Toegye on Spontaneity and Naturalness

Hello all,

This one comes from the book To Become a Sage, by Michael Kalton. It is his translation and annotation of the Ten Diagrams of Sage Learning — a series of lectures which the Korean Neo-Confucian scholar Toegye presented to King Seonjo, back in the 16th Century. Each lecture centred on a diagram by Zhu Xi or another respected Neo-Confucian, summing up one angle of the comprehensive Neo-Confucian vision. Now out of print, Kalton’s book is available to view online on his website, here.

I have picked out two items from the glossary, explaining the concept in question and justifying the translation adopted by the author. I include them here mostly to help you parse the other extract: a section from the final chapter, on the diagram Admonition on Rising Early and Retiring Late.

However, I also hope that these glossary sections will be of interest on their own terms. I am particularly taken by the parallelism with the extract by Spinoza; I find it fascinating how these two systems base themselves so neatly on the cultivation of the mind towards the understanding of the whole of Nature, in its unity. In terms of the cultivation of mind, I must confess that I find 敬 (“reverence”) much more useful than the classical Buddhist conceptions of mindfulness (sati) — specifically, as it incorporates the element of reverential awe which I find an indispensable affective force in any self-adjustment. In terms of the latter, 理 (“Principle”) is one of the most well-rounded formulations of the Absolute I have ever come across. I do not think that we can do much better within the realm of the logical, consistent use of language.

Finally, there is the section from the final chapter, entitled “Spontaneity and Naturalness”. I have often found myself beset by doubts and frustration at my inability to (as Spinoza put it) assume the human nature which it comes to me so easily to conceive. Specifically, the attempt to maintain mindfulness throughout the day — an undistracted state of composure and self-possession — was one of the most difficult things I ever attempted, and led to many bouts of acute despair.

Therefore, I hope that the passage provides intellectual stimulation, but also, if possible, a sense of reassurance at our failure to achieve spontaneous perfection, and thus a further moderation of such despondency. It also provides a welcome counter-point to the temptation of reaching some idealized mental state (devoid of deliberate thought or intention) as a catch-all solution to our problems.

Appendix on Terminology, pp. 212-214

KYŎNG [Korean]
CHING [Mandarin Chinese, Wades-Giles transliteration]

The basic classical meaning of kyŏng was “reverence.” It could either apply to inner dispositions or describe external appearances, as in a “reverent demeanor,” etc. As Neo-Confucians focused their attention in a new way on the cultivation of the inner life of the mind-and-heart, kyŏng was transformed into a technical term to designate the essential practice of this kind of cultivation. Thus, al­though it could be cultivated through attention to proper demeanor, posture, dress and the like, kyŏng in Neo-Confucian discourse essentially refers to a particular inner state of mind.

As a form of mental or spiritual discipline, the Neo-Confucian kyŏng might still be best understood as systemizing the inward elements involved in reverence. In the presence of an object of great reverence, one is serious and self-possessed, attentive at once to the object and to one’s personal deportment. The Neo-Confucian kyŏng is essentially a self-possessed, recollected state of mind. It is the opposite of being ruled by desires, which give external objects mastery over one’s person; hence it is serene self-possession. It is likewise the opposite of a dis­tracted and wandering frame of mind; hence it is manifested in a focused attention when there is an object to be attended to, and a quiet, unified mind when no such activity is called for. This latter condition is closely related to a Neo-Confucian meditative discipline called “quiet-sitting.” Further, it is serious and composed; kyŏng is not opposed to laughter and lightheartedness when these are appropriate, but it is contrary to frivolity and heedlessness. Here we return to the original meaning of the term: the animating force of this rigorous mental discipline is a fundamentally reverent disposition that recog­nizes that everywhere and always we are involved in something ultimate. Big or small, heavy or light, every circumstance is finally a matter of li, “principle.”

A number of translations have been suggested for this term. A.C. Graham uses “composure,” which brings out the inner recol­lection and self-possession, but somewhat neglects the attentiveness to affairs that is an important aspect of kyŏng. “Attentiveness” and “concentration” reflects mental focus but not the inward self-possession. Wing-tsit Chan follows Bruce in preferring “seriousness,” and through him “seriousness,” or sometimes “reverential seriousness,” have become fairly common translations. In common English usage, however, seriousness bespeaks mainly a kind of earnestness. While this is indeed fundamental to kyŏng, it does not necessarily reflect the kind of mental recollection and inward self-possession at the core of this discipline. There were many earnest and serious young Neo-Confucians who had great difficulty maintaining the focused and recollected state of mind signified by kyŏng.

My own preference as a translation for kyŏng is “mindfulness.” The term clearly opposes mental dissipation, distraction, or heedlessness. It has the connotations of caution and carefulness that figure prominently in Neo-Confucian discussions of kyŏng, and is a natural component of a reverent disposition. Although it is more commonly used with an object (one is mindful of something), it can also describe the poised and collected state of mind when there is no particular object present. The term is also etymologically consistent with the Neo-Confucian description of kyŏng as the condition in which the mind is “full” with its own self-mastery.

