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The Moon in the Water

Reflections on an Aging Parent

Kathy J. Phillips

Publication Year: 2008

Named a Best Book of 2008 by Library Journal

In a series of moving vignettes, the author begins by describing a particular representation of Water-Moon Kuan Yin, a Buddhist teacher and goddess associated with compassion, who often sits on a precarious overhang or floats on a flimsy petal. Then Kuan Yin steps out of the frame to join the author in the mundane challenges of caring for her father-transferring his health insurance, struggling with a wheelchair van, managing adult diapers, or playing in the fictions of dementia. From perplexed to poignant to funny, the vignettes record the working-class English of a fading but still wise dad, and they find other human versions of Kuan Yin in a doctor who will still make house calls or kind strangers in the street.

The book includes ten illustrations: both classical representations of Kuan Yin and also the author's own drawings, which adapt Kuan Yin in an act of practical spirituality, reading art through life and life through art. Each vignette invites the harried caregiver to take a deep breath and meditate on the trials and joys of caring for an aging parent.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xiii

These vignettes record the interactions, wary and warm, of an elderly father and a middle-aged daughter living in the same house after many years of independence. Each vignette describes a painting of the Water-Moon Kuan Yin type in Buddhist art, then ventures into some...

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Dug Up Kuan Yin

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pp. 1-3

Someone has chiseled Kuan Yin on a slab of stone. As near as I can make out from the photo in a book, she sits on the ground on her island, holding a willow sprig in one hand and a water jar in the other. The outline of the full moon marks her off from rows of etched calligraphy, in two separate inscriptions...

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Pilgrim Gifts

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pp. 4-7

This illustration, with a gold cast over the entire picture, shows Kuan Yin perched on a rock, with three bamboo stalks. A girl behind her and a boy on an opposite shore present some kind of undulating banners. Kuan Yin pours sustenance from her jar, and its delicate...

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Water Pill

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pp. 8-10

In this picture, Kuan Yin sits on an embankment. The water has bitten out the underside, in chunks. Ink squiggles swirl below. The whole overhanging bank will just let loose, in one of these frames, in one big chunk.
On her tiny peninsula, Kuan Yin hooks her hands around one knee. The artist has folded the other leg under her, but the angle is wrong...

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The Moon in the Computer

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pp. 11-13

When I call the heart doctor’s office to schedule an appointment for Dad, the secretary comes back to the phone to ask when he can make the trip from Hilo. “He’s in Honolulu.” “He’s back from Hilo?” “He never went to Hilo.” “But he lives in Hilo?” It takes us a moment to figure...

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Waterfall ID

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pp. 14-17

In one picture that I see in a journal, Kuan Yin observes from a rocky outcropping, bigger at the top than the bottom, like a saltshaker. (I mean, that’s the shape of a saltshaker in use. Maybe she’ll fall through the holes, in her porous rock seat, at any little seismic tap.) An aureole...

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No Moon

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pp. 18-20

Kuan Yin is gazing out from her promontory. The waterbattered sides look hacked and leave her on an overhang that juts over the bay. She rests her chin in her hand and her elbow on her knee. Kuan Yin keeps peering down to catch the reflection of the moon on the water, but no moon appears...

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Yankee Moon

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pp. 21-24

One woodblock print shows Water-Moon Kuan Yin tucked in a corner of rocks: a horizontal shelf to sit on, a lower rock to rest her bare foot, and two flat outcroppings at either side, just right to prop her elbows. The willow droops from a cruet with a spout. An odd bird — it’s upside down — pinwheels above the waves...

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Transferring the Willow

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pp. 25-28

In one painting, Kuan Yin occupies a tiny island, with just enough room for four bamboo stalks behind her. Her right foot is tucked under the left knee, while the left foot hangs over the side of the island, to rest on a red lotus. In her right hand she holds a willow sprig; in her left, a vase, into...

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Willy Moon

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pp. 29-31

Kuan Yin is sitting on a rock at the edge of the water, one ankle resting on the other knee. This time she surprises me by holding a baby, whose feet are standing shakily on her bent leg. This Child-Giving Kuan Yin is later than the Water-Moon Kuan Yin but still draws on the earlier...

