Chapter 4: The Tower of Glass Flashes and Dazzles
On February 21 of the thirtieth year of Emperor Hongwu’s reign, the frigid winter had yet to recede. The streets of Seoul were still gleaming white with snow, as long icicles trailed down from the rafters of the roofs. The sky was exceedingly blue and far away, appearing all the more deserted.
Messenger Zhao Pang made directly for Gyeongbok Palace after returning to Seoul, presenting himself at Geunjeongjeon Hall1.
Zhao Pang was as his name, growing stout 2in his middle ages. He wasn’t tall to begin with, and now his body appeared stocky and solid. He had a double chin, small eyes with a radiant beam, and was well deserving of his reputation as the most renowned diplomatic talent in Korea. Ever since King Taejo had founded Korea, Zhao Pang had gone to the imperial capital every year to pay his respect to the Emperor and offer girls. The ginseng, horses, glazed ware, and sea dogs pelts were exceedingly popular within the imperial capital. The gifts that the Ming court sent in return, such as silks, medicinal ingredients, tea leaves, books, and instruments were also in high demand in Korea.
The Geunjeongjeon Hall was the main hall of the Gyeongbok Palace and the place where the king of Korea held court. Tall, rugged, dignified, and imposing, its interior consisted of carved beams and painted rafters. It was located in the center of the Gyeongbok Palace. Because they were receiving the divine decree from the imperial court today, hundreds of officials were present. The princes were sitting in a row towards the front, and Princess Yi Ning had been swiftly summoned to the Geunjeongjeon Hall.
Lotus was still observing her days of mourning. She wore a white shirt and white skirt, and even the lace at the ends of her sleeves was white. Only the scarf on her neck was an exceedingly pale green, and her entire being was as if a fresh lotus. She wore no powder, but it only served to show that her skin was as creamy as suet, and that she was a beautiful woman. When she slowly drifted by, her skirt did not wave, and her scarf remained straight, as if they were light clouds floating along a flowing breeze. In that moment, those assembled seemed to smell the clean fragrance of the lotus flower.
The officials all looked at messenger Zhao Pang, waiting for him to publicly read out the divine decree he had brought back from the imperial court, inwardly guessing and speculating amongst themselves.
Lee Fangyuan looked only at Lotus when she entered the hall, not even blinking in his stare. Crown Prince Lee Fangshuo tugged on Lee Fangyuan’s sleeve as a reminder, but Lee Fangyuan knew none of this as he continued to focus his gaze upon Lotus. Lee Fangshuo was twelve years older than Lee Fangyuan, and had greatly doted on and protected this little brother. He knew that this brother had played with Lotus when they were both young, and that they were closer than ordinary folks. Lee Fangyuan’s personality was stubborn and headstrong, causing Lee Fangshuo to sigh lightly in his heart, a bit ill at ease. He was worried that this precious brother would cause some trouble, and surreptitiously cast a loaded glance at Lee Fangguo beside him.
It was deadly silent in the hall, so silent that everyone’s breathing could be heard.
Messenger Zhao Pang read out, “By the mandate of heaven, this imperial decree hereby says: Princess Yi Ning of Korea is of two and eight years this year, yet we are seventy years old. What motives lie behind the offering of a girl with such a disparity in ages?” The tone in the imperial decree was exceedingly severe, its meaning that the princess was only sixteen, yet I’m already seventy. ‘There is such a difference in our ages yet you seek to marry off your daughter to me. What motives does Korea have?’ Zhao Pang paused involuntarily, sweat beading his forehead.
He continued to read out, “On the basis of Korea normally being respectful and cautious, and that the citizens are innocent, Korea should prudently guard its borders in the future, and not delve into cunning schemes. In this way the fortune and prosperity of the country shall grow.” Zhao Pang paused again and used his sleeve to wipe away the sweat. He continued to read, “We have a royal crown prince grandson Yun Wen, who possesses a material amount of talent and morals. Since Princess Yi Ning of Korea is gentle and refined, we bestow upon her the title of gentlewoman of the East Palace3, and command for her presence in the capital.”
King Taejo was surprised and overjoyed, leading the officials in a kowtow to receive the imperial decree. Lotus also genuflected in gratitude. Only Lee Fangyuan made no move. The king pretended not to see it, thought for a moment, and asked Zhao Pang. “Do you know this royal grandson’s age?”
“Born in the tenth year of Hongwu, he is 21 this year.”
“Does the royal grandson have a royal consort?”
