Keimyung University, Academia Koreana

In the East Asian philosophical traditions, the concept of nothingness has been occupying a central place. Yu Yŏngmo (1890–1981, pen name: Tasŏk 多夕; hereafter Tasŏk) was one of those who accepted Christianity in the early twentieth century Korea yet incorporated its notion of God into the broad framework of nothingness. For him, God (Hananim 하나님), far from being identified with an anthropomorphic, personal being of certain supernatural properties, is closely associated with the primordial void (mu; ŏpsŭm 없음). In other words, despite having accepted the Christian Bible as the basis of his fundamental faith he integrated its central doctrines into the ancient traditions in East Asia. As sons and daughters of God, i.e., as embodied divinity expressing True Self (cham-na) or Spiritual Self (ŏl-na), we also participate in this spiritual order of nothingness. There are thus strong Buddhist-Confucian-Daoist elements that are found in his indigenized form of Christianity.


God (Hananim), nothingness (ŏpsŭm), spirit (ŏl), emptiness, t’aegŭk, Dao

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The concept of nothingness has always occupied a central place in the East Asian philosophical tradition (Kim, forthcoming). Traditional Korean philosophy is no exception, especially with regard to its variations in Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and Daoism. What is interesting is that, even after the introduction of Western philosophy and religion, this trend continued. Yu Yŏngmo (1890–1981, pen name: Tasŏk 多夕; hereafter Tasŏk) was one of those who accepted Christianity yet incorporated it into the broad framework of nothingness. The result is a peculiar and far-reaching indigenized Christian philosophy.

Among the most important Korean philosophers in the past who have spoken of nothingness or the Void are the more well-known Wŏnhyo (617–686) and Chinul (1158– 1210), (Kim, Halla 2015) and more recently, Pak Chonghong (1903–1976) and Ham Sŏkhŏn (1900–1989), Tasŏk’s own student, who developed a distinctive view of Korean spiritual identity with an employment of negativity (under what he calls “sunan” or “konan” [suffering]) for the ultimate purpose of absolute affirmation of the dynamic reality in Korean history (Kim, Halla 2016b). In terms of sustained reflections on nothingness (mu 無; ŏpsŭm), however, Yu is unparalleled and unsurpassed. As Tasŏk himself puts it, “the Westerners know nothing about nothingness (ŏp 없). They have been operating with being (it 있) so their view is not far-reaching. Thus, the Western civilization is frustrating as it is surrounded by brick walls” (Yu 1993b, 309).

What is more, Yu explicitly accepted the Christian Bible as the basis of his fundamental faith yet synthesized its central doctrines within the frame of nothingness following the ancient tradition in Neo-Confucianism. There are thus strong Buddhist-Confucian-Daoist elements that are found there. Indeed, for this reason, we will see that some of the doctrines that he develops will be palpably inconsistent with the more traditional tenets of the Christian religion. It remains true, however, that in Yu one sees an unprecedented insight about the concept of nothingness (Yu 2001; Chun 2016, 190).

The structure of the paper is as follows. In the introduction, I address Tasŏk’s notion that God “exists without existing (ŏpsi kyesin i)” and show that the concept of nothingness is intertwined with the notion. Then, in Section 1, I discuss Tasŏk’s attempt to understand nothingness in terms of the Buddhist notion of “Emptiness.” Sections 2 and 3 introduce Tasŏk’s explication of nothingness in terms of the Neo-Confucian principle of T’aegŭk (太極, C. taiji) and the Daoist notion of Dao, respectively. Section 4 then deals with Yu’s view of religions and religious pluralism. Finally, in Section 5, I discuss a criticism of Tasŏk’s attempt to elucidate the notion of God as nothingness in terms of the three seemingly incommensurable frameworks in East Asia. Nevertheless, instead of giving up the substance of Tasŏk’s syncretic, indigenized Christian philosophy from the outset for this reason, I show how we can emendate it in a way that can avoid any palpable contradictions without sacrificing the substance of his syncretism. [End Page 268]

1. The Non-Existing Existent (ŏpsi kyesin i)

Despite his classical upbringing in Confucianism, Tasŏk converted to Christianity in 1905, when he was 15. However, he experienced a major, life-changing religious revelation in 1942, when he was in his early forties. It is clear from the outset that, for Tasŏk, God is the most important part of his religious faith. However, God is also an integral component of his theoretical system of negativity. Tasŏk typically and paradoxically refers to God as the nonexisting Existent (ŏpsi kyesin i) (Yu 1993b, 34). This is presumably because, even though God rules over all things in the phenomenal world, he also transcends the phenomenal world. Indeed, for Tasŏk, God, Heaven, the Father, and the Void are the same (Yu 1993b, 285; Chun 2016, 204). God exists yet he does not exist.

First of all, for Tasŏk, God cannot be simply said to “exist.” According to him, we human beings have an inborn longing for the absolute being, which is typically referred to as “heaven.” Tasŏk reminds us of the symbolic fact that the human head is always directed toward heaven. As Tasŏk puts it, “just as we are born with sexual desires, we are also born with the metaphysical desire for the absolute being (God)” (Yu 1993b, 15). Being absolute, however, this being cannot be on a par with the world. Therefore, it cannot be a being—it does not exist. If it were found anywhere, it would not be the absolute one. If it were described or named, it would not be the absolute one (Yu 1993b, 15, 34, 98); it would then be an idol. Indeed, the absolute being cannot be defined. It is beyond beings, images, and concepts. This is why the absolute being is not a being (on a par with things in the world). Therefore, God is non-existent in this respect; God obtains without existing (ŏpsi). For Tasŏk, then, God simply goes beyond the world we live in. God is transcendent.

