A lesson from the 13th century

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A lesson from the 13th century

The legacy of Zhu Xi can still be found in the picturesque Nine Bend Stream on Wuyi Mountain. The boatman sang “The Boat Song of Wuyi’s Nine Bends.”

“Almost reaching the ninth bend, eyes suddenly open,” he sang. “Through mulberry and hemp, rain and dew, a peaceful river is revealed. The fisherman once again seeks the road to Peach Blossom Spring. Besides this there is another realm in the human world.”

Zhu Xi, a Song dynasty neo-Confucian scholar, built a school here where he taught students. Of what relevance is Zhu Xi today?

Many people may wonder if Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism has anything to do with creativity. But the early days of the Joseon dynasty, built on a founding philosophy of neo-Confucianism, was the period when creativity bloomed the most. The Korean alphabet Hangul was created, science and technology were developing, and arts and music were widely enjoyed by the people. King Sejong, an outstanding student of Zhu Xi, was at the center of the creativity.

Tracing back the origin of the creativity, Zhu Xi was a great master whose comprehensive study of Eastern philosophy is often compared to Immanuel Kant in Western philosophy. What was Zhu Xi like? The village that Zhu Xi lived in is surprisingly well preserved. Village women still do laundry in a stream, and village granaries can be found near the school in which Zhu Xi studied when he was young. The granaries also functioned as financial institutions from which farmers could borrow grain at low interest rates. That’s what we would call today a microfinance bank for the community that was founded more than 800 years before Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

In fact, Zhu Xi was a very progressive thinker and activist. He advocated removing poetry and literature from the civil service examination and including questions on current social issues instead. As a government official, he worked on projects that improved the lives of the people, such as building a dam to prevent floods and to reserve water for times of drought. Naturally, he was hated by the establishment. Though he rose in the government with his academic prestige, as seen in his career as the emperor’s tutor on the Confucian classics, his no-nonsense remarks led to a demotion, the shutdown of his academy and the banning of his books in later years.

I went to the alley in which Zhu Xi often walked, lost in thought. It felt like he was still standing at the end of the alley, waiting for my visit.

A common misunderstanding about Zhu Xi and his neo-Confucianism was the prejudice that his teachings impose certain morals and therefore exploited an ideology for power. Neo-Confucianism had been considered an outdated philosophy whose validity had expired. But that is mere prejudice and a superficial understanding that does not reach the essence of the philosophy.

Neo-Confucianism is the study of trying to become a sage. In order to become a sage, one must completely realize the virtues of nature, and understanding the mind is an important part of the philosophy. As the mind is the very owner of a human’s life, followers of neo-Confucianism were bent on cultivating and training the mind to complete themselves. The Chinese word “Xin” has no direct translation in English. Instead, it includes all the connotations of heart, mind, soul and spirit and is a very dynamic state. It transcends while implicating; it is universal while subjective; and it is abstract and specific at the same time. Therefore, it is both in reality and in spirit.

Neo-Confucian scholars looked into the mind in order to understand human identity. The sages of the East must have realized that looking into the body would not give a clue to what a human being really is. In the West, scientific tradition attempted to investigate the identity of humanity by studying the human body. As a result, Western civilization accumulated vast knowledge on human anatomy but is still lost in regards to the identity of humanity. Nowadays, humans and computers are on the same page. Modern philosophers like Daniel Dennett analyze a man in terms of input, processing and output.

The coming together of human identity and computers will not stop here. In fact, computers are superior to humans in many ways. Computing power is drastically improving every year. The development of artificial intelligence may threaten the utility of humans. From factory automation to Hollywood script writing to music composition, software has replaced humans in various fields. Simply put, not just efficiency but also human emotions are being programmed.

Can computers program human minds? Many computer scientists may believe so. They think the mind is confined to the body. In other words, the mind exists as long as the body functions. Therefore, the moment the body dies, the mind is switched off. It all depends on what you believe, since no one who has died can testify. In this paradigm of thinking, the mind is trapped in the body.

However, Zhu and other Eastern traditions thought the mind is not restricted to the body. While we all have separate bodies, minds can be linked together, pursue a common good and aspire to universal and transcendental virtues. When the human mind reaches the reasoning of the heavens, it would be eternal. It would be one, and a 13th century Chinese philosopher’s teachings of this lesson still move my heart. In fact, Westerners have also long believed in the existence of souls, but it is denied academically and intellectually.

The eternal mind is not programmable. Only a world with limits can be programmed. That’s the principle of algorithms. Because the mind is a window to eternity, this is where creativity begins. No matter how advanced computers become, eternity cannot be programmed unless the basics of the algorithms change. As long as we have the eternal mind, computers won’t catch up with the creativity of humans. To those with eternal minds, creativity is an utterly natural thing just like a mother giving birth to a baby.

The author is the director of the Art Center Nabi. Roh Soh-yeong with the statue of Zhu Xi in China.

by Roh Soh-yeong

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