Keimyung University, Academia Koreana
  • The Korean Dilemma: Assuming Perfectibility but Recognizing Moral Frailty

For centuries a question at the core of Korean philosophical and religious thinking has been how to reconcile the recognition of moral frailty with the assumption that human beings have the ability to become morally perfect. One Buddhist solution has been to call for the gradual replacement of pre-enlightenment habits with moral habits after becoming enlightened to one’s own Buddha nature. Confucians have instead focused on managing the relationship between innate moral tendencies and equally innate selfish emotions. Christians offered another solution to this conundrum: dropping the assumption that human beings on their own can achieve moral perfection and instead focusing on relying to God’s help to overcome moral frailty. Indigenous new religions have proposed yet another solution: waiting for the unfavorable conditions that prevail in the world today to change so that it will be easier to act the way we know we should act. None of these proposed solutions satisfy everyone. As a result, Koreans continue their search for a way to explain, and overcome, moral failure while maintaining confidence in their ability to do so.


perfectibility, moral frailty, Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, Catholic, Protestant, new religions

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In 1784 King Chŏngjo (r. 1777–1800) asked the young men studying for the higher civil service exam at Sŏnggyun’gwan [the National Confucian Academy] to respond in writing to several questions he posed about the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean) (Chŏng 2001, II: 4, 1a). One of his questions, about chapter XXVIII of that text, reveals that he had doubts about the Confucian promise that sagehood was attainable. His concern is clear: sagehood in the Neo-Confucian intellectual universe in which he operated refers to both personal ethical virtuosity which encompasses the ability to interact appropriately in every interaction one finds oneself in as well as the related ability to transform the world to ensure that all interactions within it are appropriate. He voiced his concern that, since a sage must meet both of those qualifications, sagehood was an impossible dream (Chŏng 2001, II: 4, 55b). The Zhongyong passage he cited states that only the Son of Heaven, meaning the emperor of China, can bring the world into conformity with the Dao. No one else should dare to try to do that, even if they have perfected their ability to think and act appropriately. Even the Son of Heaven will be unable to reform his realm to make it accord with the Dao unless he can act with perfect ethical virtuosity (Ames and Hall 2001, 109–10). Since King Chŏngjo was only a king and not the emperor of China, he would not be able to rule the ways in which the sages of old ruled, even if he were able to fully actualize his ethical power. King Chŏngjo’s specific question about that passage was, “If ‘to be born in the present and yet restore the Dao of the past’ is thus an impossible dream, then does that not mean that we cannot become sages no matter how hard we study and therefore we cannot expect to rule in as exemplary a fashion as they did in the great dynasties of ancient times?” (Chŏng 2001, II: 4, 55b). This, of course, would apply not only to the king but to all of his subjects as well.

Tasan Chŏng Yagyong 丁若鏞 (1762–1836) was one of those students to whom the king addressed that question. In his written response, Tasan wrote:

Shun and the Duke of Zhou were able to occupy powerful posts and ensure that the Dao prevailed. Confucius, on the other hand, was never able to obtain a powerful post and therefore was not able to ensure that the Dao prevailed. Earlier lines tell us that Shun and the Duke of Zhou were able to establish proper rituals, impose proper standards, and determine the proper form of writing” (Ames and Hall 2001, 109–10). A later section stated that Confucius looked up to Yao and Shun as though they were his own ancestors and followed their example (Ames and Hall 2001, 111). This tells us that a sage is someone who has the ability to establish proper rituals, impose proper standards, and determine the proper form of writing. Sages all have that potential. Whether they are able to realize their potential depends on the times in which they live. To be born in the present yet restore the Dao of the past is not something someone can accomplish without a powerful post. This statement, therefore, is nothing more than Confucius bewailing his fate

(Chŏng 2001, II: 4, 55b).

Tasan avoided answering part of the king’s question here. After all, the king is the most powerful person in his kingdom. He has more power than Confucius had. If he could [End Page 288] become an ethical virtuoso, then he could rule in an exemplary fashion even if he could not fully qualify for sage status by completely restoring the Dao. Perhaps Tasan avoided the first part of the king’s question, “we cannot become sages no matter how hard we study,” because he wanted his king to try his best to ensure that the Dao prevailed in Chosŏn. It is clear elsewhere in his writings, however, that Tasan recognized that becoming a sage is not an easy task, even though sagehood is open to everyone.1

We see the king’s question recurring in Korean philosophy and religion. There is a strong optimistic strain in Korean thought, a belief that we all have it within ourselves to become a Buddha, become a sage, or become simply a moral person who always does what he knows he should do. However, Koreans have also always been realistic enough to recognize that they themselves and those who surround them are not morally perfect. Like people everywhere on this planet, Koreans often do not know what the right thing to do in a particular situation is and, even if they do know, they find that they do not act in accordance with that knowledge. Moral frailty is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it is an issue all sophisticated religions and ethical philosophies have had to address.

