I am quickly approaching my first full month in Korea. It’s hard to believe that 1/12th of my experience here is over already. Not that it’s flown by, time actually feels slower here. The lifestyle is more relaxed – not that the entire experience has been a picnic so far. But in spite of that, on July 22nd I will have been on the other side of the world for an entire month.
That being said, I have learned a lot about the culture and the people here. There is much still to learn. So far we’ve covered the education system, the traditional markets, and just my overall first impressions. This week’s topic is the spiritual ideals of the Korean people. If I allowed myself to, this article could be a 3,000 word epic. As far as religion is concerned, the vast majority of Koreans subscribe to atheism (46.5%) with the other half divided between Buddhism (22.8%) and Christianity (29.5% – a number which has exponentially increased over the past 15 years). However, what I’ve come to discover is that buried deeper in the hearts of the people than any religion, is a system of ideals unlike any other. For thousands of years, the far east has developed core values primarily from the teachings of one man: Confucius.
The title quote comes from a song from the 1936 musical film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers called Swing Time. This song was also recently referenced in a speech by President Obama. But the purpose of the quote far out dates Mr. Obama and Mr. Astaire. The original version goes something like this, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.” While Confucianism isn’t directly a religion (non-theistic, meaning that you can but do not need to have a belief in the supernatural), it is a close cousin and helps to instruct its followers in many positive ways; the central tenet is basically humanism.
Confucianism is the belief that all humans, through personal and communal reflection and cultivation, can become perfect. We are all able to learn new skills and lessons that will better ourselves (altruistic indeed). The fundamental pieces to Confucianism are Ren, Li, and Yi whereas Ren is the obligation for you to treat others within your community with respect, Li is the set of standards by which one behaves within that same community, and Yi which is the moral and ethical disposition to do good (as opposed to evil).
Confucius lived between 551 – 479 BC in ancient China (I realize the word ancient is redundant when I’ve given you the dates but it’s a word I like and I’m trying to tell a story here so just sit back and enjoy it alright?!). He was considered to be a great teacher, politician, editor, as well as a philosopher and his influence is spread throughout Asia reaching far outside of China through Korea, Japan, Vietnam (and other Southeastern nations) down to Malaysia and Indonesia. He is not only credited with the saying above but with the original ‘Golden Rule‘ – Do Not Do to Others What You Do Not Want Done to Yourself.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit some historical landmarks around the city of Daegu, one of which was the Confucian Academy, or Daegu Hyanggyo (see also: my Facebook Photo Album for additional photography). The academy served a few purposes: the promotion of Confucian ideals, encouraging trade between nations, expanding educational spheres, and the proliferation of the Chinese languages and culture.
The Daegu Hyanggyo was founded in 1398 by King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty. It was completely destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592 but quickly rebuilt seven years later. There are two main buildings on the campus: Daeseongjeon – The Shrine and Myeongyundang – The Lecture Hall. While the academy is no longer in its heyday, the buildings still serve as classrooms where Koreans can come together to study traditional Confucian etiquette. Many Koreans rent the grounds for celebrations such as weddings and holidays. My good friend (through Aaron Bergmann) Albert Lee recently got hitched in Seoul and while I wasn’t there directly, the pictures are amazing and I can’t wait for my own invitation to a Korean wedding ceremony.
All of this begs the question: What have I learned from Confucius so far? Nothing I didn’t already know if I’m being honest. But I am reminded (daily) of a few things; lessons I learned as a Christian, Sinfonian, Freemason, and human being in general – lessons we could all stand to relearn from time to time. Ren is essentially the idea of walking a mile in another man’s shoes – understanding, sympathy, empathy, common ground – so that you are able to fully appreciate other individuals and life as a whole. Li is the idea of not reinventing the wheel. Hundreds of generations have gone before us and left valuable lessons that are very important (I’d go so far as to say critical) for us to not forget, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” (that wasn’t one of Confucius’ saying… or was it?) Yi is the one I’m closest to however, for it roughly translates to Justice – and anyone who knows me knows I have a strong sense of justice, fairness, and equality (hell I’m freakin’ named after it!).
So while I feel that I have learned (or remembered) some things, I know that the road is long (and winding). There is still much to do and I have many days and years ahead of me. What is important is to make the best of them and continue each day, to strive to be the best person I can be (shedding my Northeast culture) by fusing the ideals of the greatest thinkers including Confucius. It is my hope that one day I can look back and know without a doubt that I have become a better man than I was when I started. I hope my readers who know me now will know me then (and, with some luck, agree).
Until next time…