In both denotation and connotation, then, “mindfulness” seems a good translation for kyŏng. A disadvantage is that “mindfulness” is also used for certain forms of Buddhist meditation; kyŏng was not derived from Buddhist practices and no such implication is intended in adopting a similar translation. In my judgment the advantages of the term outweigh this disadvantage.

pp. 215-216


Li is unquestionably the most important single term in Neo-Confucian discourse. Its original meaning had to do with order or putting things in order; thence it comes to signify the patterning or structure that underlines and brings about order. In its patterning or structuring aspect li is responsible for making things be as they are and act as they do; in this respect Neo-Confucians equate li with the inherent nature of each and every being. As the inner nature of each thing, or holistically of the entire universe, li is regarded as both formative and normative. These two functions are closely interrelated: that which is at the source of the formation and particular mode of activity of the various beings also stands over them as the norm of what is appropriate to their being and activity. Finally, as an extension of its formative and normative aspects, li can also be equated with the ultimate Truth, since the accurate apprehension of anything, from particular items and situations to the whole of existence, is a matter of apprehending li.

While li is the inherent nature and norm of particular beings, from another perspective it may be regarded as a single underlying pattern that embraces all beings as a harmonious whole and serves as the norm for their appropriate interaction. In this respect li is com­prehensive and unitary as well as particular and diverse, an idea Neo­-Confucians expressed in the formula: “Li is one, but manifested di­versely.” A living human body offers a useful paradigm of this. It ultimately has a single principle or pattern of operation, but this is manifested in the diverse operations of the various parts of the body. In a close-up perspective the finger has one pattern of operation, the heart another: each has its own li. But a broader perspective transcends this particularity, for a finger and heart are misunderstood if they are seen as disconnected realities. Ultimately the finger presupposes the heart, the heart presupposes fingers: they are but diverse aspects of the single patterned unity of an organic whole. The universe itself is just such an organic whole, and ultimately there is just one li or pattern manifested diversely in the many beings that are its component parts.

With the term li as its unifying thread, Neo-Confucian discourse flows effortlessly from metaphysical discussion to considerations of morality and questions of ascetical practice. A variety of translations (“pattern,” “structure,” “norm,” “value,” “truth,” etc.) would serve to bring out the nuance of li appropriate to these different contexts, but such variety would also obscure the continuity that is at the heart of the system. If li is to be translated at all, the consistency of a single term is highly desirable.

The most widely used translation of li is “principle.” No other term comes as close to combining the formative and normative aspects of li, for there are principles of structure and function as well as principles of moral conduct. The function of li as a metaphysical component of existence and its unitary nature are aspects of li that would not be readily associated with “principle” but familiarity with Neo-Confucian thought can easily remedy that.

A more subtle and less easily remedied problem is the fact that li and principle belong to quite different epistemological traditions. In particular, li has nothing of the notion of abstract universality that is a strong connotation of principle; the universality of li is one of constancy and omnipresence, not abstraction. The Neo-Confucian emphasis on the investigation and comprehension of moral principle (li) was not, as the translation might suggest, a quest for universally valid propositions that could be prudently applied to particular cases; rather, it aimed at developing an educated and profound sensitivity to constant moral values as a basis for recognizing the appropriate course in the complex value configuration of each situation. The epistemology is intuitionist, more geared to the development of a sense of values than the elaboration of a coherent and consistent set of “principles.”

Thus it is only with reservation that I have decided to follow the convention and translate li as “principle.” Along with “principle,” the untranslated li will also occur frequently as a reminder that the translation is not altogether adequate.

Chapter 10: Diagram of the Admonition on “Rising Early and Retiring Late”

Spontaneity and Naturalness” (pp. 201-205)

Neo-Confucians accepted the tradition that commonly described the sage as spontaneously perfect: his response to every situation would be invariably correct with no need for deliberation or thought. The key to this perfection, it was agreed, was the fact that in the sage there is no self-will. Activity is physically the activity of the self or person, but there is no self-centeredness disjoining the person from the Tao or principle, and so actions are spontaneously in accord with the norm.

With such assumptions regarding the nature of the ideal condition, the temptation was to construe spontaneity not only as an attribute of the perfect state, but as a means to its attainment. The mind in quiescence is in perfect unity with principle, its substance; if in moving into activity one could avoid deliberation, a function of the self, would not activity of itself become perfect? The doctrine of mindfulness counters this Taoistic approach; it makes unremitting self­-possession and attentiveness, not spontaneity, the key to self-cultivation. T’oegye says:

In general, the way one should pursue learning does not take into account the presence or absence of affairs [to be dealt with] or the presence or absence of intention; one should only regard mindfulness as the primary thing and then neither activity nor quiescence will miss the norm. Before thoughts have arisen the substance of the mind will be empty and clear and its fun­dament deep and pure; after thoughts have arisen moral principle will be clearly manifest and [selfish] desire will recede and be cut off. The problem of a confused and disordered [state of mind] will gradually diminish in pro­portion as one accumulates [practice] and comes closer to becoming fully accomplished. This is the essential method. 

