Thrive Global
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Thrive Global

Removing the Oldest Wall

Access to knowledge is a major step in deepening community, because it welcomes individuals into the ongoing conversation that is the life of community. A compelling example took place in Hanyang, Korea (now Seoul, South Korea), in 1443, when Sejong the Great (1397–1450) had a new phonetic alphabet, Hangul, created for the people of Korea. This extended literacy beyond the ruling class. With the creation of Hangul, knowledge and the conversation it opens became available to everyone. Now everyone had a voice.

This monarch found the courage to go beyond his own frame of reference to empower his people as they had never been empowered. How do we find this courage in ourselves?

A Buddhist by nature and education, Sejong became king when his elder brothers, seeing his gifts, abdicated their chance to rule so that Sejong ascended the throne. He quickly showed his innovation and compassion.

Sejong created a farmer’s handbook, to gather and preserve the experience of farmers. He allowed his people to pay more or less tax according to the fluctuations of their prosperity and hardship. When the palace had a surplus of food, Sejong distributed food to the peasants and farmers in need. And he established the Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon) at his palace, a gathering of scholars, sages, scientists, and physicians charged with furthering specific knowledge in science, medicine, and literature while making these advances available to all.

Moved by the illiteracy of his people, Sejong instructed scholars in the Hall of Worthies to construct a phonetic language that would be easy to learn. Three years later, the new language, Hangul, was issued on October 9, 1446.

Within days, new practitioners, regardless of their background, were able to read, write, and converse. The gift of language removed the oldest wall between the villages of Korea, the thick wall of ignorance. As a life of exchange spread throughout the country, the culture became animated.

In his introduction to Hangul, Sejong wrote that he was saddened by his people’s inability to state their concerns. And so, he charged the educated to help the uneducated, not just by sharing knowledge, but by offering the uneducated the means by which to become equal members of their society. He placed the shared interests and common well-being of his people first. He made literacy free and extended the capacity for voice to the Korean people forever.

In modern Korea, October 9 is still celebrated as Hangul day, honoring Sejong. His ability to lead by listening affirms that the first cause of community, and the first strength of character for a leader, is to assess the needs of the community and to find the means by which to enhance everyone’s capacity.

Sejong had an immense and gentle understanding of life. This is remarkable considering the heartless ambition of his father, Taejong Joseon (1367–1422). King Taejong was a crude monarch who murdered his own brother to gain the throne. To limit the possibility of rivals, he killed all four brothers of his queen, as well as Sejong’s in-laws. Surprisingly, Sejong assumed the throne while Taejong was still alive. What did Taejong see in his son and why did he trust it, after a life of distrust? And what allowed Sejong to rule so differently than his father? How did the compassionate son find and maintain his own identity under the cloud of a ruthless father? This ability to break from the cruel traditions we inherit is important to demonstrate in our own time, where the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is only perpetuating the cruelty of his father, Kim Jong-il.

The example of a compassionate king who somehow came from a ruthless father holds one of the keys to enlightened social change. For we are not doomed to the patterns we inherit. Sejong relied on a different kind of authority than his murderous father. Ultimately, the integrity of a community depends on the field of trust that the authority of our kindness makes possible. Few of us will ever be kings or presidents or ministers of state, but to care about the concerns of those we live with, and to strengthen the web of connection between us — rather than tear it down — means we won’t be alone in the storms or harvests that come.

This excerpt is from my new book, More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World, which was published last month by Atria Books.

*photo credit: Pixabay



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Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo


New York Times #1 bestselling author, poet, and philosopher. Learn more: