Stay Connected

Jan 29, 2023 | Kathy Park JDPSN

Right Effort: Direction + Try Mind = Enlightenment

Kathy Park JDPSN

In the Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn says,

“Only try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop.”


We have the experience as a beginner in anything new, that a concerted effort is made when we want to learn to do something for the first time. Then, the newly learned thing becomes a habit and it becomes easier to do it. For those of us who practice Zen, we may experience that although we have a habit of practicing after some time, it still doesn’t feel easier. The legs still hurt, the backache doesn’t go away, the breath is still shallow, and the mind still goes round and round in circles. Still, we keep trying for sometime, and the habit of practice becomes stronger. Then some good feeling can appear, our mind can be more still, more clear, and even if the body still hurts, we can experience it without too much attached negativity. This cycle keeps repeating as we continue, sometimes getting much easier. At other times, even after many years of practice, we hit a brick wall, and some even quit.


Zen master Seung Sahn used to say that there are three kinds of Zen students. Low class students are those who only practice when they suffer; middle class students practice when they have a good situation, and high class students are those who practice all the time, not attached to any condition. Correct effort in Zen has two aspects. The first is direction – what is the direction of our effort? Why do we practice? What do you want? A clear direction sets the path and becomes the fuel. The second is trying mind. Trying mind is the mind that Zen master Seung Sahn would say, does not hesitate to “put energy into”. Having a clear direction gives us the power to work through moment to moment, as we use our body, breath and mind to become clear. Our trying mind is the engine that develops the habit of repeating relentlessly and continues to not give up, until the engine can run itself effortlessly.


When we don’t have a clear direction why we practice, it is more difficult to gather the energy to do it. Instead, our energy gets dispersed into other activities that eventually take away our motivation for practice. Having correct effort in our practice means waking up moment to moment, reminding ourselves of our direction by the act of doing the practice itself. As we return to our before-thinking mind in each moment, we repeat the habit of functioning from don’t know. The more we repeatedly return to the experience of our body, breath and mind becoming one, the more quickly we become one with the universe. Sincerely doing it is already correct effort, correct direction and enlightenment. Then we get universal energy. That’s what we call “Just do it”. That means when we walk, we just walk 100%. When we eat, just eat 100%. When we sit, we just sit 100%. It is a complete, fulfilled action and because it has a clear direction, it benefits all beings.


Making correct effort in our practice means making the habit of practice stronger by doing it, but also seeing when it becomes routine, whether that’s on or off the cushion. A clear habit is not necessarily a dead, routine activity. Making a strong effort does not mean practice “hard” to break yourself, but to put a sincere effort of attention into each moment to wake up. When you lose it, return immediately. Leave no gap. Consider each moment as the last because in our life, there is only this moment. Put effort into just this moment, that’s all. Then try again. Then practice is not routine no matter what is our activity. We don’t fall asleep, and being clear and awake, already our true self is functioning with innate wisdom and compassion in whatever we do. Not only that, we become one with the universe, so even as we are on the wave of the ebbs and flows of the changing world, we can be in harmony with it.


Some years ago, a student began practicing at our Zen center. She was quite diligent about trying to do it in her daily life and had a strong beginner’s mind. While at work, she would try to keep Kwanseumbosal when at her desk and she didn’t have to talk, when taking a walk, or whatever she was doing. Sometimes in the midst of her day, this question would appear, “What am I?” One day as she was driving back home from work when there was heavy traffic and many cars were inching their way forward very slowly. Next to her car, a man was trying to push his car in front of her, in a bullying manner. She quickly realized he was not going to give in, and right away, her own fighting mind appeared, “I won’t let you!” and she inched ahead with her car too, trying not to give him any room to butt into her lane. This kept going for a few minutes between them and the man knew she was not going to give up too, which made him even more competitive. Although growingly frustrated with the traffic and this bullying man, she was trying to quietly keep Kwanseumbosal. At one moment as her car moved forward, she stepped on the brake and inside, this question appeared, “What am I?” Then suddenly, she looked to the side and saw the man in the car next to her staring back at her. When she saw his face, she smiled and gestured with her hand for him to go first. The man was shocked and did not know what to do for a few seconds. He just looked back at her a bit flustered, tried to ignore it, then a little abashed, finally drove off ahead. The student was also surprised at herself because letting him go first was the kind of thing she would never have done before. She experienced being able to change her karma for the first time. This made her very happy.


When we keep our practice moment to moment and just try over and over and never let go, that is our trying mind. Having a great question, “What am I?” is our direction. As Zen master Seung Sahn said, correct direction + try mind = enlightenment. He also said that getting enlightenment is easy, but keeping it is very difficult. So moment to moment, try, try try for 10,000 years nonstop. That is correct effort.