Korean thinkers, however, appear to be particularly sensitive to the contradiction between the assumption of human perfectibility and the recognition of human moral weakness. The most creative thinkers in Korean history have all tried to explain why human beings fail to realize their full potential and then, based on their explanation, propose a way to overcome that frailty. Over the centuries, Korean creative thinkers have become more and more pessimistic about the ability of human beings to overcome moral weakness and have proposed more and more possible solutions to that vexing problem.


Buddhism is difficult to confine to either the categories of philosophy or religion because it focuses on concrete problems of human existence, just as religions do, but it often does so with philosophical arguments. In particular, Buddhist thinkers and practitioners have been concerned with identifying the causes of human suffering and eliminating them. Identifying the causes of human suffering is a serious problem for Buddhists because they operate on the assumption that we are all essentially Buddhas, which means we should not suffer, and yet we do suffer. Why is that the case? The Buddhist answer is that it is our own fault. We suffer because we are ignorant of the reason we suffer: We think things in the phenomenal world are real and therefore we desire them and become attached to them but those things change and leave us, causing frustration and therefore suffering.

This contradiction between the assumption that we are essentially Buddhas yet we don’t think like Buddhas causes a dilemma. As the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment explains, “If all [End Page 289] sentient beings are originally Buddhas, then how can they also possess ignorance? If sentient beings are originally ignorant, how can we say that they have always been perfect Buddhas?” (Muller and Kihwa 1999, 123). In his commentary on this passage, the Korean monk Kihwa (1376–1433) suggested that practitioners push this contradiction aside and instead focus on eliminating the ignorance that keeps them from actualizing their inner Buddha. If they can do that, they will “penetrate to the sublime state of the Buddha” (Muller and Kihwa 1999, 124).

Two centuries earlier, however, another Korean monk, Chinul 知訥 (1158–1210), had already recognized that overcoming ignorance through enlightenment to the true nature of reality was not enough. The habits of thinking and acting we develop before becoming enlightened stick with us. Therefore, though enlightenment can be sudden, we still need to expend energy afterwards eliminating habits that reflect our previous belief that the constantly-changing world has elements of permanence. Here is the advice Chinul offered:

As for “gradual cultivation,” although he has awakened to the fact that his original nature is no different from that of the Buddhas, the beginningless proclivities of habit are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Therefore, he must continue to cultivate while relying on this awakening so that this efficacy of gradual suffusion is perfected; he constantly nurtures the embryo of sanctity, and after a long, long time he becomes a sage [emphasis added]. Hence it is called gradual cultivation. It is like the maturation of an infant: from the day of its birth, an infant is endowed with all its faculties, just like any other human being, but its physical capacities are not yet fully developed; it is only after the passage of many months and years that it will finally mature into an adult

Sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation (頓悟漸修) was not an original Korean idea. In fact, it originated in China (Chinul, Buswell trans. 2016, 34–35). However, Koreans appear to have taken it more seriously than Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese Buddhists did. In China, for example, where there were many more competing schools of Buddhist thought and practice than we see in Korea, whether enlightenment should be sudden or gradual appears to have been much more of a contentious topic of discussion and debate than the idea that enlightenment should be followed by gradual cultivation (Gregory 1987, 1–8). In Japanese Buddhism, which developed strong Pure Land, Zen, and Esoteric denominations, a major topic for discussion was whether enlightenment was sudden or gradual, not whether enlightenment had to be followed by gradual cultivation (Agency for Cultural Affairs 1981, 47–64). In Vietnam the sudden-gradual debate was never a major issue because meditative Buddhism did not play as important a role in Vietnam as it did in China, Korea, or Japan because it was eclipsed by Pure Land Buddhism (Nguyen 1997, 94–99). In Korea, however, starting with Chinul in the twelfth century, the notion that sudden enlightenment had to be followed by gradual cultivation became the dominant understanding of the route to actualizing Buddhahood well into the twentieth century. This reflects a strong realism in Korean Buddhist philosophy, reflected in the acknowledgement that enlightenment does not [End Page 290] guarantee consistent Buddha-like behavior..

Korean Buddhists grew even more pessimistic not only about being able to change their behavior quickly after becoming enlightened but also about becoming enlightened at all. In the fifteenth century the monk Kihwa (1376–1433) pointed out that:

If you want to escape cyclical existence, you must first forsake spouse and children. If you want to forsake spouse and children, you must first leave the secular world. If you do not leave the secular world, you cannot forsake spouse and children, sever attached love and desire, or escape cyclical existence… can ordinary people be capable of [living in the world and attaining liberation]? This kind of person is difficult to meet even in a trillion generations and is hard to catch even among a hundred million people

(Muller, Chŏng, and Kihwa 2015, 88).