But now if one does not concern himself with this and instead regards the spontaneous arising of thoughts as one deals with affairs and interacts with others as what is permissible, then he will want to be absolutely without thought when there is no affair to be dealt with. If one regards having [deliberate] intentions and thoughts as a hindrance to the mind, this means one would have to be like a sage who has no [deliberate] intentions or thoughts; then there would be no hindrance to the mind. Wanting to cut off thoughts is close to [Taoist] sitting in forgetfulness; being without [deliberate] intention or thought, furthermore, is not something that one who is less than a great wise man can approach. I fear this is all wrong.

What’s more, as for what has been said about there being a self-centered intent as soon as there is [deliberate] thought, that is certainly true if one is speaking with regard to someone whose original nature has been ensnared and submerged. But if one considers it in terms of moral principle, how can the arising of self-centered intentions be considered the fault of [deliberate] thought? 

Mencius says, 

“The office of the mind is to think. If one thinks one apprehends [what is right]; if one does not exercise thought, he does not attain it.” . . . 

This means that the arising of self-­centered intentions in ordinary people is in fact due to their not exercising thought. 

(A, 28.17a-b, p. 660, Letter to Kim Tonsŏ)

According to the Ch’eng-Chu school, the no-thought/sponta­neous-response paradigm of cultivation fails to take into account the ordinary person’s imperfect psychophysical endowment, the “physical nature.” The physical nature has no role in the quiescent state, but exercises a potentially disruptive function as soon as there is activity. Its imperfection is manifested both as self-centered inclinations and lack of clear knowledge; these can be remedied only by long and strenuous application to the discipline of mindfulness and the investigation of principle. Thus constant self-possession and alertness is paired with study and reflection in this chapter’s presentation of an ideal daily routine.

Because of the objectively rooted imperfection of the physical nature, then, reflection, deliberation, and self-possession are required. Pure spontaneity does not mean pure perfection. But on the other hand, principle or the Tao is not just an abstract norm, but a reality operative within us and in the world around us. Self-cultivation is in one respect a process of overcoming oneself, but it is also and more ultimately a matter of becoming truly natural: 

The substance of the Tao flowingly operates in the course of one’s daily dealing with affairs and interacting with others without a moment’s cessation or pause; therefore “[the mind] must be occupied and one cannot be heed­less.” It does not permit the least bit of manipulation; therefore “one must not look for results or help it grow.” Only then will the mind-and-heart be one with principle and the [function of the] substance of the Tao be faultless and without obstruction. 

(A, 25.37a, p. 609, Letter to Chŏng Chajung)

This perspective balances the critique of spontaneity. Diligent self-restraint and reflection are necessary, but on a deeper level the mind-and-heart is naturally quiet and properly responsive. A gentle, quiet, and protracted corrective tendency will allow these qualities to emerge; a deliberate, aggressive attempt to subdue the mind-and-heart will only cause problems. In the following passage, T’oegye reviews and answers the question of a student having difficulty finding the proper balance:

[Your letter says]: “Formerly in teaching how to practice maintaining mind­fulness you [i.e., T’oegye] said if there is an intention to seize and hold [the mind] it will become burdened and disturbed. As I think it over again now­adays, in times of quietness sometimes it is possible for [the mind] to be possessed of itself with no need for me to try to seize and hold it. But when it comes to activity, if I do not make efforts to seize and hold it, it wanders far afield and is not settled and fixed. How is this? In general, my old habits have not yet been gotten rid of, so it is difficult for the new efforts to take hold. If I strain my mind and employ effort, it is close to being doable, but when external things approach I always experience the problem of hunting after the happiness of my mind-and-heart, which turns me about and soaks in, until finally I do not myself recognize it as wrong. If one wishes to scrape away the old habits to strengthen the new work, what way is there to make this possible?”

How can a beginning student be able to have the strength to deal with the active aspect without an intent to seize and hold [the mind]? But it is absolutely impermissible to be excessively intent and be too urgent in holding it; one should just apply oneself to a timely practice which falls between not exercising a deliberate intent and not not exercising a deliberate intent. When one has practiced this for a long time and is thoroughly versed in it he will gradually see that activity and quiet become as one. My meaning is that truly one cannot expect rapid results which are arrived at overnight. How much more so in a case like yours where one is entangled in old habits; how can it but be extremely fearful! Nevertheless, this likewise is just a matter of earnestly fixing one’s intention, diligently practicing, concentrating on mindfulness, clarifying principle, and repressing and reforming [old habits]. 

(A, 31.1a-b, p. 720, Letter to U Kyŏngsŏn)

The Ch’eng-Chu school of thought constantly emphasized the need for earnest and diligent practice over a long period of time. Taken alone, such exhortations seem to present self-cultivation as an ex­tremely arduous process of continual and strenuous exertion. Concrete advice such as the above, however, puts this in a somewhat different light. The length of time reflects not so much the difficulty as the quiet, patient, almost indeliberate nature of “earnest and diligent practice.” One does not storm the gates of heaven; natural processes are constant but gradual in effecting their results. The assurance that the desired goal is in line with the innermost tendencies of nature is the Neo-Confucian’s surety that over a sufficient period of time this gentle but continuous effort will bear fruit.