Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning


The Ten Diagrams is T'oegye's last great work, and of all his writings it has perhaps been the best known and most popular. It went through some twenty‑nine printings during the Yi dynasty, and now circulates in at least three modern Korean translations. Generally regarded as expressing the essence of T'oegye's learning, it is at once profound and fundamental. Generations of students have appreciated the clarity with which this brief work presents the essential framework and basic linkages of Neo‑Confucian metaphysics, psychological the­ory, and ascetical practice. Mature scholars returned to it continually for the subtlety, balance, and soundness of this integral presentation of the vision by which they lived.

This is indeed a summation of what T'oegye thought it essential to understand. He composed it in 1568 to leave behind with the young King Sŏnjo as he retired. Worn out and ill, he could not continue to instruct the king, and the Ten Diagrams was his substitute for the teaching he could no longer offer in person. Its composition was by no means an erudite research project, though it expresses the learning of a lifetime. The old teacher carefully arranged and ordered materials he had long used in his teaching and personal life, weaving them together to encompass the scope of a learning by then self‑evident to him.

"Sage Learning" is a term frequently used in a genre of Neo­Confucian literature designed for the instruction of rulers. Its usage reflects the particular duty of the ruler to learn from and model himself after the ideal sage rulers of the past. The circumstances of its origin clearly place the Ten Diagrams within this provenance. This fact is somewhat misleading, however, for as T'oegye himself says, when it comes to questions of learning and self‑cultivation, there is no essential difference between the ruler and everyman. The king needs particular kinds of knowledge to govern, but Confucians traditionally considered the essential learning for all government to be the cultivation of oneself as a full and proper human being, and it is to this that the Ten Diagrams is addressed.

While it belongs to the learning of rulers, "sage learning" also had a particular place in the new kind of learning developed by Neo­Confucians. In a famous passage in his T'ung‑shu (a chapter itself entitled "Sage Learning") Chou Tun‑i put the question, "Can one learn to become a sage?" He answered with a resounding "Yes!" and set out to explain how. This reflects a new and important development. Traditionally Confucians had affirmed that any man could become a sage, but had let it remain a theoretical ideal. Now they elaborated a metaphysical, psychological, and ascetical framework that showed the path to sagehood, making this lofty ideal as realistic and immediate as was enlightenment for the Buddhist. The term "sage learning" in T'oegye's title signifies his intent to present that framework and path.

The Ten Diagrams is an extremely compressed work, more a distillation of the essential elements of the Ch'eng‑Chu vision than an exposition of them. The commentary that accompanies this trans­lation (i.e. To Become a Sage) draws heavily on T'oegye's more expository writings to fill in the background modern readers will need. The format of the Ten Diagrams is ten sections or chapters. Each begins with a diagram and related text drawn from Chu Hsi or other leading authorities, and concludes with a few brief remarks by T'oegye. The brevity is in part due to his intention that it be made into a ten‑paneled standing screen as well as a short book.

The brief format and the idea of presenting it on a screen are closely related to the purpose of the Ten Diagrams. It is intended for repeated reading and reflection. In moments of leisure the eye could play over the screen and the mind be gently but constantly engaged with its contents, so that one might finally totally assimilate this material and make it a part of himself.

T'oegye sees the structure of the Ten Diagrams in several ways. Basically it is split down the middle: the first five chapters present the essential framework, "based on the Tao of Heaven," as he says. They include a description of the universe (metaphysics), society (ethics), and their import for human life (learning). The remaining five chapters deal directly with self‑cultivation, the "learning of the mind‑and­-heart." They begin with an analysis and characterization of man's inner life (psychology) and conclude with concrete practice (ascetical theory).36 Or from a slightly different perspective, the chapters on learning are the core of the whole work; the first two chapters present the great foundation which must be properly understood and the later chapters detail the fruition of learning in the actual process of self­cultivation.37 This perspective brings out the underlying unity of the two halves of the Ten Diagrams, in which intellectual considerations and moral practice are the interdependent and dialectically related facets of the single process of self, transformation called learning. T'oegye makes a special point of this in his remarks presenting the Ten Diagrams to King Sŏnjo.


See also:

Sources and Arrangement of Ten Diagrams


Chinese text