Despite the assumption that the true nature of human beings is their Buddha nature, Korean Buddhists came to realize how difficult it was to be fully enlightened because of how hard it was to become free of all attachments the way Buddha was said to be. Simply telling oneself “I am a Buddha” was easy. Thinking and acting like a Buddha was not. That required, according to Kihwa, severing all affective ties with human society.

Clearly thinking and acting like a Buddha was not natural, in the sense of something we can do easily and naturally. It required a lot of effort and, even then, the vast majority never achieved that goal. This caused frustration because while Buddhists in Korea assumed that in our inner core we are all already Buddhas, they were also aware that we naturally have certain tendencies which keep us from acting like Buddhas. Those tendencies, called the “three poisons,” are greed or the desire for what we do not already have, ignorance of the true nature of the phenomenal world which leads us to try to preserve that which will inevitably change, and anger at our own failures to achieve our goals or at those who keep us from getting what we want (Buswell 2013, 926). Some characterize this as a “seeds and weeds” vision of human nature in which it is assumed that the seeds of Buddhahood must be diligently cultivated so they burst into full bloom despite the weeds that grow and hinder them (Flanagan 2017, 118–19).

Over the centuries Korean Buddhists grew even more aware of how difficult it was to cultivate those seeds. Even Chinul’s assertion that we can gradually train ourselves to think and act like the Buddha we really are came to appear too optimistic. There were, however, some exceptions. Kyŏnghŏ Sŏngu (1849–1912), who is credited with reviving meditative Buddhism in Korea, focused on what needed to be done to achieve enlightenment and not on the need to change our behavior thereafter. Moreover, he believed that even laypeople, if they meditated properly, could achieve enlightenment (Sørensen 2010). Despite Kyŏngho’s more optimistic approach to the pursuit of Buddhahood, Korean Buddhism in general continued to be characterized by a pessimistic tone.

This pessimistic tone becomes even more obvious with the great twentieth-century Korean Buddhist master Sŏngch’ŏl (1912–1993) who argued that too sharp a line between [End Page 291] the seeds of Buddha nature as authentic human nature and the weeds of selfish tendencies as false human nature cannot explain why the latter has so much influence over actual human behavior. This may be the reason Sŏngch’ŏl abandoned a normal social existence; he realized how challenging the pursuit of enlightenment was. When he was a young man in pursuit of enlightenment, Sŏngch’ŏl abandoned his wife and daughter and refused to see them ever again, even when they both came to his monastery to look for him. He is said to have even chased his mother away out of fear that attachments to family would keep him from achieving enlightenment (Senécal 2016, 97; Senécal 2012, 94). And yet, reasoning that “any awakening that falls short of definitely transforming one into a living Buddha” (Senécal 2012, 92) was not a complete awakening, he must have felt that enlightenment remained out of reach even at the end of his long life. Therefore he had to keep all distractions, even family, at bay while he continued to pursue it (Senécal 2016, 101). Sŏngch’ŏl rejected Chinul’s recommendation of gradual cultivation after enlightenment because he saw enlightenment as much harder to achieve. Herein we see Korean moral pessimism in full bloom.

When faced with the contradiction between the human experience of moral frailty and the assumption that human beings are essentially moral beings, contemporary Korean Buddhists have begun to resolve that conundrum by abandoning one of its fundamental premises. A Gallup poll in 2014 found that less than half of Koreans who called themselves Buddhists were willing to assent to the proposition that human beings are born good. Instead, 30 percent said human nature is a mixture of good and bad, while another 21 percent said that human nature is neither good nor bad. The 47 percent of Korean Buddhists who assume that human beings are essentially good is only a slightly higher rate of affirmation of that traditional optimistic Buddhist assumption than we see among Korean Christians, who are taught that all human beings are born sinners (Han’guk Kaellŏp 2015, 156).


Although it has almost vanished in the twenty-first century as a major institutional presence, Neo-Confucianism was for centuries much stronger than either Buddhism or Christianity. Neo-Confucians agreed with Buddhists that human beings were good by nature. Moreover, Neo-Confucians also assumed human perfectibility; all human beings could be sages, defined as human beings who were perfectly moral and therefore always acted appropriately. Neo-Confucians, however, were more pessimistic than Buddhists. They never believed in sudden enlightenment, assuming life-long cultivation was necessary. The common assumption that Neo-Confucianism asserted that human beings are born virtuous is misleading. Neo-Confucians actually believed that human beings are born with an innate tendency to act appropriately but require education and effort to actualize that potential (Munro 1988, 112–54).

