The spiritual traditions of the world are addressing the question of ecology. The current literature on religion and ecology presents several aspects of the Confucian contribution. In this section, I first explore how scholars in the West have developed Confucian ecological perspectives. The second and final sections continue with T’oegye’s thought in order to articulate Korean Neo-Confucian and global perspectives.
A major challenge for today’s world is how to deal with the ecological crisis. Our earth is suffering from unprecedented assaults, such as polluted water, species extinction, increasing air pollution, unnatural climate change, massive oil leakage to ocean water, nuclear radiation exposure, and so on. These environmental problems are fuelled by materialism, unlimited industrialization, technological manipulation, unrestricted urbanization, etc., especially in those societies influenced by the modern West. As a result, the human-earth relationship is significantly threatened. This problem is also related to the old belief that nature is a material thing to be mastered by humankind for the glory of God.
The first major conference on Confucianism and Ecology was held at Harvard University in 1996 (May 30–June 1). This was one of The Religions of the World and Ecology Conference series hosted by the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions over a three-year period (1996–98). It was fully agreed that the modern ecological crisis requires a fresh review of Confucianism which is essentially a nature-friendly tradition; other groups at this conference series including Taoist and Buddhist groups arrived at similar conclusions.2 Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-editors of the Harvard Religions of the World and Ecology book series, pointed out that all religions including Confucianism are encouraged to contribute to global ecological awareness and environmental ethics by exploring divine-human-earth relations in a comprehensive way (1998:xxiv).
No doubt, today’s world is considering various aspects of ecology: e.g., personal, social, scientific, political, ethical, religious, environmental, and so on. In particular, “the essential function of our belief systems” influences certain ways of perceiving ourselves with a growing “ecological awareness” (Bergmann and Eaton 2011, a new interdisciplinary study of ecological awareness). Modern Confucians are interested in connecting nature, philosophy, and religion; Tu Weiming, Tucker, and others were instrumental in establishing the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) which became affiliated with the Center for Religion and Ecology at Yale. In their introduction to
Tu led the initial discussion of a Confucian ecology in his article “The Continuity of Being: Chinese Visions of Nature” (1985a, 1998). Confucian self-cultivation has an ecological dimension that relates the natural and moral character of the self to Heaven and Earth. As Tu said during his keynote speech at the 2011 Keimyung International Conference on Ecology and Korean Confucianism, the
In the opening lines of the famous
In other words, the true human being is best understood in terms of the network of connections between the self and the universe. The contemporary significance of Chang’s cosmology may be an ecological view of the “anthropocosmic self” (Tu 1989, 1998): human beings form a triad with Heaven and earth that underlies our interconnectedness to all reality. Chang’s
Tucker (1991, 1998) pointed out that self-cultivation enables Confucians to participate in “an anthropocosmic worldview.” The reciprocal unity between the microcosm of the self and the macrocosm of the universe also reveals an ecological interest as manifested in cosmological orientation and moral-spiritual practice. Confucian ecology as a whole therefore covers a good range of philosophical and spiritual resources in the tradition for discussing human-earth relations. As Tucker and Berthrong wrote, “Its (Confucian) organic holism and dynamic vitalism give us a special appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life-forms” (1998:xxxviii). In other words, contemporary Confucians have begun to articulate this holistic, moral-spiritual view in relation to the doctrine of selfcultivation. Neo-Confucianism in particular is said to be suitable for developing an environmental ethics. In the next sections, I discuss a related topic by focusing on T’oegye’s thought and experience.
From a contemporary perspective, the goal of saving the earth requires a “collective green shift” with an international religious intensity. Some scholars like Kearns and Keller (2007) have dealt with “Eco-Spirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth” by discussing traditional beliefs and contemporary practices and issues: for example, “a garden of green doctrines, rituals, and liturgies” is desired for new thinking and acting. In the Confucian context, nature is an area of pursuing the goals of self-cultivation. This task is therefore described as attaining the harmonious unity of Heaven, Earth, and human beings; for contemporary Confucians, it is not just a teaching about the unity of the universe, but may also be a call for environmental actions. As Berthrong has commented, “…selfcultivation must be expanded to embrace...a sustainable and balanced ecosystem” (1998:257).