On the other hand, that God does not exist (in the ordinary sense of the term “exist”) does not mean that he is a mere opposite of being. God as the absolute one cannot be literally nothing. If God were merely non-existent, nothing would come out of it. Without God, everything we see and feel around us would not have come to exist. If the absolute God is not only not nothing but also gives rise to everything out of it, then it must have a positive characteristic, presumably as an infinite resource of being. God is infinite and the beginning of all things in the world. Everything comes to be because of God, in other words. Furthermore, God is none other than the unitary whole (hana) (Yu 2002, 40).

If God were pure nothing, nihil, nothing would originate from it and sustained by it. On the contrary, God is the inexhaustible source of life and its essence. In this respect, God must exist. Indeed, in the Western tradition, the aspect of God as being has been consistently emphasized (Kitaro 1970, 237; Yu 1993b, 309). For example, Thomas Aquinas once described God as subsistent being itself (ipsum esse subsistens) (Aquinas 1989, 1, 8). Paul Tillich also suggested that God is the being as being or the ground and the power of being (Tillich, 1957, 10). But Tasŏk goes beyond this and suggests that God is nothingness beyond being and non-being. Of course, that God is nothingness does not mean it is the source of despair. This is why God is not an ordinary ‘nothing’ but an absolute nothingness or Void (pint’ang handae, 虛空) (Yu 1993b, 156, 161). [End Page 269]

Tasŏk’s further claim at this point is that God is within reach on our part because God is originally in each of us. God is not only transcendent but also immanent. In order to seek God, we look no further than ourselves. For Tasŏk, God is intrinsically internal to each of us. Just as Chapter 1 of the Confucian classic Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong 中庸) claims that our nature is none other than what Heaven bestows upon us—or just as Mahāyāna Buddhism holds that Buddha resides in each of us unbeknownst to us or, alternatively, just as Laozi urges to return to our “self ” in our pursuit of Dao—we have a special, inborn nature (pat’al) (Yu 1993b, 314). This nature can be characterized as nothingness because it is bestowed upon us by none other than God, who works without existing (ŏpsi). Therefore, the original nothingness is both transcendent and immanent.

This view of Tasŏk’s suggests that our ordinary consciousness, which is preoccupied with the material world, cannot represent our true nature. The Phenomenal Self or Bodily Self that we are familiar with must be distinguished from the True Self (ch’am-na) or Spiritual Self (ŏl-na) (Yu 1993b, 287). For our true authentic life, we must transition from the bodily life to the spiritual life, from the bodily self to the spiritual self. In a move that is natural for him, Tasŏk then audaciously identities God with the Spiritual Self because God is found within (Yu 1993b, 308).1 But this cannot be achieved with a deductive argument nor with empirical experiments. It takes the whole vision of life and the universe. In other words, it can be attained only as the outcome of the continuous practice of meditation and self-cultivation. For this purpose, we have to turn away from the visible, sensual things around us and see what is invisible—what is void—as that which underlies them. On an extreme occasion, Tasŏk even suggests that we should try to overcome our bodily death (Yu 1993b, 224). As he sometimes put it,

If we want to live authentically, we have to respect what is void (pint’ang or pint’ang handae). When you die, what happens? Nothing [of the bodily nature] would remain, and nothing whatsoever would be true of it. Only [our underlying] nothingness or Void can be true. The Void is truly formidable because it is true. There is no truth without the Void, nothing exists without the Void. The entire universe cannot exist without the Void

(Pak, 2002, 18).

Where, then, can we find the absolute Void (Yu 1993b 161)? In a typical paradoxically manner, Tasŏk’s response to this question is “nowhere and everywhere.” This is why the ultimate ground of being in the universe can be found in our inner self. This is the True Self (ch’am-na), or as we will soon discuss, spirit (ŏl) (Yu 1993b 40, 149). Our ordinary self, with its attachment to body, is the totality of all our subjective (and typically distorted) consciousness, which is preoccupied with conceptual distinctions such as the subject-object dichotomy. It is then bound by a relativist viewpoint. [End Page 270]

Can the Absolute Void then provide a structure and pattern to the phenomenal world? Tasŏk’s answer is a resounding “yes” (Yu 1993b, 156).2 The Absolute Void cannot be pure nothing; it must be real. The Absolute Void must therefore be resourceful enough to be able to generate things in the world. Furthermore, the Void cannot be a mere conceptual tool used for understanding the world. Rather, it is the very source or origin from which the world arises.

Note that “nothingness” here does not mean a phantom or non-reality. For Tasŏk, God is nothingness, but this does not mean that God lacks power or is deficient or incomplete. God, for him, does not “exist” (ŏpsi), but only in the sense of physical existence (Yu 1993b, 162). “Nothingness,” in Tasŏk, is etymologically related to the meaning of the verb “ŏpta (there is no...),” but does not mean anything you can expect or imagine from our relativistic viewpoint. Clearly, it cannot mean an empty space or extinction or a pure lack of being. Nothingness cannot be captured by anything found in a relativistic frame of mind. We have to go beyond the subject-object dichotomy, I and thou, affirmation and negation, etc. (Yu 1993b, 186). There is neither time nor place in nothingness. There is no “it” to point to in nothingness. It is a void, pure and simple, which, however, is completely filled up; it is a “vacuum-plenum (t’ŏngbin ch’ungman),” as Tasŏk occasionally puts it, as an infinite possibility (Yu 1993b, 161). God is thus, despite being the Void, complete, fully present, and self-sufficient. But this is not found among those tangible things that exist in the world. Therefore, God is not in the phenomenal world. For God is simply an absolute being beyond anything in the world.

