Kim on Chŏng and Tŭkt'ong, 'Korea's Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate: The Treatises of Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong) and Hamhŏ Tŭkt'ong (Kihwa)'

Tojŏn Chŏng, Hamhŏ Tŭkt'ong
Seong Uk Kim

Tojŏn Chŏng, Hamhŏ Tŭkt'ong. Korea's Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate: The Treatises of Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong) and Hamhŏ Tŭkt'ong (Kihwa). Translated and with an introduction by A. Charles Muller. Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion Series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015. 192 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-5380-8.

Reviewed by Seong Uk Kim (Columbia University) Published on H-Buddhism (March, 2017) Commissioned by Hwansoo Kim

From the time when Buddhism took root on East Asian soil, tensions developed between Buddhism and East Asian indigenous religions. The tensions at times led to fierce interreligious debates between the followers of those religions, in particular, between adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism, as demonstrated in several polemical works from the two traditions. Some of the most elaborate, systematic, and yet harsh attacks on Buddhism came from Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong, 1342-98), who served as an ideological architect of the newly founded neo-Confucian state Chosŏn in Korea. His contemporary Kihwa (Hamhŏ Tŭkt’ong, 1376-1433), a renowned Korean Buddhist monk who used to be a student of Sŏnggyungwan (National Confucian Academy), defended his religion against Confucian critics with equal elaboration and passion. A. Charles Muller’s new book, Korea’s Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate, provides a well-crafted translation of the three polemical essays of these two elites, along with an informative background on the Buddhist-Confucian discourses in premodern China and Korea. The book brings to readers one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive and sophisticated sets of inter-tradition debates in East Asia.

The book consists of three parts: the translator’s introduction; translations of Chŏng’s Simgiri p’yŏn (On Mind, Material Force, and Principle) and Pulssi chappy’ŏn (An Array of Critiques of Buddhism) and Kihwa’s Hyŏnjŏng non (Exposition of Orthodoxy); and supplementary materials, which include the original Sino-Korean manuscripts of the three essays, endnotes, bibliography, and index.

Muller’s translations of the three essays are remarkable. They are easy to read and understandable. Most of all, readers can taste these important polemical works of premodern East Asia without losing much of the original flavor. The essays of Chŏng and Kihwa display the two elite literati’s extensive knowledge in Chinese and Korean history, as well as their masterful skills in critical thinking and writing. Chŏng and Kihwa built their arguments or counterarguments by borrowing various examples from Chinese and Korean culture, history, and literature, as well as by applying several polemical tools, such as inductive reasoning and reductio ad absurdum. These achievements of the two scholars are seamlessly conveyed in Muller’s translations.

Muller’s introduction is concise and well informed. It provides an essential historical and ideological background on the pedigree of Buddhist-Confucian discourses in East Asia. Readers can easily grasp the importance of the two Korean elites’ essays. As Muller points out, with the Simgiri p’yŏn and the Pulssi chappy’ŏn, Chŏng delivered an unprecedentedly “well-organized, complete, comprehensive, and systematic attack on Buddhism,” following the lead of his Confucian predecessors (p. 14). In the Simgiri p’yŏn, Chŏng reiterates Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200) criticism on the Buddhist lack of ontological basis for social ethics through the Confucian notions of principle and material force, criticism that, according to Muller, went unanswered in China but to which Kihwa eventually responded in Korea. In the Pulssi chappy’ŏn, Chŏng then expands his accusations on Buddhism: it is a foreign religion; it violates Confucian social ethics, such as loyalty and filial piety; it deceives people with the teachings of transmigration and heavens and hells; it shortens people’s lives and brings about a decline in peace; and its clerics are morally corrupt, receiving huge donations. These accusations, as Muller rightly argues, were also made before Chŏng both in China and Korea, but not organized as completely, comprehensively, and systematically as his.