Korean Confucianism is potentially capable of playing an active role in global dialogue on religion, ethics, and ecology, but I think that it should first learn how to address new issues beyond its own traditions. In the following section, I discuss a Korean Neo-Confucian ecological vision out of T’oegye’s experience and insights.
1The current literature on T’oegye and Korean Neo-Confucianism includes the following: Kalton 1988; Keum 1998a (translated from Korean); Yun Sa-soon 1991 (translated from Korean); Chung 1995, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2011; and articles by Tu Wei-ming (1985b), Chan (1985), de Bary and Kim Haboush (1985), Yun (1985), etc. See also Korean language works by Keum (1998b) and others, as well as Japanese works such as Abe Yoshio 1965. 2See Girardot, Miller, and Liu 2001 (Taoism and Ecology) as well as Tucker and Williams 1998 (Buddhism and Ecology), both of which belong to the Religions of the World and Ecology book series by the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions.
We need to consider what aspects of T’oegye’s religious thought are suitable for articulating Confucian ecology.3 This section of my paper presents T’oegye’s biography and nature poems, especially those covering his interpretation of selfcultivation and its ecological implications. His major writings include
Sung Chinese Neo-Confucians––such as Chou Tun-yi (周敦頤, 1017–1073), Chang Tsai, the Ch’eng brothers, and Chu Hsi (朱熹, 1130–1200)––all took nature seriously indeed. They saw the universe as a unitary structure in harmony with human existence. For example, Ch’eng I (程頤, 1033–1107) said that the person of
In T’oegye’s view, the true human being manifests the idea of “forming one body with the universe” by accomplishing the highest stage of self-cultivation as an embodiment of Heaven and Earth. As taught in the
T’oegye frequently mentioned Heaven’s Principle (
Here T’oegye’s philosophy of principle (
According to T’oegye, Heaven’s Principle is to be experienced as the ultimate truth of humanity in self-cultivation. His
Accordingly, T’oegye’s spirituality of reverence (
As recommended in T’oegye’s Four-Seven thesis as well, this means to harmonize daily feelings, desires, and thoughts. The term
For T’oegye, reverence is absolutely “the master of one, united mind-heart” (
For T’oegye, harmonizing the self with nature is a way of cultivation involving reverence. We may call this “the reverential self,” which becomes important for Confucian ecological thinking. In “The Relevance of Chinese Neo-Confucianism for the Reverence of Nature,” Tucker (1991) explained the Neo-Confucian way of “envisioning the universe as interconnected and interpenetrating.” For T’oegye, this would mean that the true human being is not merely a physical and rational self, but also a self-transforming person who harmonizes the transcendent and immanent realities of human existence. This defines us in cosmological and spiritual terms as well: uniting the cultivated self with the natural world.20 In other words, the search for our ultimate being follows reverence (
Commenting on ecology and T’oegye’s thought, Lee Dong-hee said that we may see T’oegye’s notion of reverence “as a religious matter of self-cultivation” together with its “cosmological aspect” integrating the unity of human beings and nature (2011:120).22 T’oegye’s ethics and spiritual practice resonate with our contemporary views of Confucian ecology. As Tu pointed out, Confucian thought is a “comprehensive, spiritual humanism” because its self-cultivation remains “naturalistic and a spiritual project” (2011:18); this view is indeed compatible with T’oegye’s case. As I emphasized above, a
Like some other great Neo-Confucians of the past, T’oegye often withdrew from his public career to a private scholarly life in his beloved home in T’ogye (Andong, Kyŏngsang province). He actually liked such a life in the countryside; his biography and letters indicate that retiring to his home and the Tosan Academy during his later years (fifties and sixties) really inspired him to advance his study and writing and, more important, to intensively practice self-cultivation. This also enabled his love of nature and informs us about his poetry and aesthetic experience.
