Neo-Confucian Principle(s) in the Thought of Sun Myung Moon


by Thomas Selover

2014-04-23 15.01.09 croppedReverend Moon was arguably one of the most influential of modern Koreans, and certainly one of the most controversial. In order to better understand his thought, it is natural and helpful to pay attention to Korean cultural influences, including Confucian and Neo-Confucian content, which have helped to shape the patterns of his thinking.

In his autobiography, As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen, Rev. Moon recounts his early childhood in an environment where fervent Christian revivalism was spreading in a society deeply imbued with Confucian patterns of life and thought. He noted,

When I turned ten, my father had me attend a traditional school in our village, where an old man taught Chinese classics… At school, we read the Analects of Confucius and the works of Mencius, and we were taught Chinese characters.

Through this education, he developed a life-long love of Chinese characters, and he delighted in expounding new insights from the form of the characters. This article explores some family resemblances between Neo-Confucian thought and Unification thought in four areas, hoping to shed some intriguing light in both directions.

Li  理 as “Principle”

The first evidence of Neo-Confucian content is in the phrase “Divine Principle” or “The Principle,” used in ordinary Unification parlance as shorthand for Rev. Moon’s teachings, particularly insofar as those teachings are understood to be revelatory. Because the Divine Principle (DP) text relies on biblical quotations to advance its philosophical and theological points, it has generally been  viewed in relation to Christian theology. However, the background for many of the ideas contained in the DP book, including the title itself, can be traced to Confucian and Neo-Confucian themes instead.

In Neo-Confucian thought, li (principle) signifies the inherent principles of the natural world, as well as our human ability to understand those principles (intelligibility). For Neo-Confucian thought, li are immanent in the world of experience, rather than being primarily conceptual or formulaic.

Recognizing the Neo-Confucian background to the concept of li (principle) helps us to understand that “the Principle” is not a book, but rather the book called Divine Principle (DP) is an account of the Principle. Recalling this Neo-Confucian insight on the nature of li may help Unificationists avoid the kind of disputations over verbal formulas that have plagued the history of Christianity in the West.

Yin and Yang

Another site of Confucian influence is in the first major section of Exposition of Divine Principle, “The Principle of Creation.” This section builds up a basic theory of how the characteristic patterns of the myriad things manifest the character of their Source or Creator. In the course of this exposition, there is a direct reference to Confucian and Neo-Confucian sources. The text mentions the Yijing (Book of Change) as the basis of East Asian philosophy and continues:

There, the origin of the universe is the Great Ultimate (Ultimate Void). From the Great Ultimate arose yang and yin, and from yang and yin came forth the Five Agents — metal, wood, water, fire and earth — and from the Five Agents all things came into existence.

This turns out to be a paraphrase of the opening lines of a key Neo-Confucian text called “Explaining the Diagram of the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi-t’u shuo)” by Chou Tun-i. This text then proceeds to trace the interaction of yin and yang in the unfolding of the cosmos. Exposition of Divine Principle specifically affirms the polarity of yin and yang as a principle that is found throughout all things.

As Rev. Moon put it in an oft-quoted discourse titled “In Search of the Origin of the Universe”: “If we go deeper and deeper in our search for the origin of the universe, we arrive at God. We come to know that God possesses dual characteristics of male and female.” Although Unification piety often continues to use the male-language for God inherited from the Christian tradition, there seems to be little justification for that in light of the Principle. Indeed, at the Coronation of God ceremony, which Rev. Moon held in 2001, God was represented by a dual throne. In this respect, we can say that the One is best represented by two.

Unmanifest and Manifest

Early Neo-Confucianists debated the substantiality of the Great Ultimate. The issue was whether the “Great Ultimate” from which the substantial world derives is likewise substantial, or whether there is a separate, incorporeal, unmanifest “Ultimate Void” behind the scenes, as suggested by the Diagram:


The Diagram of the Supreme Polarity.

Historically, the debate was won by those who argued that although the “unmanifest” (Ultimate Void, the top circle in the diagram) and “manifest” (Great Ultimate, the second circle) are spoken of and depicted separately, the two terms should be understood as inseparable descriptions of the One Source. This became the orthodox Neo-Confucian view, which was later used in both China and Korea as a standard for higher education and the government civil service examinations.

Later in his life, an intriguing new theme emerged in Rev. Moon’s teaching: “The God of Night and the God of Day.” Members of the Unification community have found this terminology genuinely puzzling. However, when this theme is placed in fruitful proximity with the Neo-Confucian “Diagram of the Great Ultimate,” it can be seen as likewise depicting a continuous flow from the unmanifest and mysterious to the manifest and evident, metaphorically from Night to Day. The Unmanifest, or “Night,” seems to be beyond specific characteristics or predicates, simply the unfathomable. Nevertheless, when the two aspects (“poles”) are held tightly together, there does seem to be one thing that could be predicated of the Unmanifest — namely, the creative urge or desire to manifest. As with the yin-yang polarity, the One is best represented as two.

