The Basis for Coexistence Found from within: The Mystic Universality and Ethicality of Donghak (東學, Eastern Learning)
1. Suun Choe Je-u 水雲 崔濟愚 and Donghak 東學 or Eastern Learning
2. The Age of Turbulence—And Seeking a Way Out through Religion
Recently, our country has been filled with evil things. The people live in a time without peace. This is an indication of the bad fortune of our nation. The Western powers are victorious whenever they fight, and they succeed and takeover wherever they attack. There seems to be nothing that they cannot achieve. I am worried that if China is destroyed, Joseon may be next. Where can we find a way for supporting the nation and comforting the people?6
3. The Heavenly Way, the Core Concept of Suun’s Religious Solution
3.1. The Universalism of Truth: All Cultures Share the Identical Heavenly Way
The Western religion (Christianity) is similar but different. It has the appearance of worshipping God, but has no substance. They both have the same destiny as religions and their Way (Truth) is identical, but their doctrines are different.10
3.2. Personal Mysticism: Heavenly Way Can Be Discovered within Everyone
The Chonsamundap took place from fifth of April of year 1860 to the twentieth of September of the same year. Among the many questions and answers that took place during that period of time, there was one time when Hanullim tested the Great Divine Teacher (Suun). The Sangje asked, “…Thus, I will give you the position of Minister, even though you have no title now, to save the world.” … “As even the Sangje teaches with the wrongful Way, I will never listen to the Sangje’s order or teaching again,” he vowed to himself, and did not listen even when the Sangje gave lessons, fasted for eleven days and did not change his mind. The Sangje declared, “Your will is good to behold, and your integrity is commendable! Your study has already reached its peak, your practice is already at the highest level and your behavior is nearly perfected—now I will grant you perpetual harmony”.
The moment the Great Divine Teacher heard this, a new energy circulated in his consciousness and new thoughts arose in his mind, and the words of the Sangje that were heard from out of the air was now resounded from within the Great Divine Teacher’s mind—it became the teaching that had descended from above, and he wrote down a lengthy script. He asked himself then answered himself, recited the eternal then sung the eternal; the Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon, the stars, grass and trees, animals and beasts, humans and things all answered to the song; millions and billions miles of space spread before the eyes; millions and billions of years spread before the eyes so there was no space far or close and no time past or coming, so millions and billions of innumerable hours and space drifted inside the single piece that was my mind.
They asked, “What is the meaning of the incantation which prays for the descent of the Spirit?” I answered: “the ultimate (ji 至) means the highest and extremely great. The [ultimate] vital force (ji-gi 至氣) is like the mysterious Spirit, and it is vast and full in the universe. It touches and governs all things. It looks like it has a form, but it is difficult to describe. It seems to have sound, yet it is difficult to understand. It is the one Ultimate Energy of the vast universe. Geum-ji 今至 means that now one joins the church (Donghak/Chondogyo) and understand the meaning of uniting with the vital force (of God), Weon-wi 願爲 means hoping and praying. Dae-gang 大降 means uniting with the Ultimate Energy. Si 侍 means having the Divine Spirit within and expressing the vital force in life. When people realize this, they will keep it in their hearts without change, Ju 主 refers to respecting, honoring and serving God like one’s own parents. Johwa 造化 means natural becoming and transformation. Jeong 定 means oneness with the Divine Virtue and deciding to have the mind of God. Yoengse 永世 refers to the long life of humankind. Bulmang 不忘 means thinking about God always without forgetting. Mansa means many things. Ji 知 means understanding God’s way and achieving wisdom. Thus, if one would think about and never forget the bright Truth and Virtue of God and the incantation, one will unite with the Ultimate Energy (ji-gi 至氣) of God and attain the perfect sagehood.”20.
3.3. The Ethical Relationalism: We Must Practice the Heavenly Way within Our Relationships
4. Suun’s Religious Solution and Religious Pluralism
5. Conclusion: The Paradoxical Center That Can Be Found from Within
Conflicts of Interest
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Joseon is the name of the ruling dynasty in Korea from 1392 to 1910.
Suun Choe Je-u was born in 1824, into a ruined but aristocratic family. He wandered all across Joseon, practicing religious asceticism until he was thirty. In 1859, when he was thirty-five, he settled in his hometown Yongdam 龍潭 to continue asceticism, then had an encounter with the Sangje 上帝 in a religious experience the following year in 1860. After that, he founded Donghak 東學 and spread the teaching, but was arrested under the charge of “deluding the world and deceiving the people,” and was executed in 1864 at the age of 40 (Pyo 2004).