“The royal grandson married six years ago, wedding the Ma surnamed daughter of the official in charge of keeping the royal kitchens4. The former crown prince passed on four years ago, and the two were bestowed with the titles of “great grandson” and “royal consort”. He has yet to marry again to this day, with only the consort Ma in the harem of his East Palace.”
“Have you met the royal grandson?” The king asked.
“I didn’t the first two times, but happened to bump into him at the Ministry of rites. He was exceedingly gentle and humble. His royal composure and dignity extraordinary. It is said that the prior Crown Prince and the great grandson were all personally taught by the emperor when they were young, and that their knowledge is exceedingly high.” Zhao Pang snuck a glance at Lee Fangyuan when he was finished. Lee Fangyuan’s face was ghastly pale, and he snorted coldly.
All of the assembled officials were quite surprised. How had Zhao Pang known of this matter after just arriving in Seoul? It was said that truly good news never made it out the door, but bad news traveled five hundred kilometers.
King Taejo pretended not to see it, and asked Zhao Pang again. “How was the attitude from the imperial court this time?”
Zhao Pang responded respectfully, “Congratulations to my master and Majesty, I was personally received by the Minister of Rites Zheng Jin, and the format was quite different from previous times. He was very polite and friendly.”
“Did you meet anyone else?”
“The son of the King Yan, Zhu Gaochi, was also present.”
“Son of King Yan…” King Taejo mused deeply for a while. Zhao Pang moved to the side when he waved his hand.
King Taejo asked Lotus, “When would my child like to set out for the imperial capital?”
Lotus lowered her head, “Please make the decision, royal father.”
Lee Fangyuan looked at Lotus, and then at the king. He prepared to get up, but was forcibly held down by Crown Prince Lee Fangshuo and Lee Fangguo next to him.
King Taejo calculated in his mind. Even though it was a royal grandson instead of the emperor, although it was just a lowly ranked gentlewoman, this was an official conferment of a noble title from the imperial court this time. This was a precedent in Korean history, and they must start off on a good foot. It would be up to Lotus’ fortune where she could end up in the future – she might even make it to the rank of Imperial Noble Consort5. She was perfectly justifiable entering the imperial capital and taking up residence in the East Palace now. It would be inadvisable to wait, in case new problems cropped up unexpectedly. He indicated the eunuch next to him to fetch the almanac, perused it for a while, and said, “The 29th of next month is an auspicious day. Let’s set out on this day!”
Lotus curtseyed, “Yes!”
King Taejo instructed Zhao Pang, “Notify the imperial court with a fast horse.”
Lee Fangyuan fell to a sitting position on his seat in the distance, his face downcast.
Shan Xi was jumping up and down again. Lotus frowned faintly and looked at Shan Xi. Hai Shou also seemed rather ill at ease standing beside her. Shan Xi was a servant who had been born in the Cao family, and had been with Lotus since she was young. She was 15 now, round and chubby, with an exceedingly lively and restless personality. She was an avid talker. Lotus always felt that she talked too much, although it did indeed liven things up.
Shan Xi lowered her voice a little bit, “Princess, are you bring that much scripture? There’s way, way, way, way too many!” She glared at Hai Shou afterwards with a provocative glare, “Can you protect that many?”
The three of them were at the Anguk Temple and preparing the scriptures that they were going to bring to the imperial court. In the latter half of the Goryeo dynasty of the thirteenth century, Korea had spent several decades to carve the renowned Tripitaka Koreana6, the Vinaya, Sutras, and the Abidharma. Out of ten thousand scrolls in total, there were also nearly three thousand copies of the dharma, and almost eighty thousand wooden plaques carved with scripture. Referred to as the “Goryeo Tripitaka”, this encompassed the Tripitaka of Northern Song and Khitan7. It was vast and erudite, as well as strictly checked against authoritative texts. Many of the Buddhist dharmas were not even possible to find in China, so this was a rare gem in the world of Buddhism Tripitakas. Therefore, King Taejo and Lotus had specially discussed whether or not to bring this set of scripture to consciously display the peaceful humility of Korea, but at the same time, convey that they were not to be dismissed.
“I only protect the princess. I don’t care about the scriptures or about you.” Hai Shou crossed his arms and said coldly. Hai Shou’s average body was always standing erectly straight, emanating the unique sense of rigid stiffness found amongst martial arts practitioners. His thin lips, small eyes, and large face, was always full of grave severity. He was always sparring with his words and smiles.
Shan Xi was hotly irritated. “Leave me alone then! I don’t care about you, don’t come looking for me!”
