Why retreat? What is the purpose of going on a meditation retreat? A few things that came to mind are: 1) It’s a time apart from diversions and a chance to try better. Meditating at home is good, but also more challenging because the things we care about surround us – plans for a trip, family concerns, maybe work. When we go somewhere to meditate like a temple, studio, friend’s house, or a park, those things are less apparent and thereby easier to drop from our attention. I say here try better because try harder and try more are not really helpful as we apply effortless effort. 2) A chance to share advice with each other in person. Each of us has specific expertise, unique perspectives, and our own ways of expressing things. It’s wonderful to support each other and particularly in person. 3) it’s fun. At the weekend retreat last year, I think everyone was refreshed and enthusiastic in sharing the experience, the cooking, and the time away. This camaraderie is a great inspiration for practice. Some other ideas you mentioned included 4) hearing other viewpoints and discussing them like we did at the Sambuddhaloka temple with the monks. I’m looking into 3 retreat type events over the next 3 months and will see if there’s interest in each.


The problems we face in life generally don’t require us to SEARCH for hard-to-find solutions or solve COMPLICATED issues, rather they require us to be CLEAR-HEADED to see the simplicity of it. So how do we get clear-headed? After sleeping well, we wake up and have a cup of coffee, take a shower, exercise, eat well, etc. Universally, each of us needs to feel safe from violence, in good health, have food, sleep and close friendships. Basically we need to feel OK and loved. If we don’t have these biological needs, it can be hard to be clear-headed, but as we learn to center our self we can get there in less favorable circumstances. That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation as training for an hour to learn how to wake up, not meditation as a moment to relax and let go like you would at the spa. Meditation is confrontation. We face our self vulnerably confident. Many Zen stories talk about this confrontation with metaphors like swallowing a molten ball of iron – you can’t spit it out and you can’t swallow it, so what do you do? You have to persist in the confrontation. Similarly, Sensei wrote about the Tiger Canyon where his answer was to make friends with the wolf. This confrontation is what our instinct pushes us to avoid, but eventually it’s too painful to ignore it. Pain is thus our natural motivator. Physical pain is useful in that sense because it urges us to take actions we need to, and in meditation physical pain is useful to help us pay more attention and be more alert. On the down side, it also makes it harder to relax and let go. My own experience of pain in meditation such as pain in the knees while sitting in full lotus, is that it’s intimately tied to fear of injury. This could just be me, but I think it’s a common experience. Once I face and dispel that fear, knowing the pain is not a sign of impending injury, the sensation actually abates. Then of course when I focus into deeper meditation, such things as pain, hunger, sleepiness all drop away as irrelevant objects of attention. This is Dogen’s, “all of a sudden body and mind drop away” and the entry to jhana.


Lots of people write about jhana even if they have never experienced it because it’s so much a part of Buddha’s teachings. On his death bed (see part 6 number 9), Buddha was observed by his disciple Anuruddha to enter each of the 8 jhanas then pass away. Some of what I’ve heard from students of the Vipassana tradition created by Mr. Goenka contradicts what I know of jhanas by claiming that each can be practiced separately as distinct exercises. I know them to instead be like signposts as you settle deeper into your self. It doesn’t make sense then to “practice 4th jhana” without calming your mind to the degree of 3rd jhana first.

Well, I came across a website recently describing the jhanas that I think is very good. I think it useful to talk about it here, so we can get specific about the details and therefore better evaluate our own experiences (like I spoke about last week). I believe the author experiences it regularly based on what he’s written and my own experience of jhana. I particularly noticed that he comments on the above misunderstanding that he observed as well. A couple other things seem different to me but that’s to be expected of two persons writing about their experience of the same thing. First he writes that the senses do not work in jhana, but he practices with eyes closed. I practice with eyes open and the senses appear to work fine for me. It’s my experience of the world that changes in jhana. I experience it all at once in a gestalt way, rather than experiencing this sound or that image. Second, he mentions a lasting effect, persisting for hours or even days, whereas I find myself returned to everyday mind much sooner. It may be that I’ve ‘gotten used to it’ in some sense and move back and forth more quickly than I did when I had that first life-changing experience many years ago. Lastly, his descriptions of the different jhanas seem to be different numbers than what I experience. Specifically, we line up on 1st and 2nd jhana but my experience of 3rd jhana sounds like his 6th jhana having the quality of merging into non-dual experience. Anyway, I encourage you to read his website and hear about the experience from more than just me. You might also look it up in various places such as “Buddhist Dictionary” – Nyanatiloka.


How do you know if you experienced jhana? Traditionally your teacher confirms it. The Zen tradition traces this back to Buddha’s flower sermon, where instead of speaking to his disciples and students, Buddha simply held up a flower. Mahakassapa smiled and Buddha understood that he got the message. After centuries, this process has become codified into the “dharma transmission” of the Soto Zen school and the “Inka” ordination of the Rinzai school whereby the student is formally authorized to start a new school on their own and are then called “Roshi“. So how do they know? In a monastery, after maybe years of meditating together the teacher knows the student very well, and can tell when they experience something profound. What about direct psychic perception of the student while they are meditating? I’ve done some of that and found that it’s very difficult. If they are struggling with thoughts and feelings while meditating, then it’s pretty straightforward to sense it. Otherwise it’s difficult because when someone gets perfectly still inside themself, their mind disappears from view. So what about the words they use to describe the experience? Here you can only say when the words contradict jhana, and can’t say it definitely was it. Like stillness, if you describe it as a conversation or some dramatic progression, then that’s not stillness. If you describe jhana as including any struggling, striving, clinging, of suffering, then that’s not it. By definition, first jhana is when you are free and separate from all that. So, my teacher, Shibuya Sensei, was not impressed with the integrity of today’s institutions and felt that the formal transmissions were meaningless. He said, a student’s responsibility is to get the message from the teacher. And that led to the statement that nature, including all of us, are teachers bearing a message with our very existence, even if we do not know it. It’s up to you to get the message, to free yourself to experience jhana. When you do, it doesn’t matter who confirms it.

So how do you yourself know if you experience jhana regardless of confirmation from your teacher? You can read words others have used to describe their experience of it and see if it sounds the same. Here I’ve run into a couple discrepancies with descriptions written by persons I believe did indeed experience it. One Thai monk said he always sees a bright light. I’m sure he does, but I’m also sure that some others do not. So we have to be careful not to be too exacting in comparing words. Chapel teaches that you can evaluate your meditation afterwards by examining your mind. Specifically, if you were asleep then you feel groggy and return to alert consciousness slowly when you stop. Otherwise you are immediately alert. Also, if you are in a hypnotic state then you are not in control so that’s not it either. What if you disappear into stillness? This is the ideal “stage II” meditation from Chapel. Here you abide in a conscious state with no awareness. Time passes, but you are not aware of it until your meditation ends. Generally this is practiced for 5 minutes, not the usual 30-60 minutes. This is not quite jhana. There are two things to consider as you calm your mind: the degree to which it is calmed and the extent to which it is aware. If you shrink your circle of awareness (e.g. by closing your eyes), then there is less extent that needs to be calmed to reach perfect stillness. Jhana is more pervasive than this because you remain open and aware of your mind, your body, your senses, your surroundings. All of those things can be very distracting and prevent you from getting perfectly still. It may seem impossible, but you can do it. It is much harder. It’s worth it. Jhana includes the feeling of bliss and rapture in the first stages. Sometimes we may have an experience we think is jhana because it feels blissful, but remember jhana is euphoric but not intoxicating. I’d recommend Sensei’s book WAKEFUL pages 69-80 which describe the 9 jhanas.