Origins: Confucian Stories and 21st Century Questions

by Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Keynote Address

Conference on Exploring Korean Origins, Keimyung University, Taegu, Korea, September 2001

I am very pleased and honored to be invited to speak at this conference on Exploring Korean Origins.

During our conference we have approached the question of Korean origins from many directions. Today I would like to talk with you about the question of origin stories. The kind of origin stories I am interested in as a student of comparative religion and philosophy are the stories that tell us who we are as human beings. What is our place in existence? How do we fit? Where do we belong? What are we doing here?

Psychologically and spiritually these origin stories give us our sense of where we belong. They identify the familiar landscape of our original kohyang, and the topography of that kohyang guides the way we live our daily lives.

Our values are grounded in such origin stories.  The greatest human conflicts frequently have different origin stories at their base. We see that obviously in many ethnic and regional conflicts. But it is true on other important levels as well. Later I will  describe the origin story that at the root of our present day conflict between the environment and the economy, which I believe is the most important conflict of our times.

  There are many sources of origin stories. Great philosophical and religious traditions  are among the most important. My talk will  be about Confucianism (yugyo) and Neo-Confucianism (sŏngnihak), about Mencius and Chu Hsi and T'oegye. But it will also be about you and about me, and about this 21st century world we are living in. For if the question of origins is important, it is important for all of us here and now.

Each new generation, each new historical period, has its own urgent questions and concerns. And when people look to their traditions with their new questions and concerns, the traditions grow and renew themselves. For many thoughtful people now, the environment has emerged as an urgent question and concern. They have questioned their traditions about how we fit, how we should live in the community of life on earth.  In response we now have not only Green political parties, but Green Christianity, and Green Buddhism. Seemingly dead traditions have also revived because they seem to speak to the new question. Thus in America there is great interest in Native American (Indian) traditions, and some call themselves Pagans because they think pagans were closer to Nature.   

As far as I know, there is no Green Confucianism. For many reasons East Asia during the 20th century has not seriously addressed their urgent questions to their Confucian tradition. Economic and social modernization has been the most urgent question, and perhaps Confucianism has been identified more as the problem than as a resource for guidance and new answers.  The Confucian voice has sounded conservative, so it seems a resource only for old answers, not new answers.

Now the entire world is facing an urgent new question. Whether East Asia will address new questions to the Confucian tradition when economic development is choked and stalled by environmental crisis I cannot predict. But in its own Confucian heritage East Asia has perhaps the most promising origin stories in the world for meeting the urgent questions of our times. And Korea has developed these stories to an almost unmatched level of sophistication.  Let me explain.

One of the most important origin stories in the Confucian tradition was told by Mencius. He was engaged in a debate on human nature. Of course "nature," the deepest character we are born with, is inherently an origin story: the description of our nature reveals the fundamental, basic, or original way things are. Mencius lived in times of treachery and warfare: human beings did not look very good. Some thought that from birth we were that way. But Mencius'  vision looked beyond the surface.

"Look at that barren mountain outside of town," he said. "Once it was covered with trees and with grass. But people cut the trees and their animals ate the grass. Every night the life-giving force would move producing new sprouts and reviving the plants. But the next day would bring more cutting and more grazing, until finally the life giving force could not keep up, and the mountain became bare. People think it has always been like that, but that is not so." Mencius then went on to apply this to the human case. "People are like this. Everyday they get bent out of shape and depleted by difficult social interactions. When they sleep at night, the life-giving force restores them, so at early dawn they are almost human again. But the next day brings more bending and depletion, until finally they cannot recover. They may seem evil, but that is not their original nature."[1]

This is a powerful story, in part because each of us can easily recognize ourselves and our children in it. We are not evil. But we do get bent out of shape. It has also been exceptionally powerful historically, for it captured essential elements of a developing world view and gave them a shape that carried forward mightily for over two thousand years. Mencius told this story to make a point about human beings, and this eventually became the well-known Confucian doctrine of our good ponsŏng, our "original nature." But equally important, it tells us what to think about the universe: the universe gives life. Unbalanced activity--over-cutting trees, over-grazing grass, over-stressed human interactions--can tilt the slope towards death and destruction, but that is not the deep way of things. The story thus established an original nature for the universe as well as an original for humans. In fact, our original nature is what it is only because it continues, in a human manifestation, the original nature of the entire world of nature.