A core problem for Neo-Confucian philosophers was explaining why we had to work so hard to actualize our innate human potential. They tended to blame ki (氣) (Chan 1969, 88–116). Ki is the dangerous one of the two primary formative forces in the Neo-Confucian [End Page 292] universe. The Neo-Confucian ideal is total harmony between everyone and everything in the universe, with all phenomena operating as nodes in an all-encompassing network of appropriate interactions. Li (理), the other primary formative force, serves as the patterns of appropriate interaction. Ki, however, as both matter and energy, coagulates into individual phenomena which, being materially separate and distinct from other phenomena, can hinder appropriate interaction. This is a cause of concern for Confucians who want to be moral, to play their proper role in that cosmic network. Ki can make it difficult for li to direct human thoughts and actions, leading people to act in ways they should not (Yao 2000, 96–111).

Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200), one of the Chinese thinkers who defined Neo-Confucianism, stated explicitly that ki can have a stronger pull on human beings than li and can require significant effort to overcome (Zhu Xi, n.d.). This meant that he had to “temper his optimism about human nature with his realism about human nature. He acknowledges both the accessibility of sagehood and the difficulty of achieving it” (Ching 1986, 287). This led to what one American scholar has called the “Neo-Confucian predicament” of the desire to achieve social oneness, political order, and economic well-being. In striving to do that, however, Neo-Confucians “were confronted by a massive tendency toward moral failure based on inescapable cosmic conditions which they could all too easily sense in their own individual minds” (Metzger 1977, 158).

If Buddhists were frustrated because they discovered it was difficult to change their own minds enough to completely escape the suffering that is inescapable in the world, Neo-Confucians were even more frustrated because their goals were loftier; they wanted to not only change their thinking but also to change the way the world operated. When Neo-Confucianism traveled to the Korean peninsula, it brought with it this inherent moral predicament. Korean philosophers addressed this problem in their own way; they dug deep into the psychology of moral action to uncover why it is so difficult to consistently act in a moral manner. Two men who led that exploration into the psychological reasons for moral frailty are T’oegye Yi Hwang 李滉 (1501–70) and Yulgok Yi I 李珥 (1536–84).

T’oegye decided that we had trouble acting as we should because we were led astray by those emotions generated by ki, which formed our bodies, because there are seven emotions (七情) that stimulated us to act in a selfish manner. He also believed we have moral emotions, which he called the Four Sprouts (四端), instinctive human tendencies to commiseration, shame, modesty, and moral judgment, which are generated by li and stimulate altruistic action. The problem was how to make sure our Four Sprouts determined our behavior rather than our selfish emotions. He advised cultivating an attitude of mindfulness (敬) so that we can observe what is going on in our own minds. If we could calm our minds and examine our emotions just when they were beginning to stir, we could quash selfish emotions and cultivate selfless feelings. This, he argued, was just the effort needed to achieve sagehood (Chung 1995, 53–84, 119–39).

Yulgok, on the other hand, insisted that all human emotions are generated by ki, though every time ki generates such an emotion, li rides along to provide direction. The degree to which li provides direction is what determines good and evil. Movement that is in accordance [End Page 293] with the patterns of appropriate interaction, an emotion which resonates with the cosmic network of harmonious interactions, is good. Movement contrary to those patterns, an emotion that works against that web of selfless harmony, is evil. Yulgok’s suggestion for how to overcome human moral frailty was not to engage in quiet sitting. After all, morality implied action. You cannot be moral when you are just sitting quietly. Instead, he advocated exerting effort to transform your ki so that it will be less likely to lead you in a selfish direction (Chung 1995, 85–118, 141–48).

One particularly creative member of the T’oegye philosophical lineage was Tasan Chŏng Yagyong (1762–1836). Tasan decided neither T’oegye nor Yulgok provided advice that was specific enough to help him be the moral person he wanted to be. Probably drawing on the Catholic missionary publications from China he had read in his youth, he suggested another way to overcome our moral frailty (Baker 2004). Tasan argued that it was even more difficult to consistently act appropriately than either T’oegye or Yulgok realized. Consistently doing the right thing is, in his view, is as difficult as climbing up a steep hill but following our natural preference for physical pleasure is as easy as rolling down that same hill (Chŏng 2001, II: 5, 33a).We naturally desire what is good but unfortunately we desire both what is morally good and what feels good (Chŏng 2001, II: 3, 2b). Tasan recognized that we are often faced with two strong opposing desires: one we should allow to dictate our actions and one we should resist. Here he broke with mainstream Neo-Confucianism to emphasize complexity entailed by the human possession of free will, the ability to choose to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing (自主之權) (Chŏng 2001, II: 5, 33b). He dismissed as too usual Neo-Confucian assumption that, if we could rid our minds of selfish thoughts and emotions and therefore see clearly how we should behave, we would naturally decide to behave that way without having to think twice and therefore would automatically act appropriately. According to Tasan’s own personal moral experience, however, it is not enough to simply determine (立 志) to act properly at all times. Even if we recognize the moral course of action, Tasan found that it is not always easy to act in accordance with that recognition. Neo-Confucians normally assumed that if we really know the proper way to act in a specific situation, we will act that way (Tu 1979, 83–101). Tasan disagreed. He argued that we need more than knowledge of the good to act properly; we need to be inspired to do so.