2. God as Emptiness (Śūnyatā)

It is now clear that nothingness (mu or pint’ang) (Yu 2002, 57, 67) is the concept that occupies the central place in Tasŏk’s view. Tasŏk’s reading of the Bible is informed by this negativity-oriented thinking. Nothingness is the basis and origin of all things. But God as nothingness cannot be named. It is beyond all conceptual descriptions. On the other hand, things in the world cannot be simply “dead.” The myriad things in the world, both animate and inanimate, are not for that reason unimportant. They are also godly.

At this point, we must concede that nothingness in Tasŏk must be an essentially perplexing issue for any Western approach based on the perspective of being, because it commands at least some pre-reflective spiritual realization of it beyond any intellectual apprehension. In many of his journal entries, Tasŏk highly spoke of Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra (“The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra” or “The Heart Sutra,” for short; 般若心經) as containing the quintessential statement of nothingness.3 When you empty your ordinary mind, you can obtain the perfect wisdom and enter into nirvana. Thus, Tasŏk’s nothingness seems to have [End Page 271] been importantly inspired by the Buddhist notion of Emptiness.

Indeed, in many places, Tasŏk acknowledges that his concept of nothingness importantly owes to the notion of Emptiness, which is the English translation of the Sanskrit term “Śūnyatā.” Nāgārjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, first offered the major theoretical and practical foundation of the concept. The concept of Emptiness in Nāgārjuna has something to do with dependent co-origination (Pratītyasamutpāda): every dharma (thing) is dependently originated.4

According to this fundamental insight, the phenomenal world, with all its variety and complexity, has no self-independent existence and, as such, the fundamental nature of things is neither nameable nor describable in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Emptiness then suggests the complete negation of all the attributes of things. In this sense, emptiness therefore cannot be comprehended by the particularizing consciousness of all beings. Emptiness is a state that belongs neither to presence nor absence; that is, neither being nor non-being—neither something nor nothing. Emptiness can never be identified as something conceptually determinable as a state or condition. Emptiness is “not the simple absence or the presence of an existent” (Lee 2015, 11).5 Obviously, no reason, science, language (and thought) can reach it. Finally, it is not just the interrelatedness of reality, nor just a cause and effect in ontological connections.

For our purpose, it is important to point out that, for Tasŏk, Emptiness is a kind of “space” in which the narrow self (i.e., the Phenomenal (bodily) Self or as Tasŏk puts it, “che-na” is ruptured but the person is on the way to awakening.6 It is the pre-conceptual and non-dualistic—that is, the pure and original—nature of humanity, which is accessible only by direct experience, such as meditation and self-discipline. It is also the wholeness, i.e., the ultimate reality of the whole universe. Furthermore, it is not passive but active insofar as it produces the whole phenomenon. While detached from ordinary experience, Emptiness is the source of the empirical dimension. Emptiness is the fullness of infinite ethical interrelations that disseminates beyond phenomenal events, giving birth to phenomena. In summation, Emptiness is not only transcendent but also is immanent. As the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra) puts it, “Form (rupa) is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form”. [End Page 272]

What is clear is that, despite emphasizing Emptiness or nothingness, instead of being entirely pessimistic or nihilistic about human nature, Tasŏk is wholly devoted to awakening people to the ‘True Self (ch’am-na),’ the ultimate reality that lies beyond perception and definitions in language. The True Self is not just consciousness that functions to recognize and understand objects. Rather, it makes thinking and thought possible; however, like space, the True Self is not reducible to a mere function. The awakening brings wisdom and freedom to give rise to a community of love and care. In Tasŏk’s final analysis, the True Self, prior to the rising of thoughts, is the foundation of all phenomena, including the thinking process itself.

It is obvious that Tasŏk distinguishes many selves (the True Self vs the Phenomenal Self, etc.). As a matter of fact, this concept of the True Self seems to stem from the Buddhist notion of Buddha-nature (佛性) (Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra). Indeed, one may identify the preconceptual Spiritual Self (ŏl-na) in Tasŏk as expressing the Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha). The Buddha-nature, one of the most pivotal concepts in East Asian Buddhism, is not exactly the same as Emptiness,7 but they are clearly related. The Spiritual Self for Tasŏk is outside the framework of the Phenomenal Self (che-na), whose primary capacity is perceiving, understanding, or conceptualizing. For the True Self is fully awakened to Emptiness, which is the ultimate reality.

As for the epistemological nature of Emptiness, some sort of direct experience of the pre-perceptual, non-dualistic understanding of humanity is required. Buddhahood is found nowhere except for within the individual. Likewise, for Tasŏk, God is found within us, as our nature (pat’al 바탈) (Yu 1993b, 314). Tasŏk’s view is thus non-binary—God and humanity are not two, the absolute and the relative are not two, the transcendent and the immanent are not two, etc.8 Tasŏk’s insight is that without the transcendence of the fundamentality of humanity itself, our thought would collapse. The ultimate teaching of Buddhism is not just about deconstructing phenomena. It is truly about finding out and becoming one with the pure, compassionate human mind, which is Emptiness itself.9

Much like Mahāyāna Buddhists, Tasŏk then offers a philosophy of Emptiness at its heart. His meditational praxis heightens our spiritual awareness beyond all phenomena. But this awakening takes us straight to the innermost core within each of us. For Tasŏk, the most rigorous spiritual discipline will help us recover our True Self from within us. Tasŏk thus bids farewell to the metaphysical tradition of being in the West. To “Turn off the Sun!” [End Page 273] as one commentator puts it (Yi 2002, 51),10 could be Tasŏk’s motto. Instead of pursuing being/thinking under reason, Tasŏk forges ahead with nothingness (or Emptiness, the Void), which can provide the proper background to all our thinking/acting. The concept of God as nothingness, considered from the perspective of Emptiness, is the true being, to put it paradoxically. And this is the gist of Tasŏk’s philosophy of non-duality according to which truth and reality are one (hana 하나), and all the distinctions such as the one/many, I/you, subject/subject, etc., only reflect the relativist frame of mind (Yu 1993b, 103, 162). On this, Tasŏk says that “Relativeness and absoluteness, finitude and infinity, mind and body cannot exist separately. They cannot be two. [Otherwise] we would be ignorant” (Yu 1993b, 349).

