Chung Dojeon (Jeong Dojeon; 1342 – 1398), also known by the pen name Sambong, was the most powerful medieval Korean noble and politician of the early Joseon dynasty. He was an influential Neo-Confucian ideologue, and a strong supporter and a close adviser to Taejo(King) Yi Seonggye ( 태조 太祖 李成桂), who founded the Joseon dynasty. Jeong Dojeon’s thought played a major role in the development of the political structure of the new Joseon dynasty.
In the late fourteenth century, the decaying Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) was deeply entangled with a corrupt Buddhist monastic system. Buddhist monasteries were exempt from paying taxes, and many Buddhist leaders enjoyed wealth, power and privileged positions in the court. Neo-Confucian scholars in Korea, motivated by a desire to overthrow the Goryeo dynasty, took the Neo-Confucianism of Zuxhi and the Cheng brothers in a philosophical direction which it never achieved in China. Jeong Dojeon wrote a number of essays criticizing Buddhism, but his final treatise, the Bulssi japbyeon ( "Array of Critiques of Buddhism") summarized all of the arguments against Buddhism that had been developed by Hanyu, the Cheng brothers, and Zhuxi into a powerful attack on every aspect of the Seon Buddhist tradition. He argued that Buddhist practices were antisocial and avoided dealing with the actual world, and that the Buddhist doctrine was nihilistic, and that Buddhism, led people to abandon respect for the norms of society and to neglect the importance of cultivating one's character through relationships within human society.
Jeong was born in 1342 to a noble family in Jeongcheongbuk-do Danyanggun, Sambong (충청 북도 忠清北道), in present-day South Korea. His family had emerged from commoner status some four generations before, and had slowly climbed up the ladder of government service. His father was the first in the family to obtain a high government post. His mother, however, was a slave, which made it difficult for him to gain political status. Jeong’s father died while he was still a young boy, and in spite of his high position, he left a poor household and almost no property for his heir. This experience of poverty during his childhood seems to have affected Jeong's thought. Despite his difficulties, he became a student of Yi saek (李穡) and with other leading thinkers of the time such as Jeong Mong-ju (정몽주 鄭夢周), came to have an important influence on Korean politics.
Jeong was a strong supporter and a close advisor of Taejo (King) Yi Seonggye (태조 太祖 李成桂), who founded the Joseon dynasty. He is said to have compared his relationship with Yi to that between Zhang Liang and Gaozu of Han. The two first became acquainted in 1383, when Jeong visited Yi at his quarters in Hamgyong province. Near the end of the fourteenth century, the political and economic problems of the Goryeo dynasty had come to a head, and Neo-Confucian activists sided with the rebel general Yi Seonggye (李成桂 1335-1408). In 1392, Yi toppled the Goryeo government and proclaimed the Joseon dynasty, installing a cabinet composed of Neo-Confucian advisors and making Jeong Dojeon Prime Minister.
Yi Bangwon (King Taejong), the fifth son of King Taejo, had helped his father to overthrow the Goryeo and found the new Joseon dynasty. He expected to be appointed as the successor to the throne, but his younger half-brother, Yi Bangsuk, was more favored by Taejo and Prime Minister Jeong Dojeon, who were afraid of Taejong's strong leadership and hard-line policy against noble families. In 1398, Yi Bangwon led a coup against Jeong Dojeon and Bangsuk, exterminating Jeong's faction and murdering Bangsuk, his siblings and the queen. He then promoted his older brother, Jeongjong of Joseon, as Crown Prince. Shocked and disappointed, King Taejo abdicated in 1399, and Jeongjong succeeded to the throne.
The essays of Jeong Dojeon played a major role in the development of the political structure of the new Joseon dynasty. Jeong's political ideas had a lasting impact on Joseon Dynasty politics and laws. Using Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucian philosophy as the basis of his anti-Buddhist polemic, he criticized Buddhism in a number of treatises as being corrupt in its practices, and nihilistic and antinomian in its doctrines. The most famous of these treatises was the Bulssi japbyeon ("Array of Critiques Against Buddhism" ), completed just before his assassination in 1398. After the establishment of the Joseon dynasty, the Buddhists were purged from positions of political power and relegated to mountain monasteries, prohibited from setting foot in the cities.
