 174), n. 124 (p. 179), n. 183 (p. 188), n. 186 (p. 189), and n. 260 (p. 201).

20. This saying is attributed to the Cheng brothers; see the Yishu, 18:5b and 18:6b (as well as 15:9a and 15:11a). It is similarly quoted in Zhu Xi’s Jinsi lu, chap. 4, secs. 9, 14–16, 18, 25, 36, 38, 44, 47–49, where the Cheng brothers emphasize that “self-cultivation requires reverence” (Zhu Xi 1930a, 4:29a; Chan 1963b, 601). Zhu’s discussion of reverence also appears in Zhu Xi 1880, 44:28b, 62:31b-32a, 94:20a, 96:1a-4a.

21. T’oegye is likely quoting the Mencius 2A:2 (my translation) here. The full passage highlights Mencius’ teaching of rightness and mind-cultivation.

22. Without giving specific documentation, T’oegye is quoting Cheng Yi in the Yishu 15:1a; my translation (see also Chan 1963a, 552).

23. See especially the Chasŏngnok, sections 13 and 16 (Chung 2016, 87–90 and 114–115, respectively). T’oegye also articulated the Zhu Xi school’s doctrine of heavenly principle and ordinary cravings in terms of “the moral mind” and “the human [ordinary] mind” (Chung 1995, 126–28; Chung 2016, 154, 192, 210).

24. See the Sŏnghak sipto (Yi 1971–85, 7:29a, V1: 208) and the Ch’ŏnmyŏng tosŏl 天命圖說 (Diagrammatic explanation of the Mandate of Heaven) (Yi 1985, V3: 144).

25. According to Küng, the Confucian way provides the humanum (human goodness) as “the basic norm for an ethic of world religions”: a good point of convergence for Confucian-Christian dialogue (Küng and Ching 1989, 114). Furthermore, consult Neville 2000; Ching 1977; Ching 2000; Berthrong 1994 for Chinese Confucianism and interreligious dialogue; see Chung 2011b for the topic of T’oegye, Zhu Xi, and interreligious dialogue.

26. Leibniz talked about this form of evil in his “Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil” (1710); see Leibniz 2015 for these essays. It is also important to note that Leibniz studied Confucianism through Jesuits missionaries’ letters about Chinese religion and eventually called Confucianism a “natural theology”; for this topic, consult Leibniz 1977.

27. Furthermore, one may find the German word gelassenheit (serenity, tranquillity, or solemnity) used in the Christian mystical tradition helpful in explaining this connection between T’oegye and Eckhart. I would like to thank the second anonymous reviewer of this article manuscript for making this interesting suggestion.

28. In this regard, we need to continue discussing the global significance of T’oegye’s interpretation of good and evil by considering Confucianism as a “spiritual humanism” (Tu 2013), “ethical humanism as religion” (Ching 1989; Ching 1993), or “lay spirituality” (Ching 2000). As far as my current article is concerned, I also emphasize T’oegye’s religious thought in the context of interreligious dialogue or comparative theology or ethics; see also (Chung 2011b) (an article on Neo-Confucianism and interreligious dialogue).

29. The notion of transcendence may vary according to language, worldview, or religion; its modern comparative meaning does not contradict T’oegye’s belief in the ontological and moral unity between Heaven and human beings (ch’ŏnin habil 天人合一). According to John Hick, a leading comparative philosopher of religion, spirituality or religion, or whatever we might call it, fundamentally “centers upon an awareness of and response to a reality that transcends ourselves and our world, whether the ‘direction’ of transcendence be beyond or within or both” (Hick 1989, 3). So the meaning of “transcendence” has been debated from some flexible philosophical or religious angles. The current literature on this topic regarding Chinese Confucianism includes Neville 2000; Ching 1977; Ching 2000; Tu 1985; Tu 1989; Taylor 1991; Berthrong 1994. For the Korean counterpart, see Kalton 1988; Ro 1989; Chung 2004; Chung 2010b; Chung 2011b; Chung 2016.

30. In his study of modern Confucianism, Boston Confucianism, Robert Neville, a comparative philosopher and theologian, points out that “Confucian spirituality is well-placed to develop... new humane orientations... This is [about] ‘abiding in the highest good’” (Neville 2000, 82).