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Artsy Crappy Moon

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pp. 32-36

The exhibit of “Esoteric Buddhism” at the museum includes a “Kuan Yin with Willow” of the water-moon type. The artist has painted her with one knee drawn up and one foot on her rock seat. The willow — for healing, says the blurb on the wall — must be standing in that vase at the grimy...

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Moon Body

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pp. 37-38

Kuan Yin has moseyed off to a rocky niche in a grotto, charcoal gray, next to cliffs plunging toward water. The pines shoot up vigorously, towering over a paper-paneled hut, like a bathhouse. The tumbling clouds are also brewing up a charcoal gray, dunking the moon in and out of wind...

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Kuan Yin Prescription

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pp. 39-43

Ch’an monks during the T’ang dynasty liked to play with possible meanings for Kuan Yin’s water-moon imagery. Ch’an teacher Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien (700–790 c.e.) emphasized permanence within impermanence: “Are there birth and death for the moon in the water or the...

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Riding the Tides in the Handi-Van

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pp. 44-49

Around the edges of a tenth-century poster, called “Kuan Yin Appears in Twenty-Four Manifestations,” little pictures crowd together in squares, like the path on a Monopoly board. In city center, instead of stacks of penalty cards, a garish Kuan Yin towers up through all the remaining space, eleven-headed, many armed...

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Peace Moon

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pp. 50-53

In this same print, whose full title is “Kuan Yin Appears in Twenty-Four Manifestations in Response [to Prayers],” Water-Moon Kuan Yin occupies only two tiny rectangles. Back in the tenth century, Emperor Ch’ien Shu silkscreened twenty thousand copies...

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Moon Passing through Cloud

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pp. 54-55

In a commemorative painting of one soul’s passing, a central Water-Moon Kuan Yin sits on the ground, knee drawn up. The moon arcs around the calm figure, the bamboo flourish, and the large willow in its jar intersects the moon. In the lower left corner of this twelfth-century...

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Blue Moon

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pp. 56-59

In this same painting of a soul’s passing, Water-Moon Kuan Yin sits relaxed on the ground, knee drawn up. In the lower left corner, the tiny dead man is standing modestly, wearing his best blue robes. At the upper right, his much-rejuvenated self reaches out exuberantly. In the lower right...

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Calling the Moon

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pp. 60-63

According to surviving reports, famous painter Chou Fang, eighth century, contributed a Water-Moon Kuan Yin for the southeastern wing of a pagoda at Sheng-kuang-su. Chou sketched Kuan Yin’s robe in a few bold strokes and then enlivened its folds with wash after wash of colors...

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Moon Dung Kuan Yin

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pp. 64-67

An anonymous handout from Comparative Religion 101 has made the rounds on campus: duplicated for classes, handed on to friends. Its single page sums up twelve religions in neat squares, all on the theme “Shit happens.” The Zen square ponders its koan, “What is the sound of...

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Accidental Moons

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pp. 69-73

Muqi’s thirteenth-century “Kuan Yin” hangs in Kyoto, Japan, between two other scrolls by the same painter: one of a crane and one of a gibbon with its offspring. Perhaps the Chinese artist did not originally plan these three works together, but once a purchaser carried them...

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pp. 74-77

In this picture, Dad sits on a rocky bank. His right foot crosses his left knee, and his roughened workman’s hands are clasping his ankle. Like Water-Moon Kuan Yin, he’s been confined: cramped in an airplane, plunked on an island, marooned in a doctor’s office, belted into a...

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Roundabout Moon

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pp. 78-80

Kanō Kōi’s “White-Robed Kannon,” from sixteenthcentury Japan, clearly derives from the water-moon type. Like some nesting bird, this Kuan Yin (in her Japanese name) fluffs her robes over a stony outcropping, a mere four-foot drop to the water. If she lost her balance, a fall would seem safe enough, by distance — though she’d better...

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Kuan Yin’s Taxable Domain

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pp. 81-85

Kuan Yin presides on a ledge jutting over an inlet. Three stalks of bamboo shoot up behind her, flecking her with skimpy shade. A willow branch sticks out of a cruet on a dirt mound. Across the waves, a girl with arms outstretched stands on an island; on another island, a boy holds up an...