What can inspire us? The Lord Above is Tasan’s answer.

There is no human being born on this earth without base desires. What keeps us from following those desires and doing whatever we feel like doing? It is the fear that our misbehavior will be noticed. …If we did not think there was someone watching us, would we not simply abandon all sense of moral responsibility and just do whatever we felt like doing? ...But what makes us behave properly even in the privacy of our own room and make sure that even our thoughts are proper thoughts? The only reason why a superior person is watchful over his thoughts and behavior even in the privacy of his own room is that he knows that there is a Lord Above

(Sangje 上帝) watching him (Chŏng 2001, II: 3, 4b–5a). [End Page 294]

Though Tasan appears to have been influenced by Christianity, especially in his use of terms such as “free will” and his insistence that we need to believe that the Lord Above is watching us in order to be inspired to act morally, he remained committed to the hope that human moral perfectibility is achievable through our own efforts. He did not accept Christian assertions that human beings are born sinners or that we can only overcome our sinful nature with the help of God’s grace.


There are a number of reasons why Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, was able to plant roots in Korean soil and grow into the sturdy tree we see today but one reason may be the way it addresses the problem that has bothered many serious Korean thinkers for centuries: human moral frailty. Christianity eliminates one side of the contradiction between the Buddhist and Confucian promises that Buddhahood/sagehood is possible through human effort alone and the fact that there are no Buddhas/sages among us. Christianity denies that human beings can, through their own efforts, achieve moral perfection. It offers hope, however, for those who still want to live moral lives, nonetheless. It promises that faithful Christians will receive supernatural assistance from God to make it possible for them to overcome or at least minimize their innate tendency to act in ways they realize are not appropriate (Heron 2005a, 514–15).

Catholics and Protestants differ in the solutions they offer for human moral weakness. Catholicism teaches that human beings can be saved by using the divine assistance, or grace, they receive from God to engage in good works that will earn them, with God’s help, entrance into paradise. The Catholic church is also well aware that human beings frequently fail to follow their own conscience, so it offers the sacrament of confession which erases the penalty imposed for the moral mistakes we have made. That eases the guilt and/or shame Buddhists or Confucians may feel when they reflect upon their own moral mistakes.

Protestantism places less emphasis on the good works divine assistance enables Christians to do and more on faith, relying on God’s love alone. In fact, Protestantism grew out of the rejection of the Catholic belief that faith and good works are both necessary for salvation and declared that faith only can save us. In a sense, this is an even more pessimistic view than the Catholic view since it implies that human beings are incapable of engaging in good works to an extent sufficient to move God to invite them into heaven. Catholics are more pessimistic than Buddhists and Confucians but, unlike Protestants, they tend to believe they can earn entrance into heaven with God’s help. Moreover, Catholics believe they must do that. Otherwise, God will see that they have squandered the assistance He offered them and therefore determine that they do not merit salvation and will instead will damn them to hell for eternity (Marie 2019; Heron 2005b, 687–88).

Both Catholics who have just gone to confession and Protestants who are convinced God has saved them can still feel guilty, of course. Christianity, however, offers them a partial [End Page 295] salve for this guilty conscience. In Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, it is solely your own fault that you fall short of moral perfection. Christians accept personal responsibility for their behavior, of course, but they can also blame external forces. The eighteenth-century Korean Confucian scholar An Chŏngbok 安鼎福 (1712–1791) accurately described one Christian explanation of why there is evil in the world in an imagined conversation with his Catholic son-in-law, Kwŏn Ilsin (1742–1791):

These Europeans warn us about the three enemies of humanity. The first is our own body. The sensations of sound and sight, of taste and smell, along with our tendencies toward lust, laziness, and licentiousness, overwhelm us internally without us even being aware of what is happening. Our second enemy, according to them, is the mundane world. Through the lure of wealth, fame, amusements, and frivolities, it openly attacks us from the outside. The third enemy of man is the Devil. He uses our own pride as well as external allurements to bewitch and confuse us and attacks us both internally and externally

(An 1970, XVII: 151a–b).

Buddhists and Confucians would both agree that our bodies can lead us astray. They would also agree that the external world can distract us from cultivating our moral character though they would probably tend to emphasize more our internal response to external stimulus than the external world itself. The last reason Christians give for evil in this world, however, would have puzzled them; Buddhists and Confucians both have traditions admitting the existence of spirits, such as Mara (for Buddhists) and kwisin (for Confucians), who could trouble us and even lead us astray but they would never give them the potential power over us that Christians give Satan.

