There is a big hardware store on the way to my house. The owner of the store opens quite early in the morning and starts the day off by putting out very large hardware supplies in front of the store. It could be due to the lack of space, but he does this to show customers what he is selling. Among the items, a couple of ladders which ranged from very small ladders with only a few steps to large ones stood out. As I glanced at these ladders, a verse from a book I had read recently came to mind. The title of the book is, “Dasan Eurok Cheongsang” by Jeong Min, a professor at Hanyang University. The following is a verse on the teachings of Jeong Yak-yong who wrote under the pen name of Dasan:
The hill of enlightenment touches the sky, however, it is beyond the reach of ladders and steps. If there is a place within yourself that you have not reached, cultivate yourself morally and spiritually to reach that place.
In order to reach a higher place, ladders and steps are essential. It is useless if the ladder is not high enough. With a long ladder you will be able to reach both high places as well as low ones. However, with a short ladder it will be impossible to reach high places. In that sense, learning is the act of lengthening your ladder enabling you to reach goals that you have set for yourself. However, there is no end to the process of learning. Do you think you will be able to apply the knowledge that you have learned at the university in the real world? In an age of rapid change, you will only be able to put into practice what you have learned for a couple of years before it is considered to be old-fashioned or out-of-date. It is comparable to the short ladder you once used and soon it became useless since you could not reach high places with that ladder. In order to survive in the real world, it is essential that you constantly stretch out that inner ladder to reach those high places in your field of studies.
Start the semester off on the right foot by setting goals that you can reach with that inner ladder you have developed. Learn from the mindset and attitudes of scholars from the past. “Hakyeoyeoksu” is an adage that means learning is the same thing as rowing a boat. If you cannot go forward, it will lead to regression and degeneration. Do your best to move forward in a consistent manner — even if it is at a slow pace. If you come to a halt, then all of the things that you have achieved will come tumbling down.
The words of Dasan and “Hakyeoyeoksu” contain teachings that tell us to stretch out our inner ladder that will take us far in our lives. We must navigate our vessel against the tides of rapid change bracing ourselves for unexpected storms and obstacles along the way. The world we live in is similar to a river where the water constantly flows with its strong currents. Going against the current could lead to regression. Always keep in mind that if you halt, you will falter.
Translated by Julia Kim