The Psychology of a Sacrifice: Seen through Yulgok Yi I’s “Treatise on Death, Life, Ghosts, and Spirits”

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 39:157-178 (2023)
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In his “Treatise on Death, Life, Ghosts, and Spirits” (Sasaeng gwisin chaek 死生 鬼神策), Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584) rejects the Buddhist accounts of an afterlife because the dead have neither vital stuff (gi 氣; C. qi) nor consciousness (jigak 知覺; C. zhijue) when their death is natural and complete. Without these, there can neither be reward nor retribution, which is the basis of an afterlife. Yet, at the same time, Yulgok commends Confucian sacrifices for the dead. When there is utmost sincerity (seong 誠; C. cheng) and pattern-principle (ri 理; C. li) to do so, the living can gather the dead’s already dissipated vital stuff. Yulgok argues that this is possible because the spirits of descendants are the spirits of their ancestors. This paper asks three questions that arise from the “Treatise” by bringing together Yulgok’s various works. First, how do the dead, with only pattern-principle, motivate the living to gather the dissipated vital stuff? Second, Yulgok explains that the living may gather the dissipated vital stuff of their ancestors by virtue of having the same spirit, but what does he mean by the “same spirit”? Third, why does Yulgok restrict certain classes from certain sacrifices when individuals can gather even the dissipated vital stuff with utmost sincerity? While answering each question, this paper aims to channel the discussions of vital stuff and objects to those of emotional and mental states, using a sacrifice as a medium.


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