There are other ways in which Christians differ from Buddhists and Confucians in how they seek to overcome moral weakness. Both Catholics and Protestants share with Buddhists and Confucians respect for the role ritual plays in a moral life. Unlike Confucians, however, they do not emphasize that rituals teach us how to act as members of a group rather than as isolated and selfish individuals. Nor do they treat rituals as practical exercises to put us in the right frame of mind to rise above the mundane world, as Buddhists do. Instead, Catholics emphasize that rituals, in particular Sunday mass, are the channels God uses to give us the grace we need to overcome human moral frailty and therefore are essential to a moral life. Protestants, for their part, tend to see rites and worship services as a way to show that we have received grace from God and are grateful. Both Catholics and Protestants see participation in rituals as a way of displaying their belief that God will help them overcome innate moral frailty (White 2005, 1035–37).

Another significance difference between Christians, on the one hand, and Buddhists and Confucians, on the other, is how they envision the human moral organ, the mind. Christianity introduced to Korea the notion that the mind is the site of consciousness and of decision-making. The key word here is “site.” The mind, as Christians see it, is not consciousness and decision-making. It is where consciousness and decision-making take place. It is usually [End Page 296] identified with the soul, the immortal immaterial substance which makes human beings human. In other words, it is a thing, an immaterial thing but a thing nonetheless, a thing which thinks, feels, and decides (Herbermann 1913). For at least one modern Christian thinker, the mind is more than just a thing which thinks, feels, and decides. It is ultimate reality (Urban 1995, 251–52). For Buddhists and Confucians, and for followers of most of the new indigenous religions that have appeared in Korea over the last couple of centuries, the mind is not a thing but a process. The mind to them is nothing more than the processes of perceiving, evaluating, judging, and deciding (Yi 1988, III: 238–40; Ames 2011, 127). This is not a mere metaphysical quibble. The Christian assertion that the mind is a part of the larger substance they call the immortal soul hardened the distinction between mind and body that both Buddhists and Confucians had already recognized as a primary cause of human moral frailty. The hardening of the mind-body distinction can be seen as providing a better explanation for human moral weakness but one that also made achieving moral perfection appear to be even more difficult. In other words, Christianity represents an even more pessimistic view of the possibility of human beings living consistently moral lives, except for the fact, of course, that Christians believe God can help them overcome the downward pull their physical bodies exert on them.

The belief that the mind is a process rather than a thing may be more widely held by philosophers than by average believers. In a survey conducted in 2014, Gallup Korea found that 80 percent of Protestants said they believed their soul would survive the death of their body. 64% of Catholics said they shared that belief. But 55 percent of Buddhists said they believed the same thing. We don’t know what contemporary Confucians believe on this issue. There are so few people who call themselves Confucians that Gallup did not list them as a separate category (Han’guk Kaellŏp 2015, 226). Another issue on which Christians and Buddhists in Korea are coming into closer agreement despite the great differences in their views historically is the question of human perfectibility. In the same survey, Gallup asked Koreans if they believed that a person enlightened to the truth would become a perfect human being. Only 35 percent said yes, while 51 percent said no. There was not that much difference between Buddhists (42 percent said yes) and Protestants (43 percent said yes). Catholics were only slightly behind at 36%. In every case, more people denied the possibility of human perfectibility than affirmed it (Han’guk Kaellŏp 2015, 154).

One reason Christians and Buddhists appear to be drawing closer together in their views on human nature may be because of Christian influence on Buddhist thought. Just as Protestants believe that you are saved through faith in God and that any good works you perform after you have fully committed to that faith are simply a reflection of your faith, Sŏngch’ŏl argued that enlightenment in the form of truly believing that you are already a Buddha, thereby actualizing your Buddhahood, is both sufficient and necessary for enlightenment. Good deeds done after enlightenment are therefore nothing more than the good deeds of a Buddha (Senécal 2016, 106). In other words, Sŏngch’ŏl appears to have argued that faith in our own innate Buddhahood is primary. Good works are proof that the person who performs them is enlightened. Good works should be seen as a product, rather [End Page 297] than a cause, of enlightenment.

This Protestant-like Buddhist notion that faith is primary is even more apparent in the writings of Sung Bae Park, a one-time monk in the order Sŏngch’ŏl headed who later became a professor of Buddhist studies in the United States. In a scholarly publication explaining sudden enlightenment Buddhism, Park opens with a chapter entitled “the primacy of faith in Buddhism.” He goes on later in that book to write “transformation from non-faith to faith is therefore a process of being born again [emphasis in the original]” (Park 1983, 107). Many Christians would say the same thing about their faith. They would agree that faith is transformative, since once you truly believe, you have become a different, and better, person. They would also agree that such rebirth through faith is, as Park notes, “only the beginning of one’s religious life and not its culmination” (Park 1983, 107). However, they would substitute Park’s reference to “rebirth as a Buddha” with “rebirth as a true Christian.” Nevertheless, modern Buddhists like Sŏngch’ŏl and Park as well as Christians represent a modern reaction against moral pessimism by placing greater emphasis on the beginning of the path toward a more moral life rather than on how difficult it is to stay on that path.

