Correct Effort

Samma Vayama, Correct Effort, marks the transition between the “Virtue Group” of Path factors (Speech, Action, and Livelihood), and the “Concentration Group” (Mindfulness and Concentration), and Correct Effort, itself, is classified as belonging to that latter group.

lonely tree

The correct application of energy, expressed one way or another, is close to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. In the Canki Sutta, in which the Buddha taught the Brahmin youth Kapatika Baradvaja about the truth–how to preserve it, how to discover it, how to finally arrive at it–Kapatika asks the Buddha what the most important step is, of all the steps they had discussed, for that final arrival at the truth. “Striving,” the Buddha answers.

“Striving is the most important step for the final arrival at truth, Bharadvaja. If one doesn’t strive, one will never get there. Striving, one may hope to arrive, finally, at the truth.”

And the Buddha’s very last words, as reported in the great Mahaparinibbana Sutta, establish the ultimate importance of this path factor:

And the Fortunate One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “See here, bhikkhus, I charge you. All that you experience will come to end; strive diligently!”

In the suttas and the commentary, the most common expansion of the notion of the correct application of energy is a four-fold one:

“And what, bhikhus, is correct effort?

[i] “There is the case where a bhikkhu generates desire, works toward, works persistently, upholds the intention to prevent the arising of destructive, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

[ii] “He generates desire, works toward, works persistently, upholds the intention to abandon whatever destructive, unskillful qualities that have arisen in him.

[iii] “He generates desire, works toward, works persistently, upholds the intention to develop skillful qualities that have not yet arisen in him.

[iv] “He generates desire, works toward, works persistently, upholds the intention to maintain, be clearly aware of, strengthen, extend, develop, & make permanent all skillful qualities that have arisen: This, bhikkhus, is called correct effort.”

Excerpt from the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, translated by Richard Blumberg

To someone who’s trying to figure out what “Correct Effort” means in his or her own cultivation of the Superior Eightfold Path, that expansion may seem to beg the question, but it really doesn’t. “Skillful” qualities are those that lead one toward the goal; “unskillful” qualities lead one away. And the goal, remember, can be understood as abiding in a condition of open friendliness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). If we apply all our effort to getting rid of those qualities that take us away from that goal, and to practicing and developing qualities that take us toward the goal, then we are exercising Correct Effort.

It takes thoughtful judgment, of course, and we can err by devoting too much energy to our practice as well as by devoting too little.

The commentaries tell us something of the bhikkhu Sona, who entered the Sangha from a wealthy and cultured family; he was well known for his skill as a musician, playing a lute-like stringed instrument called a vina. He took to the Buddha’s practice with such intensity that the soles of his feet were bloodied from walking back and forth in meditation. And it wasn’t working for him. He thought, “Of those disciples of the Buddha who have applied persistent effort to the practice, I am one, but my mind is not released from lingering ill will, from thoughts of worldly things, from wishful thinking. What if I were to decide this holy life is not for me, return to my life as a householder, and, with my wealth, earn merit by supporting the Buddha and the Sangha?”

In the Sona Sutta, we are told that the Buddha became aware of the thoughts going through Sona’s mind and appeared before him.

‘Now what do you think, Sona. When you were a householder, were you skilled at playing the vina?

“Yes, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of [all your senses] to that, and there pick up your theme.”

Excerpt from the Sona Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.55, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The two problems that the Buddha identified as keeping Sona from attaining the goal of his practice–restlessness on the one hand and laziness on the other–are two of the five Hindrances identified in the canonical Teachings:

  • kamacchanda–impulse toward things of the world.
  • byapada–ill will
  • thina-middha–laziness and lethary
  • uddhacca-kukkucca–restlessness and remorse
  • vicikiccha–doubt and perplexity

Whatever we’re doing to cultivate the path in our lives–whether we’re trying to decide what to do next (intention), what to say in a given situation (speech), how to behave or how to establish our position in the world or the community (action and livelihood), how to persist in our meditative practice or what to focus on in that practice (meditation and concentration)–we are always striving to apply correct energy to that task. And when it’s not working, we’re likely to find that one or more of those five hindrances are keeping it from working.

In books about Buddhism, the Five Hindrances get the lion’s share of attention, but it’s worth noticing that two other lists of five things bear upon the task of maintaining Correct Effort:

There are, first, the five factors that assist such effort:

Bhikkhus, there are these five factors that assist striving. What five?

(1) “Here, a bhikkhu is endowed with faith. He places faith in the enlightenment of the Tathāgata thus: ‘The Blessed One is an arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.’

(2) “He is seldom ill or afflicted, possessing an even digestion that is neither too cool nor too hot but moderate and suitable for striving.

(3) “He is honest and open, one who reveals himself as he really is to the Teacher and his wise fellow monks.

(4) “He has aroused energy for abandoning unwholesome qualities and acquiring wholesome qualities; he is strong, firm in exertion, not casting off the duty of cultivating wholesome qualities.

(5) “He is wise; he possesses the wisdom that discerns arising and passing away, which is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering.

“These, bhikkhus, are the five factors that assist striving.”

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2012-11-13). The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Teachings of the Buddha) (Kindle Locations 14496-14507). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Notice that this list, interestingly, includes conditions which are more or less beyond our control. So Correct Effort, like all of the factors in the Eightfold Path, is to some extent a matter of luck. With that in mind, let’s conclude with the first half of the sutta that follows the one just quoted, describing the five occasions that are unfavorable for the application of Correct Effort:

“Bhikkhus, there are these five unfavorable occasions for striving. What five?

(1) “Here, a bhikkhu is old, overcome by old age. This is the first unfavorable occasion for striving.

(2) “Again, a bhikkhu is ill, overcome by illness. This is the second unfavorable occasion for striving.

(3) “Again, there is a famine, a poor harvest, a time when almsfood is difficult to obtain and it is not easy to subsist by means of gleaning. 1046 This is the third unfavorable occasion for striving.

(4) “Again, there is peril, turbulence in the wilderness, and the people of the countryside, mounted on their vehicles, flee on all sides. This is the fourth unfavorable occasion for striving.

(5) “Again, there is a schism in the Saṅgha, and when there is a schism in the Saṅgha there are mutual insults, mutual reviling, mutual disparagement, and mutual rejection. Then those without confidence do not gain confidence, while some of those with confidence change their minds. This is the fifth unfavorable occasion for striving.

“These are the five unfavorable occasions for striving.”

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2012-11-13). The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Teachings of the Buddha) (Kindle Locations 14507-14520). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.