T’oegye enjoyed composing poems, many of which were done during his retreat or retirement years. He composed over 2,300 poems, including the famous
For example, T’oegye composed a short poem when he was fifty years old in 1550. He entitled this poem “T’oegye” (退溪):
This poem is about returning (
Some of T’oegye’s poems are about self-reflection on the unifying principle (
In my view, T’oegye integrated contemplation and
T’oegye’s nature poetry is closely connected to Neo-Confucian ethics and his spirituality. It may also represent a deeper spiritual and aesthetic dimension of Chu Hsi’s thought. Furthermore, I note that the ecological implication of T’oegye’s experience is noteworthy; it is compatible with, for example, a new study by Bergmann and Eaton (2011) which presents ecological awareness integrating “religion, ethics, and aesthetics.” What we learn from T’oegye’s poetry is: his aesthetic experience of intimacy with nature resulted from his dedicated and solemn effort at self-cultivation.
In the concluding section, I suggest that this will contribute to our development of a Confucian ecology, so as to benefit Korea and the world community in their shared quest for a sustainable green future.
3Books on the religious dimension of Chinese Confucianism include: Berthrong 1994; Ching 1977, 1997, 2000; Lee 1992; Neville 2000; Taylor 1991; Tu 1989; and Tu and Tucker 2004. For the Korean case, see Kalton 1988; Ro 1989; Chung (as indicated in note 1). 4Consult Kalton 1988 for a full English translation of T’oegye’s Sŏnghak sipto. The “Four-Seven letters” are another magnificent source of T’oegye’s thought, which presents a sophisticated Neo-Confucian discourse on the mind, human nature, and feelings, as well as its implication for ethics and spirituality; for details, see Chung 1995, 2004. 5For this subject in English, see de Bary 1981; Chan 1963, 1967; Gardner 1990; and Chung 1995. 6TC 7:29a (v. 1, 208). See also Kalton 1988:160–64. Also cited in Letter to Yi Pyŏngsuk, TC 37:28b (v. 2, 259). 7Four-Seven Letter, TC 16:12a (v. 1, 407). 8In short, li is the metaphysical “ground of being” present in each thing in its fullness of truth and goodness, whereas ch’i refers to the active physical energy that actually brings each phenomenon into concrete particular existence, resulting in good or evil. Li also means the omnipresent ground of being present in each phenomenon. By contrast, ch’i means vital energy, or “material force,” which is thought to be the actual physical agent that brings everything into concrete existence; it determines the individuality and transformation of phenomena that may lead to either good or evil. For Chu Hsi’s philosophy of li and ch’i, see Chan 1967, 1986 and other relevant sources. 9Sŏnghak sipto, TC 7:29a (v. 1, 208). As I have discussed elsewhere (Chung 2004, 2010), T’oegye’s ethics and spirituality offers what Julia Ching calls a religious “model of self-transcendence” in the Confucian tradition (1977:10, 1993). 10In his Simhak to, the eighth of his Sŏnghak sipto, TC 7:29a (v. 1, 208), T’oegye gave a major interpretation of Chu Hsi’s doctrine on the “human mind” and the “moral mind.” The Hsin-ching (Classic of the mind-heart) by Chen Tu-hsiu (1178–1235), Chu Hsi’s leading follower in late Sung China, also influenced T’oegye’s practice of mind cultivation and his religious thought. 11See T’oegye’s Four-Seven letters, TC 16:11a (v. 1, 407) and 7:24b (v. 1, 205), as well as his letter to Yi Koengjung, TC 36:2b (v. 2, 226). See also The Doctrine of the Mean, chap. 1. 12T’oegye’s biography, Ŏnhaeng rok (Collected record of T’oegye’s words and acts), 1:16b and 1:23a; TC, v. 4, 176 and 180. See also Ch’ŏnmyŏng tosŏl(天命圖說 Diagrammatic treatise on Heaven’s Mandate), TC, vol. 3, p. 144. T’oegye emphasized quite-sitting, although it alone was not the primary choice of the Chu Hsi school. It occupied a prominent position among certain Ming Neo-Confucians such as Wang Yang-ming (王陽明 1472–1529), as discussed by Taylor 1991 and 1988:140–144. 13According to the Book of Changes, “The authentic person applies reverence in order to straighten the inner life and righteousness in order to square the outer life” (cf. J. Legge, trans. Yi King, 426 and Chan 1963:264). The Book of Rites states: “The authentic person never lacks reverence” (see Legge, trans. Li Ki, v. 1, 61). And Confucius emphasized: “Be reverent in handling all affairs” (Analects, 13:19; Lau 1970:121). 