Major works include the following: Yim (2003); Cha (2003); Cho (1990); Park (2000); Kim (2002). According to research, the consensus is that Donghak was greatly influenced by Confucianism. However, there are varying opinions, such as the view that Donghak is a creative reinvention of Confucianism seeking social changes (Cho 1990).
Major literature are as follows: Kim (1974); Kim (2003a); Kwon (2004). Conclusions differ from views that claim Donghak’s god was outright influenced by the Christian god (Kwon 2004), to the idea that Suun reached an understanding of god that is similar to the Christian god but only through his own, personal religious experience (Kim 1974).
“是故 我國惡疾滿世 民無四時之安 是亦傷害之數也 西洋戰勝功取 無事不成而 天下盡滅 亦不無脣亡之歎 輔國安民 計將安出,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 5).
“However, in current times the people of the world have selfish minds, and do not follow the Principle of Heaven nor care for the Will of Heaven. Therefore, my mind is always anxious and fearful, and I don’t know what will happen in the future”. “又此挽近以來 一世之人 各自爲心 不順天理 不顧天命 心常悚然 莫知所向矣,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 4).
Hanullim or Hanul is Korean for God. Suun has many names for the Supreme Being—Sangje 上帝 (Supreme Being), Choenju 天主 (Heavenly Lord, or God), guisin 鬼神 (ghosts) or Hanullim ᄒᆞᆫᄂᆞᆯ님. Choenju or Sangje appear mostly in the Donggyeong Daejeon, recorded in Chinese characters, and Hanullim is used in Yongdamyusa which is written in Korean, but other than that, there is no difference in the significance of these expressions. Ju(主) in Choenju or lim in Hanullim (pronounced nim when by itself) signify that the Sangje is a personified, sentient being who should be respected and revered.
“My Way is a unification of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. The Heavenly Way itself is not originally Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, but Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism are partial truths of the Heavenly Way—they are ethical codes of the past. The Three Bonds and Five Relationships of Confucianism; Cultivation of Nature and Enlightenment of the Mind of Buddhism; Nurturing of one’s Energy and Nature of Daoism are all parts of my Way. My Way, founded on the deepest foundations of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, has its principle in the Heavenly Way and its applications in Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism—so be careful not to misunderstand this.” (Park 1921).
“曰: 與洋道無異者乎? 曰: 洋學如斯而有異, 如呪而無實, 然而運則一也, 道則同也, 理則非也,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 9).
The four defining characteristics according to James are ineffability, noetic quality, passivity and transiency (James 1994, pp. 414–17).
Kim Yonghwi also analyzes Suun’s religious experience in context of mysticism, and discusses the process from the first encounter with the Sangje to the experience of ‘my mind is your mind’ (Kim 2007, pp. 64–65). He also contends that Suun’s religious experience lasted for several months until he realized that ‘my mind is your mind’ (Kim 2003b, pp. 217–42).
“不意四月, 心寒身戰, 疾不得執症, 言不得難狀之際, 有何仙語忽入耳中, 驚起探問, 則曰 “勿懼勿恐, 世人謂我上帝, 汝不知上帝耶?” 問其所然, 曰 余亦無功, 故生汝世間, 敎人此法, 勿疑勿疑.” (Kim and Yoon 2007, pp. 4–5).
曰, “然則西道以敎人乎?”(Kim and Yoon 2007, pp. 4–5).
“曰降靈之文 何爲其然也 曰至者 極焉之爲至 氣者虛靈蒼蒼 無事不涉 無事不命 然而如形而難狀 如聞而難見 是亦渾元之一氣也 今至者 於斯入道 知其氣接者也 願爲者 請祝 之意也 大降者 氣化之願也“侍者 內有神靈 外有氣化 一世之人 各知不移者也 主者 稱其尊而與父母同事者也 造化者 無爲而化也 定者 合其德定其心也 永世者 人之平生也 不忘者 存想之意也 萬事者 數之多也 知者 知其道而受其知也故 明明其德 念念不忘則 至化至氣 至於至聖,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, pp. 10–11).
Choi Donghwi also asserts that “To have God within you is the mystical state of the human body and mind becoming one with God” (Choi 1999, pp. 1–21).
“曰呪文之意何也 曰 至爲天主之字故 以呪言之 今文有古文有,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 10).
However, in order to realize the Way and to establish Virtue, one must have the genuine sincerity and learn from the right person. Some people hear bad rumors and believe them, and some people hear the wrong kind of incantation and recite it. Isn’t it a terribly wrong and sad thing? “雖然 道成德立 在誠在人 或聞流言而修之 或聞流呪而誦焉 豈不非哉 敢不憫然,” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 19).