Korea’s New Religions

Despite some possible overlap, there is a clear distinction between what Buddhism and Confucianism, on the one hand, and Christianity, on the other, teach about the reasons for moral frailty and how we can overcome it. Korean new religions offer yet more approaches to explaining why we fail to be as moral as we would like to be. They also offer us different reasons for hoping that we can be the people we know we should be. The oldest of Korean new religions is Tonghak, which arose in the 1860s. Tonghak represented a new way for Koreans to deal with moral frailty by proposing a new way to think about ki. Tonghak viewed ki as the absolute moral force in the cosmos. They believed that ki is not only what unites us all since it constitutes and animates us, but it is also the ultimate creative force in the universe. To overcome individual moral weakness we need to link with cosmic ki through an incantation inviting it to descend upon us. That will allow us to act in a creative fashion, interacting harmoniously with everyone and everything around us to help build a better world (Buswell 2007, 450–51). Tonghak also recognizes, however, that the body, a more limited form of ki, can be an impediment to moral action. Accepting the belief in a close link between body and mind, the second patriarch of Tonghak, Ch’oe Sihyŏng (1827–1898) wrote that we need to preserve our original moral mind (a concept Tonghak shared with Confucianism) by rectifying our own ki (susim chŏnggi 守心正氣).

If we human beings are able to keep our heart-and-mind basically clean of contamination and are also able to remove all impurities in the energy which runs through and animates our psycho-physical endowment, then there will be no pollution from the mundane world on our heart-and-mind and we will not have to worry about selfish [End Page 298] desires welling up from within. Our body will then be able to contain the mind of heaven and earth… That four-character phrase "sushim chŏnggi" tells us that a decline in our psycho-physical endowment can be reversed

We can see in Tonghak a mixture of the belief that we can, through our own efforts, overcome moral frailty with the notion that we need external assistance, in this case the Ultimate Ki of the cosmos descending upon us, to overcome the difficulties our bodies pose to our goal of moral perfection. Chanting for Ultimate Ki to descend and unite us with the creative force of the cosmos remained an essential element of the Tonghak moral project even after it changed its name to Ch’ŏndogyo in 1905 (Beirne and Young 2018).

Chŭngsan’gyo, composed of at least fifty denominations, is another important new religious movement (Kim, Yu, and Yang 1997, 154–284). The faith is based on the belief that a Korean named Kang Chŭngsan (1871–1909) is the Lord on High who descended to earth at the end of the nineteenth century to help humanity make the transition to a better world in which it will be easier to be moral. This better world will be ushered in by a Great Transformation (kaebyŏk 開闢) (Baker and Heo 2018). Kang did not create the concept of kaebyŏk; Ch’oe Cheu (1824–1864), the founder of Tonghak, had also promised that a better world was near. Kang, however, provided a more detailed account of what kaebyŏk was and why it was approaching. In the scriptures of the most prominent of the various Chŭngsan’gyo denominations, Daesoon Jinrihoe (Taesun Chillihoe 大巡眞理會) (Jorgensen 2018, 361–62), we are told he taught that the world has descended into a state of constant competition rather than cooperation, creating injustice and resentment. The build-up of resentment has finally reached a point where it has become a dangerous negative force. This negative energy, the result of a cosmic order based on mutual conflict (sanggŭk 相剋), has grown strong enough to disturb order in the cosmos (Taesun Chillihoe Kyomubu 2010, 98).

This atmosphere of mutual conflict has created ethical problems as well. People have become inclined to think of themselves first, pursuing their own self-interest, creating anger and resentment in others, and generating negative energy. That will change after kaebyŏk as competition is replaced by cooperation and injustice by justice. For this change to come quickly, however, divine intervention is necessary. Kang, known to Chŭngsan’gyo devotees as Sangjenim (the Lord on High 上帝님), descended to earth from heaven to teach human beings how to prepare for and hasten this change for the better. He promised in the Chŭngsan’gyo scriptures that he will return order to the cosmos, relieve all pent-up resentments, and replace the atmosphere of conflict and competition which prevails in the current era with a new atmosphere of mutual support and cooperation (sangsaeng 相生) (Taesun Chillihoe Kyomubu 2010, 98).

Another important Korean new religion, Wŏn Buddhism, has a less dramatic approach to the problem of human moral weakness. It also uses the word kaebyŏk, but not in the sense of a cosmic upheaval that will automatically create a better world in which moral frailty is not as much a problem as it is now. Instead, the founder of Won Buddhism, Pak Chungbin [End Page 299] (1891–1943), better known by followers as Sot’aesan, pointed out that dramatic advances in science and technology were already creating a Great Transformation. Material kaebyŏk was already here. Human beings, however, were having trouble keeping up with those changes in their material environment. In fact, the material world was growing so strong that human beings were falling under its spell and getting weaker spiritually. He argued that it was time for a spiritual kaebyŏk so that human beings, rather than material things, could be in charge (The Committee for the Authorized Translations of Won Buddhist Scriptures 2016, 17).