Mencius himself made this connection in his second great story.  To elucidate the dispositions in the depth of our mind-heart, he told his story of the child about to fall into the well. "Who," he asks, "will not feel alarm and an urge to save a small child about to fall into a well?" This life-giving impulse reveals our deepest nature, even though it can be blocked and distorted in many ways before we act on it. Mencius described it as commiseration, the beginning of humanity (in).[2] Mencius also described in, the core Confucian idea of goodness, as "what it means to be human."[3] The Chinese character for in, itself a combination of the characters for "human" and for "two", supports Mencius definition from a typically Confucian point of view: properly relating to other human beings both makes us human and manifests our humanity.       

Mencius went on to fill out his account of human nature, not only in terms of life-giving commiseration, the beginning of humanity, but in terms of other qualities of great importance to Confucians. We have, he observed, three other deep, inborn dispositions: a sense of modesty and deference, a sense of shame and dislike for evil, and a sense of approving and disapproving right and wrong. Each of these is the beginning of fundmental human qualities, namely propriety, righteousness, and wisdom.[4]

The "four beginnings" (sa tan) Mencius cited as the full description of human nature might have easily lost contact with the wonderful barren mountain story. It would have been easy at this point for this origin story to become totally anthropocentric, totally caught up in the affairs and relationships of human society, to originate human beings in their own unique world of human culture.  But in spite of the human and social focus that is typical of the Confucian tradition, the story continued to unfold in a way that emphasizes the systemic human-universe connection.

Mencius' urgent question was about whether humans on the deepest level are good, and he answered in terms of our life-giving disposition, in.  After the great unification of the Chinese empire, Han dynasty thinkers sought to understand the harmonious unity of all things. Their question was how to formulate a government that reflected and worked in harmony with cosmic forces. Their answer was to combine Mencius' origin story with the Book of Changes. The classic Book of Changes describes the first hexagram, Heaven, with four characters: origination, flourishing, benefitting, and firmness. This description of the fundamental character of the universe was taken as a reference to the natural world's most basic process, the cycle of the four seasons. In spring the life force begins to move and originate a new cycle of life and growth; in summer life grows and flourishes; in autumn there is harvest and all life is benefited and sustained; in winter, crops are stored firmly and securely, and the life force likewise is stored in the frozen earth.

The Book of Changes here presents an origin story of the four seasons, told, like Mencius story' of the barren mountain, in terms of the life-giving process of the universe. Han dynasty thinkers saw the deep parallel and brought the two stories together. They drew a correspondence between the four seasons and the four aspects Mencius had described in human nature. Then they elaborated government protocol and ritual so that each season would reflect and emphasize the appropriate correlated aspect of human nature. Spring,  in the cycle of seasons, and in, in human nature, manifest the most fundamental nature of  the cosmos and of humans.  The life force of spring runs throughout all the other seasons; the life-giving of humanity runs throughout all the qualities of human excellence.

Sung dynasty Neo-Confucian (sŏngnihak) thinkers returned to this origin story with a new question. After centuries of Buddhist predominance, they sought a deeper understanding of the inner life of the mind-heart. The center of the question had shifted from the government and court to the deep cultivation of the individual's mind-heart. Could Confucians match the depths of Buddhist cultivation practice?

So sŏngnihak investigated the origin story from Mencius and from the Book of Changes to understand how the forces of the universe animate and are manifested in the life of human consciousness. Chang Tsai in the Western Inscription (Sŏmyŏng) spoke of Heaven and Earth (i.e. the universe) as our father and mother: our physical bodies and our natures are an extension of their physical body and their nature. Ch''eng Hao speaks of all things in the universe being as a single body; he describes lack of in as paralysis, cutting off the connection of the vital flow of life through the members of this single body.[5] Chu Hsi prefers a related image, that of a single circulatory system of veins running through everything; lack of in is like a blockage in the bloodflow.[6]