3. God as the Confucian Supreme Ultimate (t’aegŭk. C. taiji)

I now turn to the Confucian strain in Tasŏk’s view. The Confucian tradition is known not only for humanism and anthropocentrism but also for its rigid adherence to its ideals amidst its anthropo-cosmic egalitarianism.11 In it, humanity is conceived to be perfect at least in its original state. The later political development in bureaucratic meritocracy is also based on this optimistic view of human nature. Accordingly, there is no fundamental flaw in humanity.12

It is sometimes suggested that Confucianism has placed a heavy emphasis on the normative ideals, even though it also neglected the concern for how to institutionalize these ideals (Ro 2016, 270).13 How does Confucianism satisfy these ideals? The answer is what is known as Sage Learning (聖學, 道學, 道問學). Confucianism appropriately provides a resource and a tool for promoting humanity under Sage Learning, which includes a lifelong, multi-faceted process of self-education and self-cultivation involving the development of a Weltanschauung, a community-oriented socialization, the action/practice-oriented techniques of meditative procedures, and an insight into the nature of the universe and humans in it. In other words, Sage Learning prepares one to become a wiser person (君子), or alternatively, to obtain “inwardly sageliness and outwardly kingliness (內聖外王)” (Ro 2016, 273).

This is also the line of self-cultivation Tasŏk develops, as he aligns himself with the Christian tradition. For Tasŏk, the Sage Learning that originated from Confucianism undergoes a major transformation and is ultimately developed into the practice of solitary meditation and prayer. But like the traditional Confucians, Tasŏk also seems to fall short of solving the problem of systematically identifying the necessary procedure leading to self-cultivation in a way that is objective and impartial within the framework of his indigenized Christianity. [End Page 274]

In this framework, how do we understand God? We have learned that, for Tasŏk, God is nothingness understood as Buddhist Emptiness. Can he now embrace Heaven mentioned in Confucius’ Analects as his God? A full treatment of Tasŏk’s view of Heaven (天 ch’ŏn, C. tian) is beyond the scope of this paper. In simpler terms, as a good Confucian, Tasŏk suggests that God may be understood and identified as the supreme ultimate (太極 t’aegŭk, c. taiji). Tasŏk took this idea from taiji-tu (the diagram of the supreme ultimate) that Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) developed under the influence of Xici zhuan (繫辭傳) in the Yijing (i.e., the Book of Changes).14 However, instead of blindly following Zhou Dunyi in believing that the two (兩儀) come from the supreme ultimate, Tasŏk understands the supreme ultimate as a type of qi following Zhang Zai (1020–1077), another outstanding Neo-Confucian during the Song dynasty. In other words, Tasŏk develops Zhang Zai’s view that the supreme ultimate is qi because he now utilizes this view for his notion of God as the ultimate spirit (Yun 2017, 74).15

On this view, the yang qi and yin qi are aptly intermingled in the supreme ultimate, and thus the supreme ultimate is called “great harmony (太和)” (Yu 1993b 370). Tasŏk has this to say:

The one and only, primordial one is the Void. The phenomenal world is material. Whatever material is phenomenal. They are all nothing but matter. [Beyond all of this] lies the unitary Void and, if this has a heart, this must be the heart of God. All of the universe is my body

(Yu 1993b, 153).

Thus, for Tasŏk, all life forms or the myriad things in the world, must have generated from both yang qi and yin qi by way of the supreme ultimate. But this also stems from the great Void (太空), which Tasŏk at the same time identities with God that is beyond being and non-being (‘있없’ 有無). God can be found only in what is absolutely void (Yu 1993b,154).16

It took me decades to speak of nothingness (mu). But I was just not able to say it (so far). I always wanted to reach nothingness. For what is great can be found in nothingness. We need to go from taiji [supreme/manifested ultimate] to wuji [無極 limitless or unmanifested ultimate]. That is the conclusion of my philosophy. That is why I invoke taiji-tu (the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate). It does not matter whether this has been written by Zhou Dunyi or Jesus or Buddha—this does not matter. This is found within me

(Yu 1993b, 318). [End Page 275]

This passage is important because it marks a point of contrast between Tasŏk and Zhu Xi, the greatest of all Song Neo-Confucians, who came up with the comprehensive synthesis of all the preceding Neo-Confucian systems. For Zhu Xi, taiji is the totality of li (理), which is an abstract (i.e., intangible) principle underlying all things. In contrast, Tasŏk immediately goes on to criticize Zhu Xi and holds God to be closer to wuji (無極) than taiji (Yu 1993b, 318). This is because taiji is the supreme reality, considered in and from the phenomenal world, whereas wuji is the reality considered in and of itself; in other words, wuji is what transcends the limit of any finiteness. Furthermore, Zhu Xi understands taiji as an abstract principle. Thus, for Zhu Xi, li and qi are separate because li goes beyond forms but qi is bound up with forms. Tasŏk rejects this abstract understanding of li as well. For Tasŏk, li and qi cannot be separate. Li and qi supplement each other in a harmonious way. It follows that taiji should be understood as an ultimate being that transcends both li and qi. Thus, the supreme reality behind the phenomenal world appears as taiji, but at the same time ultimately originates from wuji because the true reality goes well beyond any description. It therefore seems that, for Tasŏk, God as the supreme reality sometimes works as taiji, and other times as wuji. In the relativist context, it is the same as taiji but, from the absolutist point of view, it is wuji. God is taiji as he is manifested in the phenomenal world. But he is also wuji because, as yet unmanifested, he is the underlying source of reality in the world.