Lotus found it amusing watching the two bicker. These two were as if they had been enemies in their past life. They fought whenever they met, and it only ever ended when Hai Shou was silent and said no more.
Master Zichao walked over slowly at this time, and the three of them hastened to scramble to their feet and greet him. Master Zichao was already almost 80, and his originally diminutive body seemed to have shrunken even more – he seemed even shorter than Lotus. His white monk robes were spotless, his beard and eyebrows graying, with a pair of unusually warm and lively eyes on his wrinkled face.
Master Zichao looked at the multitude of scriptures and books piled high to the rafters, their numbers such that they would make even an ox perspire. He smiled and said, “To save all beings, this is good indeed, indeed!”
Lotus quickly said, “This is what your disciple should be doing, Master gives overly high praise.”
Master Zichao picked up a copy of scripture and started paging through it, not speaking for a while.
Lotus asked out of curiosity, “Master’s been to the imperial court before, right? What is it like?”
Zichao thought for a moment and said slowly. “I studied for many years in the imperial court when I was young, traveling far and wide. The reach of the imperial court is vast, and its history is illustrious. Its military and civil accomplishments can hold its own all over the world, and absolutely not something that my Korea can even draw parallel to. The fierce Mongols once ran rampant over the land, but were finally expelled in the end.” He paused and then said, “There are a galaxy of talents in the imperial court, and even tigers and dragons are hidden amongst the general population, with experts present in large numbers. The princess has a pure heart and spirit, and should adhere to the word of ‘endure’ on this trip, above all else.”
“Thank you for master’s reminders, your disciple will keep this in mind.”
Master Zichao put down the book of scripture in his hand, and took out two letters. He asked, “Will the princess pass by Beiping?”
“Your disciple will naturally pass by, given master’s instructions.”
Master Zichao passed the letters onto Lotus and said, “One of these is for Master Hui Qin, he is a Zen monk of my Goryeo to begin with. The other is for the Indian monk Zhi Kong. Both of them are at the Daguan Temple at Beiping. The three of us used to converse together regarding scripture and meditate together. Twenty years have passed by in the blink of an eye, I wonder how the two of them are now?” He gazed off into the distance as he spoke.
Lotus took the letters with both hands and comforted him, “Your disciple will surely deliver the letters. The two of them are both studying Zen like master, with boundless fortune. They are surely both quite well, Master should not be overly concerned.”
Master Zichao nodded and held another item in his palm. He said, “And this.” Lotus took a careful look. It was a tiny nine layered tower. Although it was only two inches tall, it was pure and flawless, glittering and transparents, sparkling the light of lazurite, but she didn’t know what it was made of.
Master Zichao continued to speak, “This is the Tower of Glass, and was given to me thirty years ago by Master Hui Ren. This is the heritage of Pochon Temple, and is passed down through the generations. It has accompanied me for many years. Lazurite is the head of the seven treasures of Buddhism8, and can contain the light of wisdom from Buddha, lighting up the shadows of the three worlds9. Take it with you, the power of Buddha is incredible and unbounded. May it keep you safe.”
“Master… this is too precious, your disciple cannot have this.” Lotus’ eyes were teary as she looked at Zichao.
“Your master is old and will go to the heavens at some unknown time. Master is afraid that I’ll never see you again after you set out for this trip.” Master Zichao said slowly, his face calm. After decades of training, Master Zichao’s eyes were as glistening and translucent as lazurite. In his gaze upon Lotus, his benevolent eyes were suffused with reluctance.
“Master!” Lotus’ eyes brimmed with tears as she fell to the ground with both knees, accepting the tower of glass with both hands.
Light flowed throughout the tower of glass as if it had life. Had generations of zen masters given life to the tower in their benevolence? Had the thirty years of master’s training been infused into the tower? Or was it that the tower of glass was already an acclaimed bodhi, and had merely descended to the mortal realm to experience reincarnation, and to accompany humans during their cycle of life?
Lotus cupped the tower of glass as she was bowed at Zichao’s feet, speaking through tears, “May Master obtain the wisdom of the bodhi in your next life, your body as lazurite; clear on the inside and outside, flawless and without stain, extensive in your light.”
Master Zichao’s warm, clear eyes, also sparkled with tears.
1. Hall in which king grants formal audiences.↩
2. Pang is the Chinese character for fat.↩
3. Traditionally a place where the Chinese crown prince lives.↩
4. A much grander position than it sounds. He was in charge of overseeing all banquets, food and drink for all rituals, etc.↩
6. Three main categories of text that is Buddhist canon.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripiṭaka↩