Along with these images of our connected unity with the universe, it became common to speak of the universe in ways that easily transfer to the human mind-heart. Sŏngnihak thinkers were thus attracted to the language of the Book of Changes, where it says of the pok hexagram, which means "return" and represents spring, "In pok we see the mind-heart of Heaven and Earth."[7] Mind-heart here does not mean to attribute consciousness to the universe; that interpretation is explicitly rejected by Chu Hsi. Rather it represents what the Book of changes  in another famous passage describes as the "tae tŏk," the fundamental character or disposition of the universe, to produce and give life (saeng-saeng).[8]  And now there is readiness to speak of this quality of the universe itself as in, "humanity." As Chu Hsi says, "Humanity is the mind-heart of Heaven and Earth whereby the produce and give life to generate creatures, and this is what man receives as his own mind-heart."[9]

The origin story is thus developed here in a way to  show how cultivating our mind-heart can unite us with the vital flow of life in the universe.  This describes the perfection of the mind-heart, the goal of all self-cultivation. But then, how can one describe the problem? What separates or cuts us off from the vital flow of life in the first place? Mencius spoke only of negative social experiences, but sŏngnihak needs a deeper explanation. Chu Hsi reflects a new direction that pays attention to the dynamic life of the flow of feelings in our mind-heart. He says, "Therefore those who can bear seeing others suffer and are without commiseration are just blocked up by selfishness and have not yet recognized the principle of their mind that runs through the self, Heaven and Earth, and all creatures. Thus the essence of seeking humanity is simply a matter of not losing one's original mind (ponsim)."[10]

So something in our mind-hearts includes concern for "Heaven and Earth, and all creatures," and something obstructs that concern and blocks it up. Selfishness locks our concern into our small individuality, so it cannot flow into the great whole to which we belong. Sŏngnihak thinkers deeply pondered this situation. The result was a system of thought that tended to use pairs of contrasting concepts. One side of the pair reflected mainly the ideal of holistic unity and the single flow of life. These were concepts such as the Supreme Ultimate (T'aeguk), principle (i), original nature (ponsŏng), and mind-heart of the tao(tosim). The other side of the pair reflected mainly our physicality, and hence the individual separateness that could easily lead us astray into selfishness. These were concepts such as material force (ki), material nature (kijil sŏng), and human mind-heart (insim).

The origin story that highlights the life-giving force flowing through all things is naturally holistic. But even if society and the whole natural world form one great interdependent system, the system is made up of physically distinct individual units. Ideally the individual would harmonize "naturally" with the whole. But with individual distinctness, there is always the possibility of the individual putting its own interests first. Due to its central concern for self-cultivation, sŏngnihak thinkers developed Mencius' story into a philosophy that pondered the systematic reality of and the tension between holism and individual existence.  They often explained that Mencius, in his situation, had need to concentrate mainly on the holistic side of things, the "good" feelings of the original nature that are in unified flow with the mind-heart of Heaven and Earth. But for self-cultivation it was also necessary to pay careful attention to the potential problems of individuality as well. 

Sŏngnihak concern for the tension between holism and individuals  is reflected in attitudes and discussions regarding human feelings. The movement of the feelings in response to situations is the concrete, real manifestation of the deepest dispositions of our nature. Just as our nature reflects both our connectedness with all things (our ponsŏng) and our individuality (our kijilsŏng), we can see the same aspects in our actual feelings. The famous "four beginnings" discussed by Mencius and paired with the life-giving process of the four seasons by Han Confucians were clearly holistic in scope and function, as we have seen in our discussion of humanity. The classic Book of Rites presented another classic list of feelings, the so-called  "seven feelings": desire, hate, love, fear, grief, anger, and joy.[11] Clearly these could overlap with the feelings discussed by Mencius. But while Mencius' formulation clearly regarded the holistic side, the seven feelings could also easily operate in an individual-centered way. Thus to the i/ki, tosim/insim, ponsŏng/kijil sŏng pairs, sŏngnihak added a pair of feelings, the Four Beginnings (sa tan) and Seven Feelings (chil chŏng).

So in response to the sŏngnihak concern for cultivation of the mind-heart, our origin story has clarified two facets of existence. 1) The life force that moves among us includes us all in an interdependent life system: no creatures can live alone. This is evidenced in the fundamental force of our feelings, which reach out in concern for other beings. 2) The carriers of the life force are physical individuals who stay alive as individuals and perish as individuals. This also is reflected in our fundamental feelings and reactions. So we lead common, interdependent lives, but we are each alive individually. Each aspect of this situation has a role in the origination of the feelings with which we respond to the myriad events and situations of life. And because the feelings guide our way of responding, sŏngnihak regards them as the most important force in human behavior.  

Mencius' origin story laid the foundation for understanding our common shared life and the feelings that join us appropriately with all creatures. Later thinkers filled out this story with a solid account of individuality. Individuality was not regarded as evil, but it was considered the aspect of existence that easily led to blocking up our proper connection with other creatures; this "selfishness" is the origin of evil. Ideally feelings should do full justice to both these dimensions of our existence. 

So the sŏngnihak version of the origin story here takes a form that raises awareness regarding the kinds of feelings that animate the life of our mind-hearts. It is well known that Korean Neo-Confucians developed this level of the Confucian origin story with unmatched care and sophistication. I am speaking, of course, of the famous Four-Seven debate (sa-ch'illon). T'oegye and Yulgok are the most prominent names in this controversy, but the question is so compelling that it is taken up and argued anew by each generation who think seriously about these things.

The question is about community, individuality, and the origination of our feelings. T'oegye and Yulgok discussed it in terms of i and ki, the philosophical concepts Neo-Confucians used to account for the communal and individual sides of existence.

There is only one existence, and it is both communal and individual, both i and ki, both shared and separate. How then do these two aspects of our reality function in the arising of our feelings? Are both sides always included in the same way? Are there some feelings, such as those spoken of by Mencius, that originate in a special way in the commonality of our existence, even though our individual mind-heart is the vehicle of their manifestation?

The concepts of i and ki gave thinkers such as T'oegye and Yulgok subtle conceptual tools to argue this question with great precision and sophistication. What they achieved is one of the great discussions of the origins and scope of the life of our mind-heart. T'oegye's effort above all was to explicate how the communal, interconnected aspect of our reality, i, could be a primary activating source in the movement of our feelings.  He wanted to explain how that connection was so powerful it could mobilize feelings that strongly led beyond our separateness and individuality: i bal i ki su ji. I am not sure T'oegye was correct, but I hope so. The fate of the earth may now hinge on whether something like what he was trying to explain is indeed true.

This brings us to our own times and our urgent questions, and the meaning of Confucian origin stories in the light of our kind of questions.  I would like to conclude by reflecting on the contemporary meaning and importance of these origin stories, both as told by Mencius and by later Confucians, and especially as developed in Korea.

Without meaning to, Mencius told a great environmental story of origins more than two-thousand years before there was any such concept as "the environment." He told of the life-force of an eco-system, and he used the way human beings defeat and overcome that life-giving force as his model for why we find it hard to see and activate the life-givingness within ourselves. Too much tree-cutting, too much grazing, and life can no longer revive. These are short-sighted and overly self-centered economic activities. Maybe such short-sighted and overly self-centered economic activities are also the way we distort our own life-giving nature as we interact within the human community as well. Mencius' origin story, without modification, is almost too easy to apply to modern life.

And Mencius' second story, the baby falling into the well, hits home as well. We are indeed alarmed and distressed to see human babies falling into the well of death in impoverished nations. And we are increasingly distressed likewise to see the babies of our fellow creatures perish in the wave of extinction that accompanies our modern way of life. Mencius was right about our feelings.

If we are living Mencius' story of the barren mountain, and if our mind-heart is experiencing the alarm of seeing innocent life destroyed, it might have something to do with our own modern origin story. In the 18th century, the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, gave us that story in his book, The Wealth of Nations.  He explained how wealth and well-being could originate from each individual seeking to maximize their own profit. The "invisible hand" of the market would coordinate this individual, self-seeking activity so that it would give life to the whole community. This story leaves modern people with the notion that human nature, on its deepest level, is self-centered. But as we go about giving life to ourselves by economic activity, self-centeredness is no problem, because the market transforms this into a force that takes care of the community. In this respect, the market functions somewhat like Mencius' life-giving force--except the market produces wealth for humans, not life for all. 