14Chu Hsi also said that “one must do mind cultivation with reverence.” See Chu Tzu yü-lei [Classified conversations of Master Chu Hsi] 95:41a, 96:2b. Furthermore, Ch’eng Hao (程顥 1032–1085) said: “Reverence simply means a way of managing oneself ” (I-shu [Surviving works], 18:19a; Chan 1963:560); when one lacks it, “thousands of selfish desires arise to injure one’s humanity” (I-shu, 15:9a). As Ch’eng I also said, “self-cultivation requires reverence” (I-shu, 18:5b). 15TC, v. 3, 144. 16Ŏnhaeng nok, 1:16a; TC, v. 4, 176. 17See Simhak to, the eighth diagram of Sŏnghak sipto, TC 7:29a (v. 1, 208). See also Kalton 1988:160–164. 18Introduction to the Sŏnghak sipto, TC 7:9a (v. 1, 198). See also Kyŏngje kam (Diagrammatic essay on kyŏng), Sŏnghak sipto, TC 7:31a–b (v. 1, 209). 19Prof. Keum also explained in Korean that T’oegye assimilated the classical notion of “revering Heaven” (kyŏngch’ŏn 敬天) with the Neo-Confucian doctrine of Heaven’s Principle (Keum 1998b:181–183). This is said to be an important part of T’oegye’s philosophy. 20In this regard, I am indebted to Tu Weiming, who also said that: “The sense of awe and reverence before the universe is prompted by our aspiration to respond to the ultimate reality that makes our life purposeful and meaningful” (2004:498). 21TC v. 4, 209. 22In this regard, I can quote Lee’s comment that it is necessary to develop the Confucian ecological view consisting of a “cosmological religious awareness,” and Korean Confucian thinkers may seek out “a way to revive its cosmological religious awareness for ecological protection actions” (Lee 2011:123). 23Korean scholars’ research areas are associated with general poetry studies, Neo-Confucian poetry, traditional Korean poetry, comparative poetry and literature, etc. They basically agree that T’oegye’s works may be grouped into several kinds: nature poems, self-cultivation poems, historyreflection poems, doctrine-explanatory poems, journey poems, mourning ritual poems, societyrelated poems, etc. For this topic, consult Korean sources especially Kwŏn 1992, Yi and Chang 2007, Kim 2009. 24See T’oegye sŏnsaeng munjip (Collected literary works by Master T’oegye), 1:47. 25T’oegye sŏnsaeng munjip, 1:28. Each Tongam poem consists of eight lines, each of which has seven Chinese characters (hancha). I also note that the term gye used in this poem is identical to the second character of his pen name, T’oegye (退溪), and the first character t’oe (退) is also relevant here because of its meaning, “to retire/withdraw/return.” Furthermore, examples of natural beauties and living beings used in his poetry include: mountain hills and rocks, rivers and streams, green fields and farmers, trees and blossoming flowers, moving clouds, spring sunlight, morning fog, flying or singing birds, moonlight, small sand islands in rivers, garden ponds, swimming fishes, and so on. The aesthetic-ecological implication of these examples is worthy of our consideration. 26T’oegye sŏnsaeng munjip, 3:4. Each poem in the Imgŏ siboyŏn has four lines, each consisting of seven Chinese characters. 27From a similar angle, Tu’s latest view could be helpful here: Korean Confucianism emphasizes “human sensitivity” to be “aesthetically significant” and how this relates the naturalistic world to one’s “self-cultivation and self-understanding” (Tu 2011:21–22). 28I suggest that T’oegye did so to a greater degree than Chu Hsi did. The former put more emphasis on the self-cultivation part of Chu’s philosophy of li in such a way. As I discussed elsewhere (Chung 2009, 2010), T’oegye developed a spirituality of reverence establishing a Confucian role model for it, probably for the first time in East Asia. In other words, T’oegye advanced his philosophy assimilating it with his aesthetic experience of nature-humanity harmony. Liu (2009:329) pointed out, in his article on the spiritual foundation of T’oegye’s poetry, that: “The high quality of T’oegye’s poetry resulted from his spiritual practice of reverence. Accordingly, the study of T’oegye’s thought may be contributed actively by our recognition of his understanding and cultivation of reverence.”
