How to become wise | Aeon

Detail from a six-panel folding screen in the Chaekgado style, a still-life genre from the Joseon period depicting a scholar’s books and possessions. Courtesy the National Folk Museum of Korea

Detail from a six-panel folding screen in the Chaekgado style, a still-life genre from the Joseon period depicting a scholar’s books and possessions. Courtesy the National Folk Museum of Korea


How to become wise

Practice is at the heart of Korean philosophy. In order to lead a good life, hone your daily rituals of self-cultivation

by Kevin Cawley + BIO

Detail from a six-panel folding screen in the Chaekgado style, a still-life genre from the Joseon period depicting a scholar’s books and possessions. Courtesy the National Folk Museum of Korea

‘We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves,’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche at the beginning of On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). This seeking after ourselves, however, is not something that is lacking in Buddhist and Confucian traditions – especially not in the case of Korean philosophy. 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. It is also a tradition of philosophy largely unknown to the West. But I hope that is changing.

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. In the Korean tradition of philosophy, human beings are social beings, therefore knowing how to interact with others is an essential part of living a good life – indeed, living well with others is our real contribution to human life. Our lives and minds are affected by others (and their actions), as others (and their minds) are affected by our actions. This is particularly true in the Korean application of Confucian and Buddhist ideas.

There is a tale that is widely known by Koreans, a tale even known by the dogs in the street (to draw on a Korean expression), 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. This self-interpreted reality has a temporary existence only as long as the thoughts and perceptions shaping it remain.

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. And this needs to be practised every day, not just for the duration of a weekend mindfulness course, or until you start to feel better, but continually, consistently – otherwise negative mental detritus can easily return. Practice is a requirement as part of a daily ritual of self-cultivation; this is the practicality at the heart of Korean philosophy.

Wŏnhyo’s most important work is titled Awaken your Mind and Practice (in Korean, Palsim suhaeng-jang). It is an explicit call to younger adherents to put Buddhist ideas into practice, and an indirect warning not to get lost in contemplation or in the study of texts. We can in fact change our lives by redirecting our minds to focus on what is important, but this comes with a warning against procrastinating one’s mental cultivation, which in turn reinforces the transitory and impermanent nature of this life. Wŏnhyo’s guide is still studied by novice monks in Korea today. While these ideas might sound akin to meditational Buddhism, known to many Westerners as ‘Zen’, Wŏnhyo’s observances and practices actually predate that movement.

Tradition has it that the Indian monk Bodhidharma (c470-543 CE) transmitted Zen teachings to China. In 821, the Korean monk To’ŭi returned home after 37 years of studying and practising in China in order to set up one of the first temples that expounded the teachings of the Southern Zen tradition at Chinjŏn temple on the impressive Sŏrak mountain near the East Sea. Gradually, Korean monks constructed a system known as the Nine Mountains of Korean Sŏn, the original monasteries of Korean Buddhism. (Japanese Zen, generally well known by Westerners if in name only, did not develop such a temple system until the 12th century.)

Even if we have a moment of enlightenment, we still need to practise, for if not we can easily fall into our old ways

The Korean system blended the sophisticated intellectual traditions of various doctrinal schools with the meditational tradition, and Korean monks were renowned in East Asia for their contribution to Buddhist thought. These Korean intellectuals read and wrote classical Chinese, the language of the elite in East Asia, just as Latin had been the language of the elite in Europe for centuries. Koreans were not seen as residing in the periphery of East Asia’s intellectual world, but were held in high esteem in China and Japan – in fact, it was Koreans who had brought Chinese characters, Confucianism and Buddhism to Japan in the first place during the 6th century.

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. This is another important strand of Korean philosophy to which we will now turn.

During the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910), the longest lasting in East Asian history, Neo-Confucianism became integrated into society at all levels through rituals for marriage, funerals and ancestors. The ritual for the ancestors is known as chesa in Korean, and has for hundreds of years been performed by the eldest son – reinforcing patriarchy and hierarchy. One’s social obligations, calibrated through a distinct set of relationships, are still extremely important for Koreans. They naturally see themselves as members of a family, and so filial piety is important, but also as members of a school, a university, a company and so on, where the individuals should work together for the good of the group.

Neo-Confucianism recognises that we as individuals exist through plural relationships with responsibilities to others (as a child, brother/sister, lover, husband/wife, parent, teacher/student and so on), an idea nicely captured in 2000 by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy when he described our ‘being’ as ‘singular plural’. The ‘five cardinal relationships’ of Confucianism, where each relationship was related to a particular virtue, are also emphasised in the Mencius, the titular book by the eponymous philosopher:

Between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness.

Corrupt interpretations of Confucianism by heteronormative men have historically championed these ideas in terms of vertical relationships rather than as a reciprocal set of benevolent social interactions, meaning that women have suffered greatly as a result. They were regarded by men as weak and unable to control their minds (or desires) and so could not become sages (largely because they had little access to education), while men availed themselves of prostitutes, concubines, secondary wives and kisaeng (female entertainers). Setting aside these sexist and self-serving interpretations, 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.

We can achieve sagehood if we take the arduous, gradual path of self-cultivation centred on the mind

The main virtue of Confucianism is the idea of ‘humanity’, coming from the Chinese character 仁, often left untranslated and written as ren and pronounced in Korean as in. It is a combination of the character for a human being and the number two. In other words, it signifies what (inter)connects two people, or rather how they should interact in a humane or benevolent manner to each other. This character therefore highlights the link between people while emphasising that the most basic thing that makes us ‘human’ is our interaction with others. In a way it recognises our interbeingness, to use the idea of the Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926-2022). Such ideas were advocated by Korean Buddhists centuries ago, and still form an integral part of the Korean Buddhist philosophy. But these ideas greatly impacted the rise of Neo-Confucianism on the Korean peninsula.