The difference between the kind of story Adam Smith tells and the one Mencius tells has become critical. Adam Smith's story of the origination of well-being looks only at human society. It does not make us at home on the earth, nor does it join us with our fellow living creatures. Rather it makes the human community into an invading army: we are here to control everything for our interest, and to carry off the wealth. And so the economy does its accounting like the economics of an invading army. It counts only costs to the invaders and ignores costs to other forms of life and to the air, water, and soil that the invaders take over. That is why market forces drain life from the larger community of living beings even as they produce wealth for some members of the human community.

Thus the great and urgent question of our times has become sustainability: how long can this system continue? How can we change it, so we will be at home on the earth, and so that the earth will continue to be the source of life for us and other creatures? All answers to this question now agree on one point: human economic practice must take into serious account the well-being of all life. We now understand clearly that life and the whole earth is a single interconnected system. But through our self-centered economics, we are blocking the proper flow of life-giving forces through this system.

The sŏngnihak version of the origin story exactly depicts this situation: we exist in a single interconnected system of life, and it gets blocked up, even paralyzed, when we take care of our physically separate individual well-being as the primary thing. Glossing this with the myth of the invisible hand of the market fatally flaws Adam Smith's story. Even as the market myth seems at the height of worldwide triumph, disillusion and doubt are widespread. Riots in the streets accompany the WTO wherever it meets.  People know free market profit maximizing will not allow life to flow through the earth, and they doubt whether it will even provide for short-term life flow through the human community. The protest is from concern both for ourselves and for the whole community of the earth. Mencius and sŏngnihak were right about our original nature (ponsŏng). More than any time in the past, there is now direct evidence the deep feelings of our mind-heart reach out beyond the individual self, beyond the human family, to be concerned with and foster the life of the whole to which we belong.

But are these feelings strong enough? Self-interest seems to have become systematized economically as the strongest force on earth. We can see many ways we could change so that the situation would not be either/or, the environment or the economy. But we seem paralyzed by self-interest. Those who assume self-interest is the deepest force in human nature despair. They say we will change only when it is absolutely clear we must change for our own self-interest. And by then it will be too late.

This is the second great question of our time: will we be able to change? Can our feelings of connection and concern for other creatures be strong enough? Can those feelings be mobilized with enough power and independence from our self-centered economic system to actually modify that system? I bal or ki bal? T'oegye and Yulgok debated this question when it was only a matter of understanding the feelings and potentials of individuals. Now it has become a critical question of the potential of an entire society and a worldwide culture.

Present day scholars are fascinated with this question. Many begin with self-interest and desperately seek to derive from it altruism. Others hope for some evolution of conscious to a whole new "ecozooic," life-centered mode. The sŏngnihak model is  more exact: it has found a way to insist on both the communal connection and the individuality.  How much is the life of our feelings shaped and controlled by the concrete, immediate conditions, the kijil of our system? Can the connectedness of our reality itself be a strong source of feeling--strong enough to motivate change in a short-sighted and self centered system?    

Now, in our century, perhaps in our lifetimes, we will witness a historical answer to the Four-Seven debate. Yulgok's ki bal certainly includes the communal (i) dimension, and so is not tilted to self-interest in the manner of much modern thought. But T'oegye's i bal explicates how the communal dimension can have its own particular force in the combined communal-individual reality of the life of our mind-heart. If ever there was a desperate  situation that could evoke what T'oegye described as i moving the feelings and ki going along with it, (i bal i ki su ji) this is it. The connected life of the earth must move in our feelings and the material concerns of our economy must conform with those feelings and be transformed by them. 

Will this happen? I do not know, but I have some hope. I have that hope because I have learned from Confucian origin stories how to understand the real, dynamic, life-giving connectedness of reality. And I have learned from Korean sŏngnihak, and especially from Yi T'oegye, to think about how that connectedness functions in the life of our human mind-heart. We might indeed finally follow our deepest instinct, our instinct to  nurture life. 

[1]Paraphrase of Mencius 6A, 8.


Mencius 2A, 6.


Mencius 1B, 15.


Mencius, 6A6


I-shu, 2A.2a.


Yü-lei, 95.8b9a.


Book of Changes, Hexagram no. 24.


Book of Changes, Appended Remarks, pt. 2, ch. 1.


Yü-lei, 105.71a.


Yü-lei, 95.8b9a.


Book of Rites, ch. 9.