Arthacharya is one of the four ‘samgrahavastus’ – the four ‘means of unification’ – the skills needed to bring people together as a spiritual community, encourage and inspire them to practice the Dharma and to do so in a way which is mutually supportive and interconnected, and which recognises the effect we have on each other. The Buddha talks about Arthacharya in his conversation with the lay follower Hatthaka (AN). When the Buddha arrives in Hatthaka’s home town of Alavi, Hatthaka greets him with 500 followers;
“All were practising Buddhists who had achieved insight, and they brought flowers and sandalwood paste for the Buddha.”
The Buddha asks Hatthaka how he has achieved such a following, and Hatthaka describes four ways of connecting with others – through generosity, kindly speech, beneficial activity and exemplification – all simple activities that create a sense of community. Hatthaka comes across as someone with real empathy and awareness of others, who has the wish just to respond, connected with the wish to give the Dharma. We can picture Hatthaka; friendly, unself-conscious, not doubting himself. We could picture a whole spiritual community acting in this way; with others in mind, with awareness, going beyond themselves – what would it be like to practice in this way? Maybe we feel we are not all like Hatthaka, that we can’t all connect with others, that we have nothing to give or that others can do it better. It is so easy to underestimate ourselves, to doubt ourselves; self-consciousness gets in the way. But spiritual community is a network of friendships, of connection. It doesn’t depend on one person but on each person’s participation.
“We are all the same, we all feel the same suffering and happiness, so I should look after others as I look after myself. Just as I love and cherish my body, which is divided into many limbs, so I should love and cherish this whole world, which is divided into many beings.” – The Bodhicaryavatara
All of us have our particular life experience, whether we are outgoing or shy, whether we feel articulate or tongue-tied. That experience makes us the right person to connect with someone. So we connect through children, through art and creativity, through working together or just meeting over cups of tea. And mostly we connect through the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, whether our grasp on these is confident or still young. This is what spiritual community is, and to participate in it is beneficial activity – it creates conditions for each of us to experience ourselves more deeply.
So beneficial activity, as we meet it in the four samgrahavastus, includes all the work we do in terms of building spiritual community, and to let that change us and our relationship with others. If we truly want to benefit others then the greatest good we can do for anyone is to give the Dharma – to give opportunity, knowledge, inspiration. We might be asking ourselves,”How can I do that? I don’t understand it well enough, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t even know if I believe in all this, I’m still finding out!” If so, it might be that the most beneficial thing we can do for others is to find out more about the Buddha’s teaching, to make it real in our own lives, to gain insight for ourselves. This is the path of the Bodhisattva, who vows to gain enlightenment for the benefit all beings.
We can think of beneficial activity as an insight practice in itself; it means we learn to go beyond ourselves, to let go of the distinction between self and other, to get out of our own way. On the way we will meet obstacles – opportunities – to let into our awareness different aspects of ourselves; our self-interest and craving,our vulnerability, our I’ll will and fear – all the stuff we’ve hidden away. We can share it because we are not so different. We can give because it will help, not because we are better, and we can receive because it will help us, not because we are of lesser value. We can build a community of aware individuals, tolerant, understanding, supportive, unified.