Four kinds of deeds (Merit 5)

Bhikkhus, there are these four cases of deeds. What four? (1) There is a deed that is disagreeable to do which will prove harmful. (2) There is a deed that is disagreeable to do which will prove beneficial. (3) There is a deed that is agreeable to do which will prove harmful. (4) There is a deed that is agreeable to do which will prove beneficial.
(1) Bhikkhus, take first the case of the deed that is disagreeable to do which will prove harmful. One considers that this deed should not be done on both grounds: because it is disagreeable to do and because it will prove harmful. One considers that this deed should not be done on both grounds.
(2) Next, take the case of the deed that is disagreeable to do which will prove beneficial. It is in this case that one can understand who is a fool and who is a wise person…But the wise person does reflect thus: ‘Although this deed is disagreeable to do, still it will prove beneficial.’ So he does that deed, and it proves beneficial.
(3) Next, take the case of the deed that is agreeable to do which will prove harmful. It is in this case, too, that one can understand who is a fool and who is a wise person…But the wise person does reflect thus: ‘Although this deed is agreeable to do, still it will prove harmful.’ So he does not do that deed, and his refraining from it proves beneficial.
(4) Next, take the case of the deed that is agreeable to do which will prove beneficial. This deed is considered one that should be done on both grounds: because it is agreeable to do and because it proves beneficial. This deed is considered one that should be done on both grounds.
These, bhikkhus, are the four cases of deeds.

AN 4.115, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is a summary of our day-to-day process: we are continually deciding what to do NEXT. Some of us will do the agreeable tasks first and leave the disagreeable ones for later, and others will do the reverse. There are different legitimate ways of prioritizing our “to do” lists.

What the Buddha is saying here is that whatever is before us, we can consider both whether it is agreeable or not (which we do automatically, I think) AND whether the result will be beneficial or harmful. Particularly with respect to things that come up at work, something that may be painful to do (say, fire someone) might have some harmful effects (especially on the fire-ee), but still be for the good of the organization, and possibly even the individual, in the long run. Rather than just evaluating in a digital way (good vs. bad), we can look for ways to mitigate any pain or harm caused by our actions.

Another classic example is the challenge of studying. Often there’s a psychological hurdle to getting started that can feel very disagreeable. But we know the benefit, so perhaps the Buddha’s words can help us make a start on any number of beneficial activities.

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