Yongsōng and Kongzi: The Great Enlightenment Movement and Its Similarities to Confucianism

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can certainly be considered a troubled time for the Korean people, particularly caused by the failure of the Chosōn dynasty, from 1392-1910, as well as Japanese oppression and colonialism from 1910-45. For Paek Yongsōng, among others, the preceding period was seen as one where freedom and independence were superseded by corruption and restraint. In addition to this, Buddhism, throughout this period, was severely weakened due to an “anti-Buddhist, pro-Confucian”1  policy implemented by the Chosōn dynasty. Due to this reduced influence, Paek Yongsōng went on to translate Buddhism into Korean and thus began a new movement; The Great Enlightenment Movement. As exemplified by Woosung Huh, the term ‘great enlightenment “was simply Yongsōng’s translation of Buddha, the literal meaning of the Great Enlightenment Movement is the movement of Buddha.”2 

In addition to Yongsōng’s work surrounding the modernisation of Buddhism, there are several similarities that can be made to Confucianism that so heavily dominated Korean society in the centuries preceding the foundation of Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement. This analysis will be made by focusing on a brief statement made by Yongsōng in Enlightenment Ocean Like the Sun. Within this work, Yongsōng explains his view of an authentic Buddhist and how one attains goodness by creating merits, as seen below:

“There is no place where you cannot create merits: if you are filial to your parents and respect your teachers and elders; if you are friendly to your brothers and harmonize your family; if you keep your residence clean; if you work for the public good according to your ability and keep clear of private desires; if you propagate the truth of Great Enlightenment to all the people in the world) so that they can remove superstition, and tread a righteous path… and if you do not commit any evil and instead practice good deeds, then you will create merits.”3 

Critically, one of the main similarities shared between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement is the importance of filiality to elders and the essential role that family plays in leading one to eternal goodness and enlightenment. As seen above, there is a clear focus on the importance of respect and filiality towards family and elders in aiding one towards goodness. The similarity to Confucianism is evidenced when focusing on the works of Kongzi, otherwise known as Confucius by many in the western world. In Book One of his analects, Kongzi writes that “a young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors”4 , he goes on to summarise the point by saying that “the gentlemen applies himself to the roots. ‘Once the roots are firmly established, the way will grow’”.5  Thus, when assessing Kongzi’s writings in conjunction with the writings set out by Yongsōng and the Great Enlightenment, the argument can certainly be made that modern Korean Buddhism and Confucianism were quite similar both in thought and practice, particularly regarding their teleological approach to goodness.

Further similarities between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement are seen when focusing on the role of the individual in society. As seen above, Yongsōng writes that if one can ‘keep clear of private desires’, they thus can create good merits. Moreover, Yongsōng writes that another element that makes one a good Buddhist is the ability to “see other people go well.”6 Therefore, an understanding of others and a communal approach to life is a key element in aiding one towards being a good Buddhist and thus reaching the ultimate individual salvation as alluded to throughout Yongsōng’s works. In a not too dissimilar manner, Kongzi and thus Confucianists also discuss the importance of providing for society through individual action. In Book Fourteen of Kongzi’s Analects, we can see the importance of the individual and their role in society as it states, “in ancient times scholars learned for their own sake; these days they learn for the sake of others.”7 Furthermore, in Book Sixteen, Kongzi states that finding joy by “commending the excellence of others”8 is a beneficial type of joy. This is unlike arrogant behaviour or idle behaviour that Kongzi considers to be harmful types of joy. Thus, one’s individual actions in relation to society can play a key role in aiding them towards the ultimate goodness, or joy as referred to by Kongzi in this case. Therefore, when assessing Kongzi’s approach to one’s role in relation to society, we can see several similarities to Yongsōng’s approach. Particularly, we see the essential role that individual action and behaviour can have in aiding one’s journey to ultimate goodness- another idea shared by both ideologies.

Overall, when assessing the statement set out above, we can see some of the similarities that are shared between modernised Korean Buddhism, or the Great Enlightenment Movement, and Confucianism. Moreover, in some of Yongsōng’s other works such as Returning to True Religion, he discusses some other similarities to Confucianism, such as the equivalence between ‘benevolence’ in Confucianism and the ‘mind’ in Buddhism. Of course, there are many differences between the two ideologies, especially when comparing neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, with Yongsōng arguing that neo-Confucians “did not understand the way of [Kongzi], nor did they reach the level of [Kongzi] in their philosophy.”9 Despite this criticism, however, we can still see the admiration that Yongsōng had towards Kongzi and his ideology by separating his original views from those that later followed such as the Cheng Brothers. Thus, when examining the paragraph set out above, it is evident that there are several similarities between Confucianism and Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement, with both playing essential roles in the development of Korean society throughout history.

  1. Woosung Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, in Jin Y. Park (ed.), Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (New York, 2010), p.19. []
  2. Ibid., p. 26 []
  3. Ibid., p. 27 []
  4. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, 2005), p.3. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 27 []
  7. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 42 []
  8. Ibid., p. 48 []
  9. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 33 []