Hoondokhwe and Neo-Confucian Fellowship

As Unificationists know, Rev. Moon initiated a pattern for regular study gatherings, known as hoondokhwae (“gatherings for reading and study”). Over recent years, the recommended format and the scope of texts for this practice have been in a process of continuous change and adjustment. The practice of hoondokhwae may take various forms, from communal reading to interactive discussion. This seems to be another sign of Neo-Confucian influence, and reflecting on the Neo-Confucian practice can suggest ways that hoondokhwae might develop further.

One of the discoveries of the Neo-Confucian fellowship was a mutual, reflective investigation of “classical” or scriptural texts, coupled with personal practice, in a way that each could enhance the other. This practice was called “savoring the text” and “investigation of things.” It was central to the process of “savoring the text” that it be done in a hermeneutic circle of like-minded fellow students. The shared value of “reverence” indicates not only the attitude with which each individual approaches the classical texts, but also the attitude with which those engaged in Neo-Confucian learning would treat one another.

If the Unification hoondokhwae is to continue and expand as a genuinely enriching practice for Unificationists, there must develop a similarly open-ended approach to the texts — coupled with “small group” dynamics of shared “investigation.” In such a circle, as in the Neo-Confucian fellowship, participants can grapple with the texts’ difficulties on several levels (literal meaning, metaphorical implications, and “precept to practice”). The practice, then, would provide an opportunity for discernment of li (The Principle) to take place collectively. Savoring the words and phrases of hoondokhwae texts, mutually exploring the Principle in patterns of thought, and sharing the experiences of daily life in light of those texts could create a very attractive hoondokhwae practice.

One of the challenging issues for the Unification community going forward is how to study Rev. Moon and Mrs. Moon’s teachings so that a creative understanding of the Principle is possible, and regularly experienced. A concern of mine is that the insights recorded in the Principle books might become rote, recited rather than reflected upon. Recalling Neo-Confucian examples may help to forestall the tendency to rely on literalistic readings of particular texts, in favor of the practice of experiential savoring. Then, hoondokhwae itself would imply an invitation to investigate the Principle for oneself, in a circle of like-minded friends, as it appears in the texts and in the observable world around us.

During this period, just after the passing of Sun Myung Moon, it is an urgent matter for the Unification community to come to a new self-understanding of what it means to live by the Principle, without depending on his constant charismatic leadership. In this regard, I believe that an awareness of the resonances with Neo-Confucian thought and practice can be of much assistance.♦

Dr. Thomas Selover (UTS Class of 1977) is a professor at Cheongshim Graduate School of Theology in Korea. He received his doctorate from Harvard University Divinity School in comparative religion and Confucian thought, and has taught at universities and colleges in the U.S., Canada, China, and Korea.

This article is adapted from Dr. Selover’s full paper, “Neo-Confucian Principle(s) in the Thought of Sun Myung Moon,” Journal of Unification Studies, vol. 15, 2014. The entire 2014 issue is now available online.

Photo at top:Sun An Moon Yin Yang” by Micheal John Senkiw.

20 thoughts on “Neo-Confucian Principle(s) in the Thought of Sun Myung Moon

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  1. Thank you Dr. Selover, for this is a very good and insightful article. Having lived in Korea for more than 14 years, I couldn’t help but compare the culture where I found myself in with the one I was born in. In the beginning it was just too much; in fact, I wrote a short essay about 120 differences between typical Dutch and Korean culture, and even gave the ambassador of the Netherlands a copy. Some of the aspects I encountered are indeed negative — for example, the general acceptance of certain “bodily noises” by especially older men.

    Nevertheless, after extensive travelling and working in different circumstances in Korea I came to conclude that the Korean culture is superior in most ways to all the nations we have lived and worked in. We as members are asked to study the Korean language over and over again and it is indeed important, but I think the Korean language is merely the vessel to learn more and more about the Korean culture itself, of which language is a part. It already starts with addressing others, the most basic one of social tradition and interaction, which is totally different than in Western culture.

    We have to come to a point of identifying all these different aspects of both Eastern and Western culture, determine which ones are closer to Heaven, put them on paper and teach them. Cultural “streamlining” needs to take place, leaning towards the Korean way, instead of the often more easily accepted Hollywood/secular way which is presented in movies we are seeing much too much of these days I think. Even a handbook for beginning couples who will start their family life as international couples. This may contribute to more unity, harmony and hopefully to a diminishing effect on the number of tragic “breaking” blessings. Instead it will give the community more unifying identity and power, I believe.

    1. Thank you, Frans. Your comment points to an important connection between “principle” and “propriety” (respectfulness, politeness, etc.) that has deep Confucian roots.

