The Four Right Exertions (also known as, Four Proper Exertions, Four Right Efforts, Four Great Efforts, Four Right Endeavors or Four Right Strivings) (Pali: sammappadhāna; Skt.: samyak-pradhāna or samyakprahāṇa) are an integral part of the Buddhist path to Enlightenment. Built on the insightful recognition of the arising and non-arising of various mental qualities over time and of our ability to mindfully intervene in these ephemeral qualities, the Four Right Exertions encourage the relinquishment of harmful mental qualities and the nurturing of beneficial mental qualities.
"What are the four right strivings?" (SN 49.1ff.)
This formulation is also part of an extensive exposition by Ven. Sariputta when addressing the question of "What is this Dhamma that has been well-proclaimed by the Lord [Buddha]?" (DN 33). In addition, in a section of the Anguttara Nikaya known as the "Snap of the Fingers Section" (AN 1.16.6, Accharāsaṇghātavaggo), the Buddha is recorded as stating that, if a monk were to enact one of the four right exertions for the snap of the fingers (or, "only for one moment") then "he abides in jhana, has done his duties by the Teacher, and eats the country's alms food without a debt."
A similar two-part elaboration is provided by the Buddha in SN 48.9, again in the context of the Five Spiritual Faculties, when he states:
"And what, bhikkhus, is the faculty of energy? Here, bhikkhus, the noble disciple dwells with energy aroused for the abandoning of unwholesome states and the acquisition of wholesome states; he is strong, firm in exertion, not shirking the responsibility of cultivating wholesome states. This is the faculty of energy."
What constitutes "unskillful" or "unwholesome" (akusala) and "skillful" or "wholesome" (kusala) qualities is taken up in the Abhidhamma Pitaka and the post-canonical Pali commentaries. In general, the unskillful states are the three defilements (kilesa): greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Skillful states are the defilements' opposites: non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adosa) and non-delusion (amoha).
Throughout the Pali Canon, a distinction is made between the fourfold "exertions" (padhāna) and the four "Right Exertions" (sammappadhāna). While similarly named, canonical discourses consistently define these different terms differently, even in the same or adjacent discourses.
The four exertions (cattārimāni padhānāni) are summarized as:
↑Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 411, entry on "padhāna" identifies the following Pali texts: "Vin i.22; S i.105; iii.96 (the four); A ii.15 (id.); iii.12; iv.125; Nd1 14; Ps i.21, 85, 90, 161; SnA 124; PvA 98."
↑Thanissaro (1996), boldface added, repetitions elided. The Pali for what Thanissaro translates as "evil, unskillful qualities" is pāpakānaṃ akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ and the Pali for "skillful qualities" is kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ.
↑Bodhi (2000), pp. 1670-71; and, Thanissaro (1996).
↑Similar to the unwholesome/wholesome "qualities" or "states" (dhamma), a number of discourses in the Sutta Pitaka identify unwholesome/wholesome acts and their roots. For instance, in the Sammaditthi Sutta (MN 9) (Ñanamoli & Bodhi, 1991), Sariputta identifies unwholesomeness as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, malicious speech, abusive speech, gossip, covetness, ill will and wrong view. (Wholesomeness is abstaining from these unwholesome acts.) The roots of the unwholesome are greed, hate and delusion. (Roots of the wholesome are non-greed, non-hate and non-delusion.)
↑Discourses that include separate definitions for both these terms either within in the same or adjacent discourses include:
in DN 33, when listing "[sets of] four things which were perfectly proclaimed by the Lord," Ven. Sariputta elaborates upon the "Four Right Exertions" (or "four great efforts") as the second set of four and upon the "Four Exertions" as the tenth set (Walshe, 1995, pp. 487, 490).
in AN ii. 15, the "Four Right Exertions" are defined; while AN ii.16 defines the "Four Exertions" (Jayasundere, n.d., sutta 3 ("Exertions (a)") and sutta 4 ("Exertions (b)")).
in Ps i.84, the "Four Exertions" are defined; while in Ps i.85 the "Four Right Exertions" are defined.