Nevertheless, under any circumstance, these two are not two but one. Greatly inspired by Zhang Zai’s (1120—1170) idea of harmony (taihua 太和) in the Correct Disciplines for Beginners (zhengmeng, taihua pian; 正蒙, 太和篇), Tasŏk highly emphasizes the idea of a “single principle of Qi (一氣)” and “great unity (物吾與也)” (Yu 1993b). Tasŏk also goes on to hold this as the epitome of the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (Yu 1993b, 321). The idea is that we— indeed, everything in the world—are one, for God is the great unity, and unity is the way of Heaven. Heaven and man combine into one, and we have to return to one (Yu 1993b, 103, 273). Tasŏk then says:

We have to wake up and face our ignorance and search after the whole. We have to look for the One. The One is complete. We have to reach the One. How do we do this? It is inside of me (inside of the Great Self). For this we pay homage to the heavenly father. We jump into the Great Self in us

(Yu 1993b, 273).

Interestingly, Tasŏk also finds the same idea in the Bible, e.g., in John 14: 10–11, 17:21. Indeed, for him, the ultimate purpose of religion is to become one with God.

4. God as Dao

Can God be dao (道)? According to Tasŏk, God must be dao. As far as the origin of the idea of nothingness, Tasŏk traces it not only to the Daodejing but also to the Zhuangzi. In Laozi’s Daodejing, “dao” means the way, direction or principle. It exists from time immemorial and, [End Page 276] while not changing, it changes everything else. It is the mother of all things in the world. Tasŏk could have proclaimed: “In the beginning there was dao” (Küng 1989, 132). For Tasŏk, dao is the same as the “logos” or the “word” in the Bible (Gospel according to John 1:1). When you live your life according to dao, you practice wuwei (non-action). Wuwei does not mean you do not do anything—it rather means that you do things in a way that is spontaneous without any artificial effort or force. It is also one of the hallmarks of dao that it “returns” to the One—it goes back to its origin (Yu 2002, 40).17 Furthermore, dao does not know of any passage of time. For dao, there is neither a tomorrow nor a yesterday;18 dao only has today. This is because dao does not have a name (or a conceptual basis), and temporal reference has something to do with our conceptual thinking. Moreover, dao can do all the work it does exactly because it is the Void.19 For Tasŏk, the One as the ultimate origin lies in the Great Void. However, it is not a simple empty state but a vacuum-plenum—an original state that is empty but at the same time full.20 Indeed, for Tasŏk, the Father God’s heart is the Void, as there is nothing great than the Absolute Void. There is nothing higher than the latter. Nothing can exist without the Void. The One, to which all return, is simply the Void (Yu 1993b, 309).

While the phenomenal world is relative compared to the absolute dimension of God, it is not, for that reason, isolated from God. As a matter of fact, Tasŏk views the whole manifested world as the body of God, and our task in this world is to achieve a unity with God. When this happens, each of us becomes a son of God. In this respect, then, the Biblical ‘Son of God,’ for Tasŏk, must be identical to anybody wo achieves union with the Father God. As he puts it, “since the Absolute One exists in myself, as it were, it is the One who gives me the mission for the whole mankind. By receiving it, one becomes a Son of the One. Therefore, I have to play the role of a Son of the One. I guess Jesus Christ has achieved it. The Son of the One hears the soundless sound of the One in the deeper inner self without an ear” (Yu 1993b, 241).

Does the view advocated here imply a form of pantheism? He sometimes acknowledges that “I am a pantheist and heretic” (Yu 1993b, 72).21 Everything is a part of God, given that God represents the whole universe. Thus, God is also residing in our own mind. Note, however, that Tasŏk’s God is not a personal Cartesian substance that thinks, wills and feels, and that can be separated from all its modal states and activities. For Tasŏk, nothingness (mu) that is separate from being (yu) is not a true mu. The One that is separate from the rest is not the true One. A God that is separate from the world is not a true God. [End Page 277]

5. Yu on Religious Pluralism

Tasŏk’s view of God is closely intertwined with his view of religion. Tasŏk held that religion is a relentless, rigorous, spiritual pursuit after the absolute. A true religion must oppose all that is relative. In religion, everything is absolute. This involves a radically different view of the fleeting, material world. Religion thus demands a strict self-denial (Yu 1993b, 148).22 The body epitomizes the relative world (John 3:3). What Tasŏk calls “ŏl” (spirit) is the new life that we must pursue while keeping the body in careful control. The spirit goes hand in hand with the absolute existence of God. The True Self (ch'am-na) is beyond time and space, and is no different from the absolute God. For Tasŏk, it is the seed of God. It is the same as the internalized God. Just as the seed comes from a tree, for him, the spirit comes from God. This is not the conclusion of an abstract argument but comes from the practical realization of his concrete existential situation. When one discovers and recovers the True Self (ch'amna), one is free from the concern (sirŭm) of the world (Yu 1993b, 204–5).