Neo-Confucianism adopted a turn towards a more mind-centred view in the writings of the Korean scholar Yi Hwang, known by his pen name T’oegye (1501-70), who appears on the 1,000-won note. He greatly influenced Neo-Confucianism in Japan through his formidable text, Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning (Sŏnghak sipto), composed in 1568, which was one of the most-reproduced texts of the entire Chosŏn dynasty and represents the synthesis of Neo-Confucian thought in Korea. It is a collection of diagrams by Neo-Confucian scholars from China and Korea (including three by T’oegye himself) with commentaries that elucidate the moral principles of Confucianism, related to the cardinal relationships and education. It also embodies T’oegye’s own development of moral psychology through his focus on the mind, and illuminates the importance of teaching and the practice of self-cultivation. He writes that we ourselves can transform the unrestrained mind and its desires, and achieve sagehood, if we take the arduous, gradual path of self-cultivation centred on the mind.

T’oegye examined the mind by distinguishing between its ‘aroused state’ and ‘unaroused state’. Confucians had generally accepted the Mencian idea that human nature was embodied in the unaroused state of the mind, before it was shaped by its environment. The mind in its unaroused state was taken to be theoretically good. However, this inborn tendency for goodness is always in danger of being reduced to passivity, unless you cultivate yourself as a person of ‘humanity’ (in the Confucian sense mentioned above). Again, we find here the practical nature of Korean philosophy. You should constantly try to activate your humanity to allow the unhampered operation of the original mind to manifest itself through socially responsible and moral character in action. Humanity is the realisation of what I describe as our ‘optimum level of perfection’ that exists in an inherent stage of potentiality due our innate good nature.

This, in a sense, is like the Buddha nature of the Buddhists, which suggests we are already enlightened and just need to recover our innate mental state. Both philosophies are hopeful: humans are born good with the potential to correct their own flaws and failures. Notice how this could hardly contrast any more greatly with the Christian doctrine of original sin, developed in the teachings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

The seventh diagram in T’oegye’s text is entitled ‘The Diagram of the Explanation of Humanity’ (Insŏl-to). Here he warns how one’s good inborn nature may become impaired, hampering the operation of the original mind and negatively impacting our character in action. Humanity embodies the gradual realisation of our optimum level of perfection that already exists in our mind but that depends on how we think about things and how we relate that to others in a social context. For T’oegye, the key to maintaining our capacity to remain level-headed, and to control our impulses and emotions, was kyŏng. This term is often translated as ‘seriousness’, occasionally ‘mindfulness’, and it identifies the serious need for constant effort to control one’s mind in order to go about one’s life in a healthy manner. The Buddhist influence is not entirely repressed, but it is recalibrated in T’oegye’s practical pathway towards Confucian sagehood, linked with our social responsibilities to each other as part of an interrelated network. What we also notice here is that being able to calm our mind and consider the matters at hand objectively is inextricably intertwined with having healthy relationships with ourselves and others, something argued powerfully by the psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk who researches post-traumatic stress.

For T’oegye, mindfulness is as serious as meditation is for the Buddhists. In fact, the Neo-Confucians had their own meditational practice of ‘quiet-sitting’ (chŏngjwa), which focused on recovering the calm and not agitated ‘original mind’, before putting our daily plans into action. This idea is carried forward and emphasised in the final two diagrams, which illustrate the ‘practice’ of mindfulness to transform our thoughts and to guide them towards appropriate ‘moral’ actions. These diagrams reinforce this need for a daily practice of Confucian mindfulness, because practice leads to the ‘good habit’ of creating (and maintaining) routines. There is no short-cut provided, no weekend intro to this practice: it is life-long, and that is what makes it transformative, leading us to become better versions of who were in the beginning. This is consolation of Korean philosophy.

Our dutiful engagement with others affects our minds because the outside world shapes our interior one

In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (c480-524) was concerned with the solace that philosophy can provide for us in the darkest of times, and indeed he wrote it in prison. Dante, commenting on Boethius in his Divine Comedy (1320), notes how he ‘made quite plain the world’s fallaciousness’, himself receiving consolation from his ideas. Seeing the world as it is can steer us away from making unnecessary mistakes, while highlighting what is good and how to maintain that good while also reducing anxiety from an agitated mind and harmful desires. This is why Korean philosophy can provide us with consolation; it recognises the bad, but prioritises the good, providing several moral pathways that are referred to in the East Asian traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism) as modes of ‘self-cultivation’. Self-cultivation emphasises how good mental habits and ‘mindful’ practices can be beneficial, while making us wary of negative habits and desires that can disturb our mental (and physical) wellbeing.

Through propounding a gradual process of self-cultivation, Korean philosophy guides our own self-actualisation through our dutiful engagement with others in society, which ultimately affects our minds because the outside world shapes our interior one – and vice versa. As social beings, we penetrate the consciousness of others, and so humans are linked externally through conduct but also internally through thought. Humanity is a unifying approach that holds the potential to solve human problems, internally and externally, as well as help people realise the perfection that is innately theirs.

We have the potential to remove selfish desires and negative thoughts to recover the sometimes errant and harmful aspects of the mind that can lead to emotional trauma (for ourselves and others). It is therefore of the utmost importance that, should we find that our minds are overwhelmed by external factors, we take back the control we sometimes lose, especially to those others who negatively impact us. Ultimately, we are in control of our own minds and our own lives. This is also the consolation that Korean philosophy has to offer: to help us lead a good life with a well-balanced mind – because we cannot have one without the other.

Comparative philosophyHistory of ideasMeaning and the good life

Aeon is not-for-profit and free for everyone

Make a donation

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Join our newsletter