Like other forms of Buddhism, Won Buddhism sees ignorance of the true nature of reality as the reason human beings fail to be all they can be and do all they should do. It also attributes many of the problems we encounter in this life to mistakes we have made in previous lives, in other words, to karma, another Buddhist concept: “The fact that we are subject to transmigration and harm that comes from outside is a consequence of what we ourselves have done in past and present lives” (The Committee for the Authorized Translations of Won Buddhist Scriptures 2016, 709). Reflecting the growing pessimism among Koreans in general over the possibility of overcoming our selfish tendencies and becoming the moral person we should become, Sot’aesan taught that the rapid advances in material comforts made it more difficult to detach ourselves from the tempting illusions of the world than it had been in the past. His solution, however, was not the Christian solution of relying on God for assistance. Instead, he did as both Buddhists and Confucians had done in the past: he said it was all up to us. He taught his disciples that we can actualize our inner Buddha through our own efforts. Besides the usual Buddhist techniques of striving to understand the illusionary nature of the phenomenal world through study and quieting the mind through meditation, he added a very practical suggestion. He reasoned that our moral weaknesses and our failure to escape the suffering that are an integral part of the human condition are due to a self-centered orientation accompanied by a failure to truly understand that we are not isolated individuals. Thus he advised keeping in mind the Four Gratitudes: gratitude to our parents for giving us life; gratitude to nature for giving us the air, water, and other things we need to live; gratitude to our fellow human beings because they do things for us that we do not have the time or the skill to do for ourselves; and gratitude to governments and legal systems that provide stability in society (The Committee for the Authorized Translations of Won Buddhist Scriptures 2016, 25–38). This is a new approach to cultivating a moral character. It is also an answer to an old problem: how can we overcome our moral frailty and realize our full potential to live moral lives, and be concerned more about others than about ourselves.


Korea has a deeply diverse philosophical and religious culture. Nowhere else on earth are Christians and Buddhists as evenly matched in the percentage of the population they claim. In its 2014 survey, Gallup Korea found that 22 percent of South Koreans were Buddhists, 21 percent were Protestants, and 7 percent were Catholics (Han’guk Kaellŏp 2015: 144). Korea [End Page 300] also has one of the most Confucian societies on earth, given its high rate of performance of Confucian mourning rituals for parents and grandparents. Two decades ago, the government estimated that 78.3 percent of Koreans honored their deceased parents and grandparents with Confucian ancestor memorial rites (Moon 2007, 16). It is not just the variety of philosophical and religious threads in the Korean cultural fabric that makes it unique. Koreans have borrowed philosophies and religions from others and made them their own by adapting them to address questions that have concerned Koreans for centuries: what is the reason for human moral frailty and how can it be overcome?

Much of the twists and turns of Korean philosophy over the centuries has been fuelled by a search for a way to resolve the contradiction between an assumption of human perfectibility with a realization that it is very difficult to consistently act in a moral fashion. Some, especially Christians, have tried to overcome that conundrum by dropping the notion of human perfectibility. Others, especially those involved with some of Korea’s new religions, have tried to overcome that contradiction by moving in the opposite direction and claiming that soon a new world will emerge in which moral frailty will no longer be a problem. Mainstream traditional Korean religious philosophy, however, has held onto both sides of that contradiction. Recognizing that the goal of human moral perfectibility is difficult to achieve, Buddhist and Confucian thinkers have insisted that with enough effort it is nonetheless achievable. Their struggle with that dilemma is worth studying by philosophers and religious thinkers beyond Korea and Korean Studies. This is not an abstract metaphysical issue, despite the metaphysical language with which it is sometimes discussed. It is a very practical question, the various answers to which have direct implications for how we go about living our daily lives while trying to be the best person we can be. Comparative philosophy is only a small part of the philosophical enterprise in the academic philosophy departments in which most philosophizing takes place today. Even among the few comparative philosophers there are, China and India attract far more attention than Korea does. That is unfortunate, since there is much to be learned from observing how Korean thinkers over the centuries have wrestled with the crucial question of the relationship and gap between the ideals and realities of human life. [End Page 301]

Don Baker

Don Baker ( is a professor in the Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia, Canada.


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* This article was presented at a conference at the University of Prince Edward Island 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), the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS).

1. Note, for example, the statement in Zhongyong XXII that we have the potential, by fully actualizing our true human nature, to link up with Heaven and Earth and play an equal role in maintaining appropriate interactions throughout the universe. In other words, we all have the potential to become a sage.