Jeong Dojeon was a founding member of the Seonggyungwan, the royal Confucian academy, and one of its early faculty members.
The Neo-Confucianism of the Cheng-Zhu school became established as a government ideology in Korea, and became much more developed as a line of philosophical inquiry than it ever was in China. While Chinese Neo-Confucianism primarily aimed to win intellectuals back from Buddhism, it developed into various schools and sects, some of which, including the Wang Yangming school, resembled Zen Buddhism more closely than Zuxhi’s Confucian doctrines. In Korea, however, Neo-Confucianism was closely associated with political circumstances which did not exist in China. The decaying Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) was deeply entangled with a corrupt Buddhist monastic system. Buddhist monasteries were exempt from paying taxes, and many Buddhist leaders enjoyed wealth, power and a lavish lifestyle that included the possession of prize lands and slaves, and appointment to privileged positions in the court. Neo-Confucian intellectuals increasingly targeted these excesses, and Neo-Confucianism became closely associated with the resistance movement which sought the overthrow of the Goryeo dynasty.
The political ambitions of Neo-Confucian intellectuals resulted in the development of strong philosophical arguments against Buddhism. Neo-Confucianists argued that Buddhist practices were antisocial and avoided dealing with the actual world, and that the Buddhist doctrine was nihilistic. Buddhism, they claimed, led people to abandon respect for the norms of society and to neglect the importance of cultivating one's character through relationships within human society. Attacks on Buddhism began in Korea as early as 982, but did not reach maturity until the mid-fourteenth century, with scholars such as Yi Saek (李穡 1328-1396), Jo Inok (?-1396) and Jeong Mongju (鄭夢周 1337-1392). Their criticisms were primarily political and economic. They complained that excessive government patronage of privileged individuals was deleterious to the well being of the state, and that political authority should be assigned according to merit rather than social status. Gong Hoebaek (1357-1402), Ho Ung (?-1411), and Jeong Chong (1358-1397) developed their criticisms on more philosophical grounds.
Jeong’s major work, Bulssi japbyeon ("Array of Critiques Against Buddhism" ) critiqued every major aspect of contemporary Buddhist doctrine, focusing primarily on the Seon sect. Almost all of Jeong’s examples and illustrations were citations from one of the Cheng brothers’ commentaries on Zhuxi.
Jeong argued that the government, including the king himself, exists for the sake of the people. Its legitimacy could only come from benevolent public service. It was largely on this basis that he legitimized the overthrow of the Goryeo dynasty, arguing that the Goryeo rulers had given up their right to rule.
Jeong divided society into three classes: a large lower class of agricultural laborers and craftsmen, a middle class of literati, and a small upper class of bureaucrats. Anyone outside this system, including Buddhist monks, shamans, and entertainers, he considered a "vicious" threat to the social fabric.
Jeong was among the first Korean scholars to refer to his thought as silhak, or "practical learning." However, he is not usually numbered among the members of the Silhak tradition, which arose much later in the Joseon period.
The confrontation between Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, had its earliest origins in the tracts of the Tang dynasty scholar Hanyu (韓愈 768-824), and culminated in the writings of Jeong Dojeon and Gihwa (기화 己和1376-1433) in Korea during the end of Goryeo and beginning of the Joseon dynasties. Jeong wrote a number of essays criticizing Buddhism, but his final treatise, the Bulssi japbyeon ( "Array of Critiques of Buddhism") summarized all of the arguments against Buddhism that had been developed by Hanyu, the Cheng brothers, and Zhuxi into one final attack on the Seon Buddhist tradition. Along with the arguments of these earlier Neo-Confucian thinkers, which were comprised largely of criticisms of Song Chan nihilism and antinomianism, Jeong Dojeon deplored the decadent practices of the current Goryeo Buddhist saṅgha.
In China, the Neo-Confucian condemnations of Buddhism had been largely ignored, but this was not the case in Korea. The monk Gihwa, the leading figure of the Buddhist saṅgha at the outset of the Joseon, who had himself been an acclaimed Confucian scholar, felt compelled to respond to Jeong's criticism with a treatise entitled Hyeonjeong non ("Exposition of the Correct"). His response was conciliatory, but reproved the Confucians for the disparity between what was said in their classical texts, and what they actually did in practice.
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