One of the keywords in Tasŏk’s view of religion is “awakening” (kkaedarŭm) (Yu 2001, 354), which means “openness toward other religious wisdoms and insights” (Chun 2016, 195; Park, 1983). However, this is primarily understood in terms of self-awakening. In other words, it refers to a cultivation of one’s inner strength in devotion and commitment. This also involves the reorientation of one’s life through the cultivation of one’s spiritual faculties (Chun, 2016, 194).

Tasŏk then proceeds to offer an unconventional interpretation of the Christian doctrine. The material world is not something we have sovereignty over. Jesus, considered as a purely bodily being, cannot be the son of God. Tasŏk emphatically holds that Jesus epitomizes the Spiritual Self (ŏl-na) on a par with God (Yu 1993b, 71, 148). He is non-dual with the absolute God. Jesus is thus an individual whose spirit epitomizes the soteriological ideal of Christ. Jesus represents the life of the whole universe in this respect. Tasŏk always emphasizes that there is a true kernel in me, the seed of God, and that this exemplifies the true life of Jesus and my true life. The holy spirit is also none other than the spirit of Jesus that is the True Self. The holy spirit must therefore potentially reside in everybody. Jesus is not the only begotten son, but we can all be holy begotten sons/daughters. Our redemption cannot be externally imposed upon us by the blood Jesus shed on the cross, but only through the internalization of the holy spirit. The true meaning of the cross, then, is that Jesus shed blood in the process of sacrificing the Bodily Self (mom-na or che-na) in order to fulfill the meaning of the Spiritual Self (ŏl-na). This is why Ryu discounts the point of vicarious atonement in Christianity. Tasŏk thus rejects the traditional Christian concept of salvation by employing a passive recourse to grace from the Other. Eternal life—which he sometimes calls ssial (Yu 2002, 19–20)—does not mean the life after death, but instead means that Christ, the God-sent spirit of ŏl-na, comes to reside in us. To know ŏl-na is to know Christ; to meet Christ means internalizing [End Page 278] God. This is also the meaning of eternal life. Departing from eschatology, Tasŏk holds that the kingdom of God does not come, not because it does not exist but because it is already in us. The second coming of Jesus is a mere ideology that is in principle no different from, e.g., communist utopianism. The kingdom of God simply lies in the reception of the holy spirit. Finally, Tasŏk also holds that the usual, Catholic account of Virgin Mary is a doctrine that is close to idolatry.23

Jesus’s calling God his father is like a finger indicating the belief in the absolute dimension. Jesus fulfills his filial piety by obeying the will of his father, God, on the cross. His Spiritual Self (ŏl-na) obtains the absolute life. The ideal of intimacy between father and son (pu cha yu ch’in 父子有親) is fulfilled when Jesus severs his relation with the Bodily Self (mom-na).24 It is a short step from here to say that Father and Son are one, not two (pu cha pul i 父子不 離). Fulfilling filial piety here also implies giving a living prayer with all one’s heart, or giving oneself as a living sacrifice in order to become one with the absolute being. The cross thus represents this filial piety (Yu 1993b, 167).

It is now clear that for Tasŏk, Jesus with a body is no different from an ordinary human. If he is merely a body, he would rot when he dies. Jesus as a body cannot be God.25 But this does not mean that the body is evil. Our body is an important part of the organ of self-cultivation. It doubtless presents the most difficult obstacles to be overcome by way of carnal temptations. Despite its potentiality for evil, however, the body should not be blindly negated under any circumstances. It has a meaning for us because our life’s mission in spirituality can be fulfilled when we overcome the burden of the body in the proper way (Yu 1993b 149). Jesus came to the world because he wanted to make us aware that one’s true life is with ŏl (spirit), not with the body (e.g., John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.") This ŏl is the embodiment of humanity that defies the self-non-self dichotomy. That we have ŏl means the same as saying that there is God, who exists without existing. When we realize this, we can not only understand ourselves but also others. This is how true altruism is possible. Jesus, then, is Christ; he is the exemplifier of the life of God because he overcame his bodily desires and their obstacles and internalized the spirit. He also exemplifies the life of action and practice, living as the True Self (ch’am-na). This is the true, underlying meaning of the cross for us (Yu 1993b 147).

Throughout his life, Tasŏk knelt whenever he sat. Abstinence is also an important part of his self-discipline. It is well known that through his life, he had only one meal a day.26 The [End Page 279] desire for food is the source of all desires in life, according to Tasŏk. Truth is about abstaining from bodily desires. Thus, he always practiced a life with no greed (muyok). Nothingness refers to the state in which there is no desire. By eating only once a day, he always remembered Jesus and prepared for his own death.

6. A Glimpse Beyond: A Criticism of Tasŏk’s View and its Emendation

Now a word of caution is in order. If God as nothingness is the true sense of the Holy one espoused in Christianity, and if this nothingness can be identified with Emptiness—dao and taiji (or wuji), respectively—it follows that all the Eastern traditions must share the same notion of nothingness. But do they? Tasŏk sometimes speaks as if Shakyamuni Buddha, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other Eastern sages and ancient thinkers univocally held that the passage out of the fleeting world of senses to the true wisdom consists in nothingness. However, this is a very bold claim, and one that merits a degree of skepticism, for it seems to be a hasty generalization.

