Earth Management: A Dialogue on Ancient Korean Wisdom and Its Lessons for Today

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


The following is excerpted from “Earth Management: A Dialogue on Ancient Korean Wisdom and Its Lessons for a New Earth” by Emanuel Pastreich and Ilchi Lee.

MODERATOR: The subject of today’s talk is “The Hongik Spirit and the Future of the Earth.” The subject is a big one, but I believe it won’t be too much for our two guests. They are already engaged in global activity in different fields, and it is my understanding that, when it comes to the value and importance of the Hongik spirit, they are in considerable agreement. We will gradually unravel through our discussion the knotty question of how Hongik spirit can actually contribute to the future of the earth and humanity. First, I’ll ask Ilchi Lee. What do you think is most important for a sustainable future on our planet?

ILCHI LEE: When most people ponder the future of the earth, they probably think of environmental problems. Environmentalism is no longer about protecting beautiful scenery. It has become a practical problem that must be addressed, like a dirty house. If a person’s house is polluted, there’s no way they can stay healthy. Likewise, the environment must be recognized as an urgent problem directly connected to our survival. I guess we could call it the evil of material civilization.

Thanks to indiscriminate consumption, perfectly good things are thrown away, while people are racking their brains over how to deal with the resulting garbage. Spirit has been unable to keep up with the speed of scientific and material development, leading to our current predicament, in which both environment and people are being ruined. Humans are actually the beings who get the most benefit from the earth. Even so, we’ve failed to contribute much to the global environment. We cannot escape the fact that humanity is the primary source of planetary pollution. We cannot escape responsibility for this. People are the source of pollution, so, ultimately, people must change.

MODERATOR: Yes, it seems hardest for people to change. The time that the planet can endure, they say, grows short. What should humans do if they don’t want to be sources of pollution?

LEE: Our sense of purpose in life must change. All behavior arises out of a person’s definition of their own purpose. Our current educational and social system is one that teaches by rote. Success, it says, is studying hard to get into a good college and find a good job to earn more, own more, and consume more than others. If there are three symbols of success, aren’t they money, prestige, and power? This success-centered value system inevitably creates endless stress, and we cannot use it to solve environmental problems, either. We do need money, prestige, and power, but, more than these, we need character, a desire to seek the common good over selfish interests, a spirit that seeks the good of the whole. That’s the Hongik spirit. I believe that fundamental change will happen when more people have the Hongik spirit and when they live for values higher than material success. In other words, when they live for the full development of their own highest character.

EMANUEL PASTREICH: That’s right. This spirit is the most-important part of any solution. When you talk about environmental problems, many people think only of the external environment.

They think first of air pollution, solar panels, things like that. However, the real environmental problems are inside us, not outside. Although invisible, they can be found in human consciousness. Over the past 200 years, everything around us has been commercialized and been turned into an object for consumption due to the influence of industrialization that started in the West. As Ilchi Lee has explained, we have just ripped up nature for power, money, and success. People have looked on nature only as an object that must be developed.

The scientist James Gustave Speth put it this way: “I used to think that the top global-environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Korea today sadly has joined the world of consumption and commercial marketing. Samsung and Hyundai have become two of the most-famous brands globally. The fast-paced life of Korea today has bred high suicide rates at the same time that it has brought modern conveniences.

Korean culture today is something quite far from what it was originally. In old Korea, when people built houses, they thought first of harmony with nature, with the mountains surrounding their villages, with the flowing water, with the clouds and the wind. From the beginning they set out to design houses that people could live in for 100, 200, 300 years. If you go to Hahoe Folk Village in Andong, you can see such a village today. The Korean philosophy of feng shui places importance on the harmony between humanity and the natural environment, and offers approaches to assure that the two can coexist. Human activity can coincide with the flow of nature. We can learn from ancient Korean traditions, and solve modern problems with the environment.

LEE: That’s right. In the East, people have long thought of heaven and earth as living parents. “Chunji Bumo — heaven-earth parents,” they were called. People saw them as entities who gave birth to us and raised us, and as the final destination to which we would have to return. So they didn’t do things that would harm heaven and earth. They couldn’t. I mean, harming heaven and earth was harming themselves. This is the traditional view of nature in the East. It’s no different from the view of nature among American Indians, who saw the earth as Mother.

Such a spirit is also contained in Korea’s founding philosophy, Hongik Ingan. Hong means “wide,” Ik means “benefit,” and Ingan means “human” or “humanity.” So this phrase means “to be of wide benefit to humanity.” The concept contains three profound ideas.

First, is the notion of “humanity.” The word here means more than just people; it includes the world in which people live and even nature.

The second concept is “benefit.” As I mentioned before, the East traditionally viewed nature as humanity’s cosmic parents, so in the past, people didn’t do things that would harm nature. The spirit of Hongik Ingan takes this a step further by including the proactive step of doing good for others in the world, rather than just not doing things that harm others.

Third, one must consider the meaning of “wide.” I believe that this word, more than all the rest, is imbued with the essence of the Hongik Ingan spirit. Through this concept, the object I seek to benefit is not restricted to the individual and limited sphere of me and mine, the people I know, and the places to which I belong. Contained in this word is a sacred mind of compassion that wells up from a place deep within the heart, an impulse that seeks to do good for as many as possible. I cannot have this mind unless I feel that others and I, and nature and I, are interconnected, organic living things. This mindset is the way to resolve the problems we currently face. It is deeply unfortunate that today even Koreans are unaware of the profound significance of the Hongik Ingan spirit.

It is so natural for me to think of myself and the earth as interconnected because, in fact, all life forms are dependent upon the earth, just as human beings are. Our thinking has degenerated, though, so that we too often think of nature as an object of conquest and domination. We are overcome by human selfishness and desire, endlessly seeking to achieve success. We have to find a way for humanity and nature to live together before it’s too late.

PASTREICH: Yes, there is still some hope for the human race and for the earth if we embrace the essence of Hongik and change people’s way of thinking in a direction that’s more wholesome. These days, we see a tendency for everyone to live alone, like isolated islands, detached from society. Community awareness is disappearing in a consumer society, and competition is growing fiercer. What’s worse, even brothers and sisters are competing with each other, and married couples compete with each other, too.

LEE: That’s inevitable if we pursue only material success. Brothers and sisters, and even married couples, end up competing when they rush to be successful, and balance is broken when they compete. People who seek success feel good only when they are better than others, and they feel very bad when they don’t do as well as others. Is there no way for everyone to feel better together, then? I believe, if we can move our focus from success to completion, if we can just change that central value, then everything will change. The value of completion is actually much greater and higher than that of success. If we pursue only success, then the harmony and balance between our bodies and minds, between humanity and nature, and between human beings are all broken, but, if we introduce the value of completion, all these problems can be resolved.


In a life lived in constant competition with others, everything is about getting skills and qualifications according to the world’s standards of success. In a life lived for the sake of completion, the philosophy and values I pursue become my standard. If worldly success stirs up selfishness and a desire to compete, then completion fosters coexistence and harmony.

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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