  2. Urgent self-understanding? Is such ever not needed? Or even possible? A very wonderful journey in any case.

    Thank you, Dr. Selover for this overview of the “fruitful proximity” as you put it so well.

    And for the hoondokhwae.

  3. Thomas, I appreciated very much your discussion of “li” (principle). For me, this concept serves as a point of unification of science and religion, for principles of the natural world can be better understood through science. Having a degree in mechanical engineering, I was very aware of this in studying strength of materials, heat transfer, etc., which are related to principles in the natural world, and having a religious teaching that treasures such principles seems important in the modern world.

    The yin and yang are observable manifestations of principle as well. However, when one moves into speculation about the great ultimate, one moves from science to theology, for theology can be considered teachings or doctrines that contain suppositions about non-observable, or not-yet-observable, reality.

    The Hoondokhwe, as well as the “Eight Sacred Texts,” if overemphasized, seem to be the basis for knowledge stagnation and “groupthink.” They teach and reformulate what is known so far but do not support in themselves the not-yet-discovered. They are good for education that provides a good foundation for people to engage the world with the best we can give them, but when we try to interpret new situations or discoveries through canonized texts, we often have to “theologize,” or rationally justify the newly-discovered in light of the old. This leads to theological argument and debate and often we have to ask whether a sacred text is the best way to describe a new discovery. Yet, if we become overly dependent on theology we run this risk.

    I hope our movement can continue to maintain a healthy relation between science and religion, and it seems the original concept of li had it, more than Christian thought ever did. This may be the reason the West suffered such trauma between science and religion that the East never felt. Do you think neo-Confucian thought was more theological, drifting away from openness to science and becoming more ideological and based on suppositions with its emphasis on group study of texts?

    1. Gordon,

      Thanks for this. I would say that it was the early Neo-Confucians who emphasized li (Principle) more than the ancient Confucians. There was a chance for proto-science to develop, but the main emphasis was on personal cultivation, instead of natural investigation. They were more interested in harmonizing with nature (becoming one-body with all things) than in dominating nature in the way that led to the progression of science.

  4. Thomas, thank you very much for your thoughtful article. I agree very much with your points regarding the Neo-Confucian background of the Principle and the value of Hoondokhwe. My experience is that Hoondokhwe in small groups in no way leads to “groupthink” or knowledge stagnation, but in fact just the opposite. When done with people who have various backgrounds and experiences who respect and listen to one another, I have found it leads to new and deeper understandings. I have found that especially studying True Parents’ words in the original Korean language together with others helps to open doors to a deep, spiritual and mysterious world where one can ponder how the Principle permeates all existence, where the boundaries between religion and science cease to exist, where one realizes how little one truly knows and understands and thus where one feels inspired to explore further.

    1. Robert,

      Since your comment largely relates to my comment, I’d like to say that I agree with you when small groups are conducted as you describe, with good input from people of different backgrounds who add their insights. You belong to the type of group I would enjoy participating in. What I was referring to, when I said “if overemphasized,” was the degeneration of inherited knowledge into a situation where no critical discussion is allowed, or what discussion is allowed, is not allowed to add any knowledge to the inherited texts. For example, a meeting in which the leader asks for a passage to be read, expounds on it, and then adjourns the meeting. I have encountered this in various instances and would not want to see this become the norm. Such meetings are largely an exercise in institutional power.

      1. Gordon,

        Thanks for your comment. That has been my experience when doing Hoondokhwe with brothers and sisters in our movement. Hoondokhwe has enabled me to get to know some truly amazing people from whom I have learned so many things. Also, as I recall, somewhere in the new Cheong Seong Gyeong there is a passage in which Father urges us to have debates regarding the meaning of what we read during Hoondokhwe. Finally, I have found studying with others True Parents words in Korean to be an especially deep experience and highly recommend doing so.

        1. Robert and Gordon,
          Well said both; thanks for your comments. For me, the benchmark of “savoring the texts” is the early Neo-Confucian group/s, when the “members” were excited to discover the Principle together and even traveled long distances to do so. That is, before the content became the “orthodox learning” that was required for government civil service exams. I agree with Robert that working with and puzzling over the original Korean text is helpful to that sense of discovery. The very challenge of the study leads to the question, “Yes, but, what does this really mean?”

  5. Dr. Anderson, I agree with you, but, in general, until there are groups where people gather who have all reached a certain level of spirituality, and largely have overcome the seven major sins or are clearly doing their best to do so, it is better where one anointed person is guiding a meeting after having sincerely prepared in prayer, and then expounds on it.

  6. Since 1980, members of the Unification community throughout the world were asked to learn the Korean language, a request only a few have tried to follow. To learn Korean is not just a mission or responsibility; it’s a road necessary to understand TP’s deep heart.

    1. I agree fully. I think another aspect of the call to learn some Korean is so that we can participate more effectively in policy-related discussions.

