Like Oil and Water

There is a quality of pure awareness that is not fazed by fleeting thoughts, emotions, or sense impressions, explain Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno. Even when they are together, pure awareness and the conditioned realm are always separate.

Ajahn Amaro
1 June 2010
Photo by Greg Walters.

There is a quality of pure awareness that is not fazed by fleeting thoughts, emotions, or sense impressions, explain Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno. Even when they are together, pure awareness and the conditioned realm are always separate.

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 illustrate 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, odour, 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

~ 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 non-thingness. 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.


We come now to the quality of emptiness. Firstly, it is of some significance to note that although the adjectival noun suññata (Sanskrit: sunyata), or “emptiness,” is used in the Theravada scriptures, it is far outweighed by its humble cousin, the adjective suñña, “empty.” In later, Northern Buddhist traditions, sunyata took on not only a central position in the teachings on liberation (for example in the Prajña Paramita Sutras, the Heart Sutra, and the Vajra Sutra) and the Middle Way (as in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy, uniting emptiness and causality), but it also took on the attributes of some kind of quasi-mystical substance or realm—not intentionally or doctrinally even, but more through a subtle and unconscious reification. It became something that is a nothing, that then was worshiped and deified as a universal panacea.

This is not to say that all such teachings on emptiness are false or useless—not at all. It is just to say that, like any verbal formulation of Dhamma, if grasped incorrectly they can obstruct rather than aid progress on the path. If the concept of emptiness is understood and used as a skillful means, it is clear that it could not be any kind of thing-in-itself. Any tendency to incline the attitude in that direction would thus be seen as falling wide of the mark.

If a person were to say that suññata is a material element, his or her friends would die laughing. Some people would say that it is an immaterial or formless element, and here the Noble Ones (ariya) would die laughing. Voidness is neither a material nor an immaterial element, but is a third kind of element that lies beyond the ken of ordinary people. The Buddha called it “quenching element” or “cessation element” (nirodha-dhatu).

The words “material element” (vatthu-dhatu) or “form element” (rupa-dhatu) refer to materiality in visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes, or tactile objects. “Formless element” (arupa-dhatu) refers to the mind and heart, to mental processes, and to the thoughts and experiences that arise in the mind. There is only one kind of element not included in these two categories, an element that is the complete antithesis and annihilation of them all.

Consequently, the Buddha sometimes called it “coolness element” (Nibbana-dhatu), sometimes “quenching element” (nirodha-dhatu), and sometimes “deathless element” (amatadhatu).

~ Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree

In the Pali scriptures suñña simply means “empty.” It describes the quality of absence—an absence contained within a particular defining form, rather than some kind of absolute value. Every space has its poetics: this personality is empty of self, this glass is empty of water, this room is empty of people—there is a definite voidness in some respects, but it is also shaped by its context. The pair of silences during the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are just silence, but the particular poetry of those silences is shaped by the notes before and after.

Without the glass there would not be any emptiness; without the other musical notes those moments would not be silent—that is to say, the emptiness only exists in relationship to its vessel, whatever that may be: a personality, a glass, a room, a musical phrase. It’s just a way of speaking about form and space using relative language.

Thus from the Theravada point of view, the concept of emptiness is quite prosaic. It lacks the intrinsic mystical quality imputed to it in some of the Northern Buddhist scriptures. However, it becomes more meaningful in terms of liberation as it is almost always used in the context of “empty of self and the property of a self.” If that absence is recognized then the heart is certainly inclining to awakening.

The environment of pure awareness is cultivated through a realization of emptiness; it then embodies that characteristic as a result of its perfection. Radiance is another of the principal qualities that manifests as that knowing is purified.

Bhikkhus, there are these four radiances—what are the four? The radiance of the moon, the radiance of the sun, the radiance of fire, the radiance of wisdom (paññapabha)… Bhikkhus, among these four, the radiance of wisdom is indeed the most excellent.

~ Anguttara Nikaya 4.142

These three attributes—knowing, emptiness, and the radiant mind—weave through each other and are mutually reflective and supportive. In a way, they are like the fluidity, wetness, and coolness of a glass of water: three qualities that are distinct yet inseparable.

To round things off, here are some words from Ajahn Chah that encompass the themes we have been looking at.

About this mind… in truth there is nothing really wrong with it. It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it’s already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. The real mind doesn’t have anything to it, it is simply [an aspect of] Nature. It becomes peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid. Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering, gladness, and sorrow, but the mind’s true nature is none of those things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind, but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things, it forgets itself. Then we think that it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.

But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful… really peaceful! Just like a leaf which is still as long as no wind blows. If a wind comes up the leaf flutters. The fluttering is due to the wind—the “fluttering” is due to those sense impressions; the mind follows them. If it doesn’t follow them, it doesn’t “flutter.” If we know fully the true nature of sense impressions we will be unmoved.

Our practice is simply to see the Original Mind. We must train the mind to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them; to make it peaceful. Just this is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.

~ Ajahn Chah, Food for the Heart

This article is adapted from The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbana, published by the Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation. To download a free PDF version of the book, go to

AJAHN AMARO and AJAHN PASANNO are co-abbots of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, which is in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah.

Ajahn Amaro

Ajahn Amaro

Ajahn Amaro is the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist monastery in southeast England. he was ordained as a bhikkhu by Ajahn Chah in 1979 and was the founding co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist monastery in redwood Valley, California, where he served until 2010.