In India, we know very little about Korean philosophy inspite of the ubiquity of Korean products (cars, consumer durables, music, cosmetics, etc) in our lives. This insightful essay by Kevin Cawley, senior lecturer in Korean Studies at University College Cork and director of the Irish Institute of Korean Studies, therefore acts almost as a Korean Philosophy 101 for people like us who know little about this increasingly influential nation. Cawley says “Self-cultivation, central to the tradition, underscores that the onus is on the individual to develop oneself, without recourse to the divine or the supernatural. Korean philosophy is practical, while remaining agnostic to a large degree: recognising the spirit realm but highlighting that we ourselves take charge of our lives by taking charge of our minds.

The word for ‘philosophy’ in Korean is 철학, pronounced ch’ŏrhak. It literally means the ‘study of wisdom’ or, perhaps better, ‘how to become wise’, which reflects its more dynamic and proactive implications.”

Cawley’s essay is rich with insight and with fascinating details regarding how the monks of India, China, Korea and Japan influenced each other 2000 years ago through their travels and their teachings. We would recommend that you read the piece in full. In case you cannot, here are the three super interesting things we learnt from the essay.

Firstly, how you experience the world is driven by how you think – we become what we think: “There is a tale that is widely known by Koreans…and this is a good way to introduce Korean philosophy because it is symbolic of the tradition’s focus on the mind, or rather how the mind controls our lives. Wŏnhyo (617-686 CE) and Ŭisang (625-702 CE) were two Korean monks who wanted to travel to Tang China to study with great Buddhist masters. However, their journey was derailed by a terrible storm. The two monks sought shelter, and retreated into a dark cave. There they became thirsty waiting for the treacherous storm to pass. Fortunately, in the darkness of the cave, Wŏnhyo found a smooth vessel. He filled it with rainwater, and they drank deeply from it. Feeling refreshed, they peacefully slept. But when they awoke the next morning, they were shocked. It turned out that they had slept in a tomb surrounded by skeletons, and the water that had refreshed them had been scooped up in a decaying human skull. The experience led to what can be described as Wŏnhyo’s ‘sudden enlightenment’. Wŏnhyo remained in Korea, convinced that he didn’t need to travel afar to understand the nature of reality, while his friend went to China where his ideas were very influential.

Wŏnhyo understood that how we think about things shapes their very existence – and in turn our own existence, which is constructed according to our thoughts. At night, in the darkness of the cave, he drank water from a perfectly useful ‘bowl’. But when he could see properly, he found that there was no ‘bowl’ at all, only a disgusting human skull. The enlightenment of Wŏnhyo occurred when he realised that there isn’t a difference between the ‘bowl’ and the skull: the only difference lies with us and our perceptions. We interpret our lives through a continual stream of thoughts, and so we become what we think, or rather how we think. As our daily lives are shaped by our thoughts, so our experience of this reality is good or bad – depending on our thoughts – which make things ‘appear’ good or bad because, in ‘reality’, things in and of themselves are devoid of their own independent nature….

We can take from Wŏnhyo the idea that, if you change the patterns that have become engrained in how you think, you will begin to live differently. To do this, you need to change your mental habits, which is why meditation and mindful awareness can help…”

Secondly, the daily practice of meditation allows you to train your mind and attain ‘sudden enlightenment’ followed by ‘gradual cultivation’ so that you are able to achieve your goals“While Wŏnhyo had emphasised the mind and the need to ‘practise’ Buddhism, a later Korean monk, Chinul (1158-1210), spearheaded Sŏn, the meditational tradition in Korea that espoused the idea of ‘sudden enlightenment’ that alerts the mind, accompanied by ‘gradual cultivation’: we still need to practise meditation, for if not we can easily fall into our old ways even if our minds have been awakened. Chinul reinforced the rules of the religious order in Admonitions to Beginning Students (Kyech’osim haginmun), composed in 1205, a text also still studied in Korean monasteries. But his greatest contribution to Sŏn is Secrets on Cultivating the Mind (Susim kyŏl). This text outlines in detail his teachings on sudden awakening followed by the need for gradual cultivation.

Chinul’s approach recognises the mind as the ‘essence’ of one’s Buddha nature (contained in the mind, which is inherently good), while continual practice and cultivation aids in refining its ‘function’ – this is the origin of the ‘essence-function’ concept that has since become central to Korean philosophy. Chinul brings this concept together with the idea of a close interrelationship between thinking and the actualisation of thought in reality. Here again we see that the responsibility is on individuals to refine and polish their own minds, clear them of negative impurities, and curb their desires. These ideas also influenced the reformed view of Confucianism that became linked with the mind and other metaphysical ideas, finally becoming known as Neo-Confucianism.”

Thirdly, in Confucian thought, an individual is seen to have responsibilities vis a vis everyone else around him including his family, his school, his employer and his society“…Confucianism emphasises that society works as an interconnected set of complementary reciprocal relationships that should be beneficial to all parties within a social system (an idea not dissimilar from that of Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations: ‘As you are yourself a complement of a social system, so let every act of yours be complementary of a social living principle.’) Furthermore, Confucian relationships have the potential to offer us an example of effective citizenship, similar to that outlined by Cicero, where the good of the republic or state is at the centre of being a good citizen. There is a general consensus in Korean philosophy that we have an innate sociability and therefore should have a sense of duty to each other and to practise virtue.”

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