While there is no denying that Emptiness is a central notion in Buddhism, this Buddhist Emptiness is not identical with dao in Daoism. Since dao also connotes the fullness of being as well as its absence, Tasŏk goes on to hold that dao can be identified with Emptiness. This is a large claim that needs to be substantiated in detail. It is widely acknowledged that there is a remarkable similarity between Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. Indeed, the Daoist ideas were first used to explain the Buddhist ideas when Buddhism first arrived in China from India. This is sometimes called geyi (格義) Buddhism. But it was soon made obvious that this method had serious shortcomings and led to gross misunderstandings. Buddhism is not a native Chinese thought and dao is not Emptiness.

In view of this connection, we can observe that the Buddhist notion of Emptiness itself is not a single concept but a family of related concepts (Kim, Halla 2017, 188–94). Emptiness is understood differently according to different schools in Buddhism. Various schools, such as Hua-yan, Tiantai, Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, and Zen Buddhism, develop a related albeit highly sophisticated concept of Emptiness in their own way. In Nāgārjuna’s Madhymaka school, Emptiness is not just wholeness but the “total beyondness” that goes well over the mere interrelatedness of phenomenon. It thus means the total lack of self-nature due to dependent origination. Nāgārjuna himself calls this awareness prajñā. The Tiantai school of Buddhism speaks of kung (Emptiness), jia (provisional existence) and zhong (neither Emptiness nor provisional existence).

In the Yogācāra school, Emptiness is discussed with its emphasis on universal consciousness (storehouse consciousness). But this Yogācāra understanding of Emptiness as the absence of duality between the perceiving subject and the perceived object is different from Emptiness in the Hua-yan school, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence—where everything needs everything else. For this school of Buddhism, Emptiness characterizes the dimension of a perfect harmony of an infinite number of [End Page 280] objective conditions. All existence and phenomena (and even noumena) are connected as one body, just like “the net of Indra,” which represents the nature of things manifesting reflections multiplied and re-multiplied in all phenomena, all infinitely. Finally, Sŏn (C. Chan, J. Zen) Buddhism speaks of Śūnyatā as being devoid of any conceptual discriminations.

However, it is premature to reject Tasŏk’s understanding of nothingness in terms of these three seemingly incommensurable notions—Emptiness, dao, and taiji. Instead of identifying the meaning of nothingness with each of these, Tasŏk may be prescriptively explicating the meaning of nothingness in these terms. In this case, what Tasŏk does with the Buddhist Emptiness is not to maintain that Emptiness can exhaust the meaning of nothingness but that the former can perhaps elucidate an important aspect of nothingness. Likewise, the Daoist concept of dao, together with its accompanying notions of wuwei and ‘return,’ for example, does not exhaustively paraphrase the meaning of nothingness but rather importantly illuminates an aspect of its meaning for us. The same goes for taiji and wuji. The bottom line, then, is that the identity of nothingness with the trio of Eastern notions is not a factual identity but a prescriptive identity. In the age of religious pluralism, our task is not to take a particular religious insight as the only touchstone of truth but rather to take all of them at face value and regard them as gradually making a contribution to our understanding of truth. In this respect, all three East Asian religious insights from the East form important moments in the concept of truth.

Furthermore, for Tasŏk, nothingness is primarily a practical concept. As Edward Conze once suggested, nothingness is not a theory but a ladder that reaches out into the infinite. A ladder is not there to be discussed, but to be climbed (Conze 2008, 243). As a practical concept, the non-existing but existing God embodies an aspiration, not a speculation. Its true meaning is to help us to get rid of this world and of the ignorance which binds us to it. In fact, it has not only one meaning, but several, which can unfold themselves on the successive stages of the actual process of transcending the world through wisdom. Accordingly, for Tasŏk, God as nothingness is not an abstract idea but a living resource for practice—a daily life of self-discipline and worship in all respects.

In the Christian Bible, God is often described as the “All mighty Lord,” “King of Kings,” “Savior,” “Sovereign,” etc. Tasŏk also does not seem to deny that God is transcendent. But this presents the image of God who gives command, etc. Tasŏk’s view of God as immanent nothingness shows an image of God who is in dialogue with us.27 God is not aloof. God is not “the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne in the heavenly kingdom.” The spiritual aspect of God as nothingness must be understood in these terms. God is ŏl, i.e., spirit, because he represents our aspiration for spiritual values. Furthermore, this seemingly impersonal God is also deeply personal. He is our perennial conversation partner. Our typical image of God is not the reality itself but a mere “ladder” or “sign-post” that we can use to come close to God. This is a map—an incomplete map, moreover—which is not the same reality. A proper [End Page 281] map actually points to reality. It follows that God, if truly pursued, can be found in each of us. His kingdom is also found in this world, not in the yonder world (Yu 2002, 40, 49).


It is clear that Tasŏk’s notion of God as nothingness that “exists without existing (ŏpsi kyesin i)” presents the gist of the East Asian tradition in contrast to the Being-oriented framework of Western metaphysics. In his various lectures and diaries, Tasŏk attempts to understand nothingness not only in terms of the Buddhist notion of Emptiness but also in terms of the Neo-Confucian principle of wuji, as well as the Daoist notion of dao, leading to a religious pluralism. However, this attempt on his part does not constitute a contradiction but rather signifies a prescriptivist ideal that we ought to pursue collectively in a syncretic frame of mind. [End Page 282]

Halla Kim

Halla Kim ( is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy, Sogang University, Korea


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* This article was part of the conference that was supported by UPEI’s 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) as well as the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS). I thank Prof. Edward Chung, Jae-soon Park, Hyosŏk Kim, Paul Williams, Ji-Yeon Kang, and Jang-hee Lee for comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also thank the audience at the University of Prince Edward Island conference on Korean Spirituality in 2018 as well as at the Claremont conference on philosophy of religion in 2017. Finally, thanks are also due to the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments.