Although I agree with Muller that Chŏng’s works are outstanding in their own right despite the influence they received from the Cheng brothers (Cheng Hao, 1032-85, and Cheng Yi, 1033-1107) and Zhu Xi, I am a little puzzled by his assessment of who was more influential. Muller mentions that the influence of the Cheng brothers via Zhu Xi is “omnipresent” in Chŏng’s writings (p. 14). However, Muller does not offer much information about exactly what came from each of these Chinese scholars. As far as I can tell, Zhu Xi’s influence on Chŏng can be easily found. Although Chŏng seldom cited Zhu Xi’s “Shishi” (On Buddhism) of the Zhuzi yulei (Thematic discourses of Master Zhu) directly, Chŏng must have read the essay thoroughly. In many parts of the Simgiri p’yŏn and the Pulssi chappy’ŏn, Chŏng repeats or paraphrases Zhu Xi’s words or borrows the great neo-Confucian scholar’s arguments with or without quotes. It can be even said that Chŏng’s two essays hardly extend Zhu Xi’s criticism of Buddhism. Nonetheless, as Muller points out, Chŏng did not simply use Zhu Xi’s criticism without context. Fully understanding Cheng-Zhu philosophy and Zhu Xi’s criticism of Buddhism, Chŏng created his own criticism of Buddhism by supporting his anti-Buddhist attack through his understanding and experience of Buddhism, for example, his reading of Pojo Chinul’s (1158-1210) works. The Cheng brothers’ direct influence on Chŏng in terms of the criticism of Buddhism is not often found in his two essays. Therefore, identifying their influence on Chŏng is in fact linked to the issue of these brothers’ influence on Zhu Xi. However, Muller’s introduction and annotation offer few connections on this issue.

Muller argues that Kihwa’s Hyŏnjŏng non responded directly to Chŏng’s two essays. However, there is a high probability that it was not so. Kihwa may have read the Simgiri p’yŏn since it was written in 1394 and probably included in the first publication of Chŏng’s literary collection in 1397, which is unfortunately not extant. However, the Hyŏnjŏng non, perhaps written later in Kihwa’s career, could not be a response to the Simgiri p’yŏn alone. This is because what can be interpreted as a response to Chŏng’s short essay occupies only a small portion of the Hyŏnjŏng non. It also seems that Kihwa did not even read the Pulssi chappy’ŏn. Chŏng composed it just a couple of months before he was killed by his political rival, the would-be king T’aejong Yi Pangwŏn (1367-1422), in August 1398. Chŏng’s original manuscript of the essay was hidden from the public until its first publication in 1456, more than twenty years after Kihwa’s death in 1433.[1] It is unlikely that Kihwa read the Pulssi chappy’ŏn and composed his apologetic work as a direct response to Chŏng’s essay.[2] Muller suggests that Kihwa probably could have read Chŏng’s essay as a Sŏnggyun’gwan student in 1398 when Chŏng was one of its faculty members. However, Chŏng was appointed as such in April 1398, and wrote the Pulssi chappy’ŏn sometime during the summer of that year when he took sick leave.[3] He then never returned to the position. Muller also supports his argument with the fact that Kihwa’s work presents answers to virtually all Pulssi chappy’ŏn’s accusations. However, this intra-textual evidence that Muller suggests can also be explained away by the fact that Kihwa was certainly familiar with preexisting Chinese and Korean Confucian criticisms of Buddhism, including Zhu Xi’s, which Chŏng drew his criticism from. Therefore, it would seem more reasonable to assume that Kihwa’s work was not a direct response to Chŏng’s writings.

In the Hyŏnjŏng non, readers can see that Kihwa systematically refutes the accusations inflicted on Buddhism. In his refutation, Kihwa even argues that Buddhism possesses more profound teachings on the nature of human existence and excels Confucianism even in the practice of ethics, in particular, humaneness, though he mentions the unity of the two religions. At the end of the essay, Kihwa attributes Confucians’ criticisms of Buddhism to their ignorance of the higher teachings (in other words, Buddhism), identifying five Confucian virtues with five Buddhist precepts, which, according to him, constitute the lowest teaching of Buddhism. As Muller rightly states, such attitude of Kihwa’s largely represents a typical Buddhist stance in premodern East Asia in regard to Buddhist-Confucian relations.

