Yi Saek – Dispelling the Stuffiness


Yi Saek (李穡, 이색, 1328-1396) was a Neo-Confucian scholar and Goryeo Dynasty bureaucrat. He was of the Hansan Yi Clan (韓山李氏, 한산이씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Yeongsuk (潁叔, 영숙); his pen name (號, 호) was Mokeun (牧隱, 목은). He was a contemporary of Jeong Mongju (鄭夢周, 정몽주), who was killed after the collapsed of the Goryeo dynasty for refusing to serve the new Chosun dynasty. For being associated with Jeong Mongju, Yi Saek was exiled. He was allowed to return to government office, but passed away shortly after.

In the poem below, he describes people playing a board game known as Seongbuldo (成佛圖, 성불도), or literally “a drawing of becoming Buddha.” It is very similar to Seunggyeongdo (陞卿圖, 승경도): instead of bureaucratic rankings, players advance through Buddhist eschatology. Buddhism was introduced into Korea during the Three Kingdoms Period (三國時代, 삼국시대, 57-668). Seongbuldo was first played sometime during the Goryeo Dynasty (高麗, 고려,  918-1392). Unlike Seunggyeongdo, this game has not died out and seems to be well known among Korean Buddhist circles. There is even an Android app for this board game.

遣悶. 金上將携酒來. 栗及靑豆侑之.
견민. 김상장휴주래. 률급청두유지.

Dispelling the Stuffiness. Kim Sangjang carrying wine came. Chestnuts and peas, I offered him.

看來喧寂不殊塗 간래훤적불수도
胡乃操戈欲逐儒 호내조과욕축유
晩景深居避人處 만경심거피인처
高聲大叫成佛圖 고성대규성불도
閑敎童子八州府 한교동자팔주주
靜愛族親携酒壺 정애족친휴조호
築室臨流眞素願 축실림류진소원
何須浩蕩歸五湖 한수호탕귀오호

It appears as if noise and silence are not on different paths.
How is it that grabbing spears they intentionally drove out the Confucian scholars?
In my late age, in seclusion I live and places of men I have avoided;
Loud sounds and great shouts at the drawing of becoming Buddha (成佛圖, 성불도).
Leisurely, I asked the children to do errands to the magistrates of the eight states;
Quietly, I esteem my kinsmen and carry a bottle of wine.
To construct a house in the presence of river flow has truly been my original wish.
Why must in this vastness and endlessness return to the five lakes (五湖, 오호)?


  • “Different paths” (殊塗, 수도) may be a reference to The Great Treatise II Chapter (繫辭下, 계사하, Gyesaha) of Book of Changes (易經, 역경, Yeok Gyeong):

易曰: “憧憧往來, 朋從爾思.”
역왈: “동동왕래, 붕종이사.”

It is said in the Yi, “Full of anxious thoughts you go and come; (only) friends will follow you and think with you.”

子曰: “天下何思何慮? 天下同歸而殊塗, 一致而百慮, 天下何思何慮?”
자왈: “천하하사하려? 천하동귀이수도, 일치이백려, 천하하사하려?”

The Master said: “In all (the processes taking place) under heaven, what is there of thinking? what is there of anxious scheming? They all come to the same (successful) issue, though by different paths; there is one result, though there might be a hundred anxious schemes. What is there of thinking? what is there of anxious scheming?”

Translation by James Legge

  • “Grabbing spears they intentionally drove out the Confucian scholars” (操戈欲逐儒, 조과욕축유) is a reference to the King Mu of Zhou Chapter (周穆王, 주목왕, Ju Mok Wang) of Liezi (列子, 열자, Yeolja):

儒生欣然告其子曰: “疾可已也. 然吾之方密傳世, 不以告人. 試屏左右, 獨與居室七日.”
유생흔연고기자왈: “질가이야. 연오지방밀전세, 불이고인. 시병좌우, 독여거실칠일.”

The Confucian scholar joyfully informed his son, “The disease can be stopped. However, our method must be secret from being transmitted to the world so that it will not be informed to others. Send out your left and right servants from the room, so that I along can reside together with him in the room for seven days.”

從之. 莫知其所施爲也, 而積年之疾, 一朝都除.
종지. 막지기소시위야, 이적녀이질, 일조도제.

He followed [the instruction]. No one knew his what work was being given, but after many years of disease, in one morning he fully eliminated the disease.

華子旣悟, 迺大怒, 黜妻罰子, 操戈逐儒生. 宋人執而問其以.
화자기오, 내대노, 출처벌자, 조과축유생. 송인집이문기이.

Hua Zi (華子, 화자, Hwa Ja) had come to his sense and become very furious, kicking out his wife, chastising his son, and grabbing a spear to drive out the Confucian scholar. The people of Song (宋, 송) held him and asked his reason.

華子曰: “曩吾忘也, 蕩蕩然不覺天地之有无.
화자왈: “낭오망야, 탕탕연불각천지지유무.

Hua Zi replied, “First, [because of] my amnesia. It was vast and wide. I did sense the existence and non-existence of the heavens and earth.

今頓識, 旣往數十年來, 存亡得失, 哀樂好惡, 擾擾萬緒起矣.
금돈식, 기왕수십년래, 존망득실, 애락호오, 우우만서기의.

Now that I have suddenly realized: In the past tens of years that life and death, profit and loss, sadness and joy, and liking and disliking were all noisy and troublesome, and ten-thousand affairs have arisen.

吾恐將來之, 存亡得失哀樂好惡之亂, 吾心如此也, 須臾之忘, 可復得乎?”
오공장래지, 존망득실애락호오지란, 오심여차야, 수유지망, 가부득호?”

I fear what the future will bring, the disturbance from life and death, profit and loss, sadness and joy, liking and disliking. My heart is like this: an amnesia for a brief moment, can I have that again?”

  • “Eight states” (八州, 팔주) refers to the eight states of China outside the capital. Yi Saek is referring to all the provinces of Korea outside of capital area (畿甸, 기전).
  • “Five lakes” (五湖, 오호) refers to lakes in ancient Chinese history.


  • 看來(간래) – “It appears as if” or “seemingly.”
  • 晩景(만경) – Literally refers to the scenery around sunset.
  • 深居(심거) – Refers to living at home and not pursuing activities outside there.

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