Like Oil and Water
Enlightenment, liberation, depends on the recognition of the radical separateness of awareness—“the one who knows” as Ajahn Chah would phrase it—and the world of the five khandhas (Sanskrit: skandhas). Having said that, it’s also crucial to note that the phrase “the one who knows” (Pali: buddho) is a colloquialism that has different meanings in different contexts. It can be used at one end of the spectrum to mean “that which cognizes an object,” and at the other end to mean supramundane wisdom. Most often it is used in simple concentration instructions, where the meditator separates awareness from the object and then focuses on the awareness. The separate awareness of full awakening is of a different order altogether.
A comparable model that Ajahn Chah often used to illus-trate this area is that of the relationship of mindfulness (sati), clear comprehension (sampajañña), and wisdom (pañña) to each other. He would liken these three to the hand, the arm, and the body respectively: sati, like the hand, is simply that which picks things up, or cognizes them; sampajañña, like the arm that enables the hand to reach for the desired objects and move them around, refers to seeing an object in its context and how it relates to its surroundings; pañña, like the life source which is the body, is seeing things in terms of anicca–dukkha–anatta—uncertainty, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. The hand and the arm have their functions, but without the body they are powerless.
The key is training the heart to rest in these various dimensions of knowing, and not becoming entangled in the khandhas.
"The heart knowing the Dhamma
of ultimate ease
sees for sure that the khandhas
are always stressful.
The Dhamma stays as the Dhamma,
the khandhas stay as the khandhas, that’s all."
~ Ajahn Mun, The Ballad of Liberation from the Five Khandhas
(translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The relationship of this quality of awareness to the conditioned realm is embodied in Ajahn Chah’s analogy of oil and water, an image he used very often.
"This is the way it is. You detach. You let go. Whenever there is any feeling of clinging, we detach from it, because we know that that very feeling is just as it is. It didn’t come along especially to annoy us. We might think that it did, but in truth it just is that way. If we start to think and consider it further, that, too, is just as it is. If we let go, then form is merely form, sound is merely sound, odour is merely odour, taste is merely taste, touch is merely touch and the heart is merely the heart. It’s similar to oil and water. If you put the two together in a bottle, they won’t mix because of the difference of their nature…
Oil and water are different in the same way that a wise person and an ignorant person are different. The Buddha lived with form, sound, odor, taste, touch and thought. He was an arahant (Enlightened One), so he turned away from rather than toward these things. He turned away and detached little by little since he understood that the heart is just the heart and thought is just thought. He didn’t confuse and mix them together.
The heart is just the heart; thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings. Let things be just as they are! Let form be just form, let sound be just sound, let thought be just thought. Why should we bother to attach to them? If we think and feel in this way, then there is detachment and separateness. Our thoughts and feelings will be on one side and our heart will be on the other. Just like oil and water—they are in the same bottle but they are separate."
~ Ajahn Chah, “The Training of the Heart” in Food for the Heart
When we use such terms as “the one who knows,” it is important to understand that this is a colloquial usage. In no way is some kind of true self or super-entity implied—it’s merely a convenient figure of speech. If we start looking for “who” it is that is aware we rapidly end up in a tangle of self-view.
When we speak or think about the quality of awareness, there is also a subtle danger of trying to cast it into the form of some kind of immaterial thing or process. The word “awareness” is an abstract noun, and we get so used to relating to ordinary objects through conceptualizing them that we allow the habit to overflow and we can end up conceiving awareness in the same way. The heart can be aware, but trying to make awareness an object, in the same way that we would a tree or a thought, is a frustrating process. Ajahn Chah warned against this, often saying:
You’re riding on a horse and asking,
“Where’s the horse?”
~ Ajahn Chah, in Venerable Father, by Paul Breiter
Ajahn Sumedho also had a favorite analogy for this:
"Just like the question “Can you see your own eyes?” Nobody can see their own eyes. I can see your eyes but I can’t see my eyes. I’m sitting right here, I’ve got two eyes and I can’t see them. But you can see my eyes. But there’s no need for me to see my eyes because I can see! It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If I started saying “Why can’t I see my own eyes?” you’d think “Ajahn Sumedho’s really weird, isn’t he!” Looking in a mirror you can see a reflection, but that’s not your eyes, it’s a reflection of your eyes. There’s no way that I’ve been able to look and see my own eyes, but then it’s not necessary to see your own eyes. It’s not necessary to know who it is that knows—because there’s knowing."
~ Ajahn Sumedho, “What is the Citta?”
Forest Sangha Newsletter, October 1988
This very error is the reason why it’s perhaps wiser to use a term such as “knowing” instead of “transcendent wisdom” or “awareness.” As a gerund it is a verb-noun, thus lending it a more accurate quality of immanence, activity, and nonthingness. The process of awakening not only breaks down subject-object relationships, it also breaks down the very formulation of “things.”
Some years ago Buckminster Fuller published a book entitled I Seem to Be a Verb, and more recently, and more expansively, Rabbi David Cooper published God is a Verb. Both of these were attempts to counteract the floodtide of formulations of reality as “things” that the untrained, conditioned mind is prone to generating.