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.