  7. Three schools thought, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism…collated by Western philosophy under the name Neo-Confucianism (NC). There is an overlapping of shared ideas by these three distinct groups. NC is a type of Eastern non-theology compared to the personified theology of biblical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Divine Principle draws from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions. Into this appealing mix, we have to add the findings of positive psychology and scientific humanism. Thus, it is understandable that people would ask… what do you mean by Unificationism? Most Unificationists would struggle to answer the inquiry because the answer would include a great deal of cross-cultural and scholarly explanation.

    1. The usage of the word “Li” with the meaning of Principle was a departure from how the word “li” had been used in Confucian thought. The early meaning of “li” focused upon the proper matching of a person’s behavior or etiquette with a particular social setting — the five social relationships. The relationships ranged from kings and nobility, to civil servants, parents and children, sibling relationships and ties to friends. Later, the meaning of “Li” was extended to include the ideas of how the cosmos was ordered by universal laws. The usage of the word Li had an innovative dual meaning in Neo-Confucian thought. The Divine Principle picks up on this dual usage or dual meaning of Principle (Li). Ritual human relationships (li) and the function of the universe (Li) are to be in purposeful alignment as the harmony of dual characteristics. The heavens and humanity were to merge, become one through the understanding of Principle.

      1. A clarification: There are two different words “Li” involved, one which indicates ritual, propriety and, as you say, “matching a person’s behavior or etiquette with a particular social setting.” It is pronounced “li” in Chinese and “ye” 예 in Korean; the hanja for that word is 禮. The other word is Li that means principle, pattern or coherence (理), which is the word used in Divine Principle (원리, 原理).

    2. Thanks for your comment, Robert. I agree that there are Buddhist and Taoist as well as Confucian elements in Neo-Confucianism. While the term “Neo-Confucianism” is a Western one, it represents a distinct intellectual movement in China, Korea and Japan (known as Song-Ming Learning of Principle, or Learning of Human Nature and Principle). Rather than non-theology, I would call Neo-Confucianism non-personal theology. I fully agree that Unificationism includes great cross-cultural richness.

  8. My interest in Neo-Confucianism is aesthetic, an appreciation of the two central focuses (loci) of an understanding of Nature and the learning of human nature. It is the investigation of things from outward experiences (activity) from our physical senses and of the original mind from the cultivated discipline of inward reflection (stillness). Neo-Confucian study retains the formality and open-mindedness of Confucian naturalism. It is an appreciative sentimentality that can be observed in the wide range of diverse cultures (Hindu/Buddhist) and biblical (Abrahamic) religions. I share your concern that our community of believers grow beyond a “rote or literalistic” understanding of the Principle, especially, Part II of the Divine Principle. That’s asking a lot of people who perhaps have become too attached to the repetitive cycle (samsara) of sibling struggle and restoration through indemnity.

  9. Robert Yee wrote: “That’s asking a lot of people who perhaps have become too attached to the repetitive cycle (samsara) of sibling struggle and restoration through indemnity.”

    A wonderfully wry, (parting?) shot.

    More crudely, one might even repeat (inwardly, only): “Karma is a b____” with Pogo’s mantra added to that, “And he/she is us!”

    Ever onward!

  10. How do you all define the concept of “original mind?” Is this a concept that comes from Neo-Confucianism or Taoism? Try doing a search for the term in the Principle of Creation. What does it mean in terms of the Principle of Creation? Thanks.

  11. The term “neo-Confucianism” is modern Western terminology. Traditional Chinese philosophers called it the “Li school of philosophy”.

    It was during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD) that this philosophy became popular. Representative philosophers were Ju Si, Wan Yan Min, etc.

    Confucius himself did not present his philosophy in the form of laws and principles but as a system of ethical codes. The Li philosophers managed to use Taoist principles to interpret Confucius’ teachings by advocating that Confucian ethics were natural moral principles.

    A side note here is that unlike the Aristotelian philosophy of science that triggered the Renaissance, Taoism had never played such a role in ancient China because, from the viewpoint of Unificationism, it wasn’t in divine providence that the Renaissance start in China.

    Modern Chinese philosophers such as Fong Yew Lang (1895-1990) brought neo-Confucianism to a new height. He used Western concepts of “physical and metaphysical” realms by interpreting that religions and philosophy such as Confucianism can only be understood by our metaphysical senses.

    Regarding the elements of neo-Confucianism in Rev. Moon’s teaching, it is my view that (1) it is not discreditable that Unificationism is a new revelation as revelation is affected by cultural surroundings just like Jesus’ teachings were affected by Judaism; (2) If a belief is truth, it is beyond any boundaries of space and time; and, (3) Unificationism is like a melting pot of Eastern and Western thought, with philosophies of science, history, politics, etc. It is a universalism aiming to recreate a coherent cosmos.

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