Translating texts written in classical Chinese is always tricky for various reasons. For example, the meanings of each word, sentence, and phrase can change, depending on where the punctuation is placed or what grammatical function is given to it. I will show a couple of examples in Muller’s book that can be read differently or maybe more suitably for the polemical setting.

In the Pulssi chappy’ŏn, there is the following part: “Once one has an evil reputation then his/her mind is filled with shame. If one receives a public caning, why does he or she need the teaching of hell in order not to behave in an evil manner?” (p. 70) (italics are mine). This part comes right after the section in which Chŏng explains that since the noble man’s good deeds naturally come out from within himself, he does not need the teachings of hells to avoid committing evil deeds. The italic part, which is a translation of “iryu omyŏngji chŭk kisimgoech’i yaktarusi” (一有惡名至 即其心愧恥 若撻于市), can be instead translated as “Once the noble man has an evil reputation then his mind is filled with shame as if he receives a public caning.” This translation, I believe, can give more consistency to Chŏng’s argument as a Cheng-Zhu scholar who tended to emphasize the importance of moral intention.

Another example is in the Hyŏnjŏng non. In the section where Kihwa defends the ethical value of the Buddhist teachings of heavens and hells, there is this part: “Heaven and hell are not created by someone else. When people hear about heaven, they yearn for it and endeavor in the pursuit of goodness” (p. 100) (italics are mine). The italic part is a translation of “ch’ŏndang chiok sŏlsa muja” (天堂地獄設使無者). This can be translated as a concessive clause to the subsequent sentence, reading “Even if there is no heaven and hell.” Although Muller’s translation works, this alternative reading can make this part more interesting in terms of religious polemics and apologetics. With this new reading, Kihwa’s defense in this section sounds quite similar with the famous Pascal’s Wager that aims at defending the existence of God.

As some minor typos in Muller’s translations are already pointed out elsewhere, I will just add a part that is different from the original manuscript. In the Simgiri p’yŏn, there is a quotation from the Daode jing that reads, “How deep! How dark! In it there is an essence; the essence is so real—therein is belief” (窮兮冥兮 其中有精 其精甚眞 其中有信) (p. 48) (italics are mine). As the translator indicates in footnote 23 (p. 150), Chŏng draws this sentence from chapter 21 of the Daode jing. However, the last phrase of the sentence, “therein is belief” (其中有信), does not appear in the original Sino-Korean text Muller provides. It seems that the phrase was not included in Chŏng’s original manuscript. As far as I checked, there is no edition of the text that contains this phrase.

On the whole, Muller’s book is an important new resource that can serve as a great introduction to the historical developments and meanings of the Buddhist-Confucian discourses in premodern East Asia. With his masterful translation of the polemical essays of a Buddhist monk and a Confucian scholar-official, the book can be recommended for undergraduate or graduate students and scholars in East Asian studies and religious studies who are interested in interreligious relations.


[1]. O Yongsŏp, “Pulssi chappyŏn ch’oganbon ŭi sŏji chŏk yŏn’gu,” Sŏjihak yŏn’gu 33 (2006): 309.

[2]. Pak Haedang, “Kihwa ŭi Pulgyo sasang yŏn’gu” (PhD diss., Seoul National University, 1996), 116.

[3]. Kim Pyŏnghwan, Pulssi chappyŏn: Chosŏn ŭi kihoekcha Chŏng Tojŏn ŭi sasang hyŏngmyŏng (Seoul: Ak’anet, 2013), 17.

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Citation: Seong Uk Kim. Review of Chŏng, Tojŏn; Tŭkt'ong, Hamhŏ, Korea's Great Buddhist-Confucian Debate: The Treatises of Chŏng Tojŏn (Sambong) and Hamhŏ Tŭkt'ong (Kihwa). H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL:

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