1. Tasŏk calls this internal life in us “inner kernel (sogal)” or “the seed of God (Hananim ŭi ssi)” (Yu 2002, 19–20).

2. The Void is the abode of truth for Tasŏk, so to speak. At one point, he even says that he loves the absolute Void (aju pin kŏt, 絶對空) (Yu 1993b, 161).

3. He first began lecturing on the Heart Sutra in 1959 in the Bible Study Course at YMCA in Seoul (Yu 2002, 174). For a full treatment of Tasŏk’s view of Buddhism see Pak, Yŏngho 1995a.

4. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24:18. Nagarjuna is the founder of Madyhamaka school. Admittedly, the concept of Middle Path (madhyamaka) in Shakyamuni Buddha, however, is not the exactly the same as Nāgārjuna’s Emptiness, even though it is clearly related to the latter. The Middle Path is the concept Shakyamuni Buddha alluded to when he steered the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism. However, there is no denying that it is also the concept popularized by Nāgārjuna as the founding father of the Middle Way School. Nāgārjuna developed the idea to a far more nuanced and profound level, directly applying it to the correction of Prapañca (mental proliferation).

5. In this respect, it reminds us of the dimension of otherness and transcendence beyond being in Emmanuel Levinas. Further, it is very different from Heidegger’s notion of nothing, some entity or state that is beyond the boundary of the presence of Dasein. Rather, it actually serves Dasein by being the space for its relations with the presence of others. In other words, Emptiness is not an all-embracing vision of the presence of all ontological elements of the universe. Yet it is not an abstract vision of some transcendental dimension, either.

6. Tasŏk further divides che-na into mom-na (the Bodily Self 몸나) and mam-na (the Mental Self 맘나) (Yu 2002, 108).

7. Tathagatagarba is a concept popular in Mahāyāna Buddhism. How is this notion different from Śūnyatā? Do they ultimately mean the same? They are actually different. But it would require a rather long essay on this history of the development of Buddhist thought to explain their complicated relationship. For details, see the entries on these concepts (空 and 如來藏) in Charles Muller’s Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (

8. Tasŏk says that the original entity is not two, but one (元一物不二) (Yu 1993b, 162–63, 167–70).

9. This mind of Buddha in an individual is actually not of a different kind from the ethical part of the self that Levinas elaborates. Levinas clearly explicates that the Other is infinite, and the ethical self attains the idea of infinity. Therefore, the Other as well as the ethical self are just the forms of “[E]mptiness as fullness.”

10. Yi thus sees in Tasŏk’s thought a powerful alternative to the predominant framework of Western metaphysics.

11. This is further developed in the doctrine of virtuous dictatorship. It also results in the view of humans as lacking autonomy, paving the way for judgmental deferment (Ro 2016).

12. There is simply no place for the doctrine of original sin in Tasŏk’s Confucian system. For a full treatment of Tasŏk’s view of Buddhism (Pak 1995b).

13. For a critical discussion of Ro’s view (Kim, Halla 2018, 49–72).

14. Ta Chuan, Sec. I, ch. 11: 易有太極, 是生兩儀, 兩儀生四象, 四象生八掛, 八掛定吉凶, 吉凶生大業 ([繫辭傳] 上, 右第 十一章).

15. Zhang Zai identifies the Great Void as none other than Qi, which then, on his view, condenses to the Four and finally disperses to form the diversity of things. In a similar fashion, Tasŏk also holds that Qi’s contraction and rarefication function as the source of the harmonious unity of all things (Yu 1993b, 37). For him, Zhang Zai is an epitome of Confucianism (Yu 1993b, 321, 413).

16. Tasŏk also speaks of the great Void/absolute nothingness in (Yu 1993b, 117, 132, 154, 156, 159, 161, and 211).

17. This is sometime called “returning to the one” (kwi il, 歸一).

18. Tasŏk calls today “onŭl,” implying that it is eternal. This is because “nŭl” means “always” or “consistently.” For him, a proper spiritual life consists in living today here now as representing eternity. He also calls a day “haru,” suggesting that it is the day that must be devoted to God (“u” meaning what is above us) (Yu 1993b, 209; Pak Yŏngho, 1993a).

19. Zhang Zai also speaks of the great Void (taixu, 太虛).

20. See Daodejing, ch. 4.

21. It is actually panentheism, the view that all is in God, that Tasŏk holds, not pantheism per se (i.e., the view that for each thing in nature it is identical to God).

22. As he puts it, “the core of religion is death. Philosophy is the practice of death, religion is the practice beyond death” (Yu 1993b, 148).

23. For his understanding of Christianity, see Yi 2010, 174–88.

24. This is one of the five basic virtues governing human relations Mencius mentions in his work: “King Shun appointed Xie to be the minister so as to teach people about human relations: between father and son, there is affection; between sovereign and minister, righteousness; between husband and wife, attention to their separate functions; between old and young, a proper order; and between friends, trustworthiness” (Mencius, 3A4). In this passage, Mencius identified five basic human relations and the virtues that govern them. Originally written as: 孟子, 滕文公章句篇: 聖人有憂之 使契爲司徒 敎以人倫 父子有親 君臣有義 夫婦有別 長幼有序 朋友有信.

25. Thus, Tasŏk rejects Athanasius’ view.

26. For him, “having a meal is to have a funeral” (Yu 1993b, 355).

27. Tasŏk Ilchi [The Diary of Tasŏk], February 3, 1966; December 23, 1963 (Kim Hŭngho 2001; Yu 1990).