Today’s Confucian intellectuals discuss ecology by covering Confucian resources drawn from the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or international traditions. They may preserve the best of Confucian ideas, and “advance it into a new area of contemporary concern for nature and environmental ethics” (Berthrong 1998:237–239). I also note that we need to continue interreligious dialogue. In his
I suggest that those of us Confucian intellectuals in the West and those at Korean or other East Asian universities or Confucian organizations can work together in order to develop a well-integrated framework that can handle the ongoing ecological issues. This framework would be Confucian yet pluralistic, but it also has to collaborate with global science, economy, and political leadership that are
To T’oegye, self-cultivation is a way of wisdom uniting the person of reverence with the natural world. This resonates well with our discussion of modern Confucianism and ecology. The
As a living tradition, Confucianism has to deal with the new ecological crisis as a matter of ethical principle and socio-political action as well. Can the Korean tradition become a major contributor to global dialogue on this matter? My answer is cautiously yes. I say so partly because Confucian leadership in South Korea has been rather quiet about the ecological problem or their potential contribution to confronting it. As Lee Dong-hee pointed out, Confucianism in Korea is not actively interested in any public movements for protecting the earth, so “ecological awareness is stronger among Buddhists and Christians in Korea” than Confucians (2011:123).30 Korean Confucian leaders and organizations need to play active roles in discussing the environmental problem and Confucian ecological ideas nationally or globally. Hopefully, T’oegye’s ecological awareness will inspire them, so that they can promote reverential attitudes toward nature and new ecological values.
I am envisioning a modern Neo-Confucian ecological perspective on the basis of T’oegye’s experience and insights. I applaud T’oegye for his reverence for nature as well as his holistic vision for human-ecological harmony, which may help Korean Confucianism to strengthen its modern ecological thought; this is potentially an important message for the global enterprise of religion, philosophy, and ecology. In this regard, we may also look forward to the development of what I call a “green Confucianism” that will protect the earth and preserve the healthy future of the world.
To conclude, T’oegye’s thought is a leading legacy of Korean philosophy and spirituality, as well as a highly interconnecting and engaging resource for Confucian ecology.
Korean names and titles are Romanized according to the standard McCune-Reischauer system, and Chinese terms according to the Wade-Giles system (my preference over the Pinyin system for a pronunciation and writing reason). For T’oegye’s writings cited, only the Korean titles are given, as this is the standard style. To avoid confusion, the titles of the primary Chinese sources are given in Chinese only. Since this is a topic on a leading Korean thinker, most of the romanized philosophical terms are given for the Korean pronunciation and then for the Chinese with a slash between them; e.g.,
Furthermore, all references to T’oegye’s
29For Nasr (1995), this is partly because one problem with modern Western thought is its lack of interest in dealing with nature properly or sympathetically, due to the rising popularity of mathematical scientism and secular humanism. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions were interested in developing anthropocentric worldviews, so they basically viewed the earth as “secondary” or “inferior” to human beings; in the West this was also influenced by a theological sense of the absolute transcendence of God. 30From a comparative perspective, we may find Lee’s critical observation helpful in motivating Korean Confucian leaders to become more active and engaging about the ecological issues. Also note that I previously discussed Confucian identity, ethics, rituals and religiosity in modern Korea elsewhere (see References).