The List of Seven Dharmas/Knowledges
Aside from a couple differences in order, all five lists of seven dharmas agree on the items and the order. The four Chinese versions are in almost complete agreement that the order is:
- Knowing the Dharma
- Knowing the meaning
- Knowing the time
- Knowing moderation
- Knowing oneself
- Knowing the assembly
- Knowing people
The Ekottara Āgama disagrees slightly by switching items 4 & 5 in its list. The Pali list is also very close to this order, switching items 3 & 5.
The Definitions of Each Item
One point to make before continuing is that the style of presentation that we find in the Pali that repeats the definition three times is replicated in the Madhyama Āgama’s Good Dharma Sutra, but not in the other three Chinese parallels. T27 and EA.39.1 only state the positive and negative versions of each item.
T1536 gives a negative version of this list before the positive one is defined, but they are treated as two different dharma lists.
1. Knowing the Dharma
The Pali and Chinese sutras state that knowing the Dharma means knowing the divisions of the Sutra canon. The Pali differs from the Chinese texts by specifying the nine types of sutras recognized in the Theravada, while the Chinese versions list the twelve types that were standard in Indian Buddhism; i.e., the nine divisions plus nidāna, avadāna, and upadeśa.
The differences between the Chinese texts are related to translating the Sanskrit names of the twelve divisions of the sutras to Chinese, so I will move onto the next item without a detailed translation of each passage.
2. Knowing the Meaning
EA.39.1 is the outlier in this case, defining it as knowing the Buddha’s essential meaning, rather than the technical meaning of particular statements in the sutras.
AN.7.68: It’s when a mendicant knows the meaning of this or that statement: ‘This is what that statement means; that is what this statement means.’
T27: He clarifies such and such statements by the Sutra Dharma according to their meanings (彼彼所說經法，悉曉其義).
MA.1: A bhikṣu knows the meaning of such and such a statement to be this or that meaning (比丘知彼彼說義是彼義、是此義).
T1536: He correctly understands the meaning of such and such a statement: ‘Such and such a statement has such and such a meaning.’ (正了知彼彼語義，謂如是如是語有如是如是義).
EA.39.1: A bhikṣu knows the Tathāgata’s basic points, comprehends their profound meaning, and doesn’t have any difficulties about it (比丘知如來機趣，解了深義，無所疑難。)
3. Knowing the Time
All five texts are in basic agreement that this item refers to a bhikṣu’s judgement about when he ought to do different things. T27 and MA.1 have cryptic definitions that are a little clearer when we compare them to Xuanzang’s translation in T1536.
AN.7.68: It’s when a mendicant knows the right time: ‘This is the time for recitation; this is the time for questioning; this is the time for meditation; this is the time for retreat.’
T27: He knows: ‘This is a time I can consider quietude,’ ‘this is a time not (?) to consider undertakings,’ and ‘this is a time I can consider precautions’ (知是時可惟寂滅想，是時不惟受行想，是時可惟慎護想). [The negation of the second item seems likely to be a corruption.]
MA.1: A bhikṣu knows: ‘This is the time to cultivate lower qualities,’ ‘this is the time to cultivate higher qualities,’ and ‘this is the time to cultivate equanimity’ (比丘知是時修下相，是時修高相，是時修捨相) [see T1536 below for a clearer translation]
T1536: He correctly understands ‘this is the time’ and ‘this is not the time.’ I.e., ‘this is a time appropriate for cultivating calmness (śamatha-nimitta);’ ‘this is a time appropriate for cultivating exertion (pragraha-nimitta);’ and ‘this is a time appropriate for cultivating equanimity (upekṣā-nimitta)’ (正了知是時非時，謂此時應修止相、此時應修舉相、此時應修捨相等).
EA.39.1: A bhikṣu knows to manage his time. When he can cultivate contemplation, he cultivates contemplation. When he can cultivate calm, he cultivates calm. When he can be quiet, he’s quiet. When he can walk, he walks. When he can recite, he recites. When he can receive a visitor, he receives a visitor. When he can speak, he speaks (比丘知其時節，可修觀時便修觀，可修止時便修止，可默知默，可行知行，可誦知誦，可授前人便授前人，可語知語。)
4. Knowing Moderation
Again, this is a straightforward item about not going too far in eating, drinking, and various daily activities. The Pali text seems to focus only on gifts received, while the Chinese texts discuss general habits.
AN.7.68: It’s when a mendicant knows moderation when receiving robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick.
T27: He is able to eat and drink little, relieve himself, and readily digest his meals; able to be moderate in exiting and entering, sitting and getting up, and going on walks; and frugal when laying down, waking up, speaking, and staying quiet (能少飲食大小便便得消化，能節出入坐起行步，臥覺語默事從約省).
MA.1: A bhikṣu knows moderation whether he is drinking, eating, departing, standing, sitting, laying down, speaking, being silent, or relieving himself, rousing himself when drowsy and cultivating right knowledge.
T1536: He correctly understands the various ways of measuring things; i.e., portions of drink, food, tastes, and bites (of food), and he understands how much will cause hardship when he walks, stands, sits, lays down, sleeps, stays awake, speaks, and keeps quiet (正了知種種分量，謂所飲所食所嘗所噉、若行若住若坐若臥、若睡若覺若語若默、若解勞悶等所有分量).
EA.39.1: A bhikṣu is able to decide when it’s fitting to stop when sleeping, waking up, sitting, laying down, and going for long walks (比丘能自籌量睡眠、覺寤、坐臥、經行、進止之宜，).