“仁義禮智 先聖之所敎 修心正氣 惟我之更定 (Humaneness, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are the virtues taught by the former sages. Keeping a good mind and having the right spiritual force are the virtues established only by me),” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 18).
“曰吾道無爲而化矣 守其心正其氣 率其性受其敎 化出於自然之中也 西人 言無次第 書無皂白而 頓無爲天主之端 只祝自爲身之謀 (I answered, “Our Way is the Natural Way. If each person preserves a good mind, rectifies the vital force, follows their original nature, and receives the Divine teaching, all will turn out well naturally. The Westerners have no order in their words and no logic in their writings. There is no genuine service for God but they only pray for selfish ideas.),” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 10).
Christianity, with its faith in equality of all humans, also a great force of social reform—it was persecuted by the Joseon government along with Donghak. However, Suun’s opinion of Christianity was that it was the backdrop to Western invasion of other cultures. He also criticized the fact that the church was against some of Joseon traditions such as ancestral rituals (Cho 2003).
“Confucianism and Buddhism may have outrun their fortune of several thousand years,” (Yoon 2009, p. 325).
Do not have faith in me. Are you acting out of faith in me? He resides in you; should you leave something close and take from afar? The only thing I hope for is that [you] would only have faith in Hanullim, that those of you who have not yet escaped from ignorance should discard books pour your efforts in ascetic practice—that is also ethics (Yoon 2009, p. 358).
“We search infinitely, and know infinitely, so within this infinite boundary of God, isn’t this the infinite me?” (Yoon 2009, p. 520)
“余亦無功, 故生汝世間, 敎人此法, 勿疑勿疑 (I have not been able to find anyone to teach the Truth. Thus, I am sending you to the world to teach the Truth. Therefore, do not ever doubt it.),” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 4).
“至於庚申 傳聞西洋之人 以爲天主之意 不取富貴 功取天下 立其堂 行其道故 吾亦有其然豈其然之疑 (In 1860 there were rumors that in order to serve God’s will, the Westerners were not seeking wealth or glory, yet they attacked and conquered the world, and built their churches and spread their religion. I also wonder whether it was true and why they did that),” (Kim and Yoon 2007, p. 4).
“It is as if they believe that the Supreme Being above only resides in [the specific place of] Heaven. It is unnecessary even to discuss the principles of yin and yang—it is just all futile talk,” (Yoon 2009, p. 477).
After the death of Suun, the ideals of Donghak were inherited and put into practice in the real world by the Donghak Peasant Revolution. It began in January of 1894 and took place in two waves, ending in defeat for the peasant army in November of the same year. The leader of the revolution, Jeon Bong-jun, was arrested and executed the following year, in March. (Pyo 2014, pp. 429–35).
John Hick offers the concept of ‘the Real’ as basis for communication between religions. If different religions are diverse manifestations of the ultimate being, it is his belief that a reality-centered approach can form a basis for inter-religion communication and understanding (Hick 1983, p. 133).
Hick claims that religion as a manifestation of the ultimate being inevitably has its limits and other unique characteristics, so intercommunication between religions deepens the understanding of the ultimate being (Hick 1982, p. 117). Hick’s understanding is similar to Suun’s claim that religion is a unique expression of a universal Way of Heaven, in several aspects.
Hick also asserts that the standard for ‘grading’ the values of religious traditions is how they transition from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness (Hick 1981, p. 451).
Kim Gyeongjae declares that Donghak originates from Suun’s experience of ‘my mind is your mind’ or the experience of ‘serving God’, and that these experiences are Donghak’s central core (Kim 1999, pp. 22–43). Kim Yonghwi also contends that Donghak is not a mere amalgam of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and Christianity, but a unique religion that was formed in the active process of reevaluating his own religious experience (Kim 2009, pp. 36–67).
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Seong, H. The Basis for Coexistence Found from within: The Mystic Universality and Ethicality of Donghak (東學, Eastern Learning). Religions 2020, 11, 265. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050265
Seong H. The Basis for Coexistence Found from within: The Mystic Universality and Ethicality of Donghak (東學, Eastern Learning). Religions. 2020; 11(5):265. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050265Chicago/Turabian Style
Seong, Haeyoung. 2020. "The Basis for Coexistence Found from within: The Mystic Universality and Ethicality of Donghak (東學, Eastern Learning)" Religions 11, no. 5: 265. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11050265