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Slim Pickings/Fat Moon

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pp. 86-89

Kuan Yin is hunched on a dirt mound on her tiny island. The cramped land is just big enough to support four spindly bamboo stalks, chopped off and sharp pointed. Barefooted, she has wedged her jar beside her: no willow, no water. She has a circle round her head and a bigger one — the...

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Moon Rings

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pp. 90-94

The “Wheel-Turning Kannon” in this fifteenth-century Japanese hanging scroll definitely follows the watermoon type. A male figure is lounging on a light-filled lotus, with right knee drawn up close to the body and left leg bent flat. A halo frames the head, while the larger...

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Kuan Yin Foot Dangler

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pp. 95-97

Kuan Yin is dangling her foot from an overhanging bank. Her willow sprig in its cup has dried to a brittle brown. Still, her bamboo stalks are thriving, swaying and creaking at a new spindly height. The moon, three-quarters through its cycle, leans with horns pointing right. At 5 a.m., the moon stoops, bleary eyed, but still emits a glow, a firefly surprise. And at...

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ER Moon

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pp. 98-102

Convenient ledges of rock let this nonchalant Kuan Yin prop her feet and lean an elbow. The artist has inked her in on the back of a Buddhist sutra, and its characters show through dimly, in reverse, on her water, sky, rock, and full moon; Will might say those letters...

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Kuan Yin Shopper

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pp. 103-106

Sitting on her tiny island, Kuan Yin has four bamboo stalks behind her, sometimes three. Inspect dozens of scrolls; you’ll find four stalks, four stalks, four stalks, three. This island is kind of boring, Kuan. What, you don’t think so?
After Dad loses control of his excretions in July 2004...

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Car-Key Kuan

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pp. 107-110

A hanging scroll from Korea shows one of the few Water- Moon Kuan Yins I have seen in person. Or maybe I should say, more accurately, “This hanging scroll from Korea doesn’t show a Water-Moon Kuan Yin I have almost seen in person.” What an irony. No intervening photographic...

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What’d You Say, Kuan?

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pp. 111-113

A tenth-century ink and tinted drawing shows a male Water-Moon Kuan Yin on a rocky bank by a pond. Overlooking an abundant supply of lotuses, he sits up straight with his right leg folded and right foot tucked under his left knee. He holds a long willow whisk in one...

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Weak as Water

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pp. 114-116

Here’s another Water-Moon Kuan Yin almost completely enclosed by a halo, with only one foot hanging outside the circle. These artists’ schools really did believe in copying their predecessors, with minimal innovation. This sample...

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Moon Wears Out

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pp. 117-119

Kuan Yin hangs onto a rock on her island, peering into the water for a reflection of the moon. The moon is a squashed ball, then half a watermelon slice, then a pale fingernail paring. Its reflection in the water gets more and more diaphanous...

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Moon Sealed Red (1)

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pp. 120-123

In a woodblock print called “Kannon on a Lotus Leaf,” Kuan Yin floats at “royal ease,” under the Japanese name and in a male form. An enormous leaf makes a streamlined boat. Bundles of leaf fiber sidle up to bundles of waves, and strands of wavy hair drip over his shoulder: everything...

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Moon Sealed Red (2)

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pp. 124-127

Kuan Yin, come sit on your lotus-leaf boat again for a minute, so I can tell this story of Dad’s ashes, okay? A long line of friends helps with the ashes. My neighbor Nora drives me to Nu’uanu on Monday, after the weekend Dad died, to make arrangements for the cremation. Acres and acres...

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Kuan Yin Not Contained in a Box

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pp. 128-132

According to an old story, Water-Moon Kuan Yin floated into Chiang-yin harbor on a big lotus petal. With concentrated moonbeams playing all around her, she paddled up to a boat. The boatman, however, frightened at the apparition, tried to push it away with an oar...


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pp. 133-134

Sources for Art Works Described or Reproduced

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pp. 135-140

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592392
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826515865

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2008