5. Knowing Oneself
There is general agreement that it refers to a bhikṣu being honest and accurate in his assessments of his own progress and attainments. EA.39.1 is an outlier in its phrasing but not in the gist of its meaning.
AN.7.68: It’s when a mendicant has self-knowledge: ‘This is the extent of my faith, ethics, learning, generosity, wisdom, and eloquence.’
T27: He knows his own body, mind, and age is much or little, and he knows his own faith, discipline, wisdom, understanding, attainment, and entry are deep, shallow, strong, or weak (自知己身意老多少，所信所戒、所聞所施、所慧所解、所至所入，深淺厚薄事事自知).
MA.1: A bhikṣu knows ‘Such are my attainments of belief, discipline, learning, generosity, wisdom, discernment, and the Āgamas.’
T1536: He correctly understands his own virtues to be many or few; i.e., whether he possesses faith, discipline, learning, equanimity, wisdom, teachings, realizations, mindfulness, family lineage, eloquence, and so forth (正了知自德多少，謂自所有若信若戒、若聞若捨若慧、若教若證若念、若族姓若辯才等).
EA.39.1: A bhikṣu is able to know of himself, ‘Now, I see, hear, recall, and know that I have such wisdom and steps of progress, and I always follow the true Dharma’ (比丘能自知己：『我今有此見聞念知，有如是智慧，行步進止，恒隨正法。』).
6. Knowing the Assembly
All four sutras and the Abhidharma passage agree that this item refers to the bhikṣu’s social intelligence when interacting with different segments of Indian society and following their customs.
AN.7.68: It’s when a mendicant knows assemblies: ‘This is an assembly of aristocrats, of brahmins, of householders, or of ascetics. This one should be approached in this way. This is how to stand, to act, to sit, to speak, or to stay silent when there.’
T27: He is able to know whether an assembly is a princely assembly, a householder assembly, a brāhmaṇa assembly, a śramaṇa assembly, whether there is a time to go to that assembly, and the manners of sitting, standing, speaking, and being quiet that are fitting. He knows the occasions that are appropriate. (能知彼眾若君子眾、若理家眾，若梵志、若沙門眾，若或有時至彼眾，宜坐宜立、宜語宜默，知隨時宜).
MA.1: A bhikṣu knows ‘This is a kṣatriya assembly, this is a brāhmaṇa assembly, this is a householder assembly, and this is a śramaṇa assembly. In those assemblies, I should thus depart, thus stand, thus sit, thus speak, and thus be silent.’
T1536: He correctly understands an assembly to be superior or inferior; i.e., "this is a kṣatriya assembly," "this is a brāhmaṇa assembly," "this is a community leader assembly," "this is a householder assembly," "this is a śramaṇa assembly," or "this is a heretic assembly." "I should thus walk, thus stand, thus sit, thus speak, and thus be quiet among them" (正了知眾會勝劣，謂此是剎帝利眾、此是婆羅門眾、此是長者眾、此是居士眾、此是沙門眾、此是外道眾，我於此中應如是行、應如是住、應如是坐、應如是語、應如是默等).
EA.39.1: A bhikṣu discerns a large assembly: “This is a kṣatriya clan,” “this is a brāhmaṇa assembly,” “this is a community leader assembly,” or “this is a śramaṇa assembly.” “I will visit that assembly using the custom (dharma) that’s appropriate that I may speak or be quiet.” He fully knows them. (比丘分別大眾，此是剎利種，此是婆羅門眾，此是長者眾，此是沙門眾，我當以此法宜則適彼眾中，可語可默，皆悉知之。).
7. Knowing People
The last of the seven dharmas is itself a list of items in the four sutras. The passage in T1536 is the exception, giving us only a summary definition.
The list consists of an incremental comparison of lay people in terms of their acceptance and practice of the Dharma. For brevity, I’ve condensed the pairs to the characteristic being described. The basic thrust of all four sutras is the same, beginning with a desire to interact with the bhikṣus, learning about the Dharma, and becoming an exemplary practitioner who is not just interested in his own welfare. However, they all have a different number of items and wordings that overlap.
The Pali and EA.39.1 notably lack the world-encompassing language at the end, and the Pali also lacks the metaphor of ghee.
- People who like to see the noble ones
- People who like to hear the true teaching
- People who lend an ear to the teaching
- People who remember the teaching they’ve heard
- People who reflect on the meaning of the teachings
- People who understand the meaning and the teaching and practice accordingly
- People who practice to benefit both themselves and others
- People who believe in awakening
- People who frequent the temples and like the śramaṇas
- People who love and respect the śramaṇas
- People who befriend the śramaṇas
- People who like to ask questions about the sutras and Dharma
- People who lean to listen
- People who hear the Dharma and retain it
- People who hear and ponder its meaning
- People who understand the meaning of the sutras, accept the Dharma, and stand according to the Dharma
- People who are concerned for their own welfare, the welfare of other people, the welfare of many in the world, and who sympathize with the world and would rather benefit gods and men
- People having faith
- People who go to see the bhikṣus
- People who revere the bhikṣus
- People who ask questions about the sutras
- People who single-mindedly listen to the sutras
- People who hear and retain the Dharma
- People who hear the Dharma and contemplate its meaning
- People who know the Dharma, know its meaning, go from one Dharma to the next Dharma, conform to the Dharma, and conduct themselves according to the Dharma
- People who benefit themselves, benefit others, benefit many people, pity the world, seek both meaning and benefit for devas and humans, and seek peace and happiness
He correctly understands the virtues and practices of pudgalas (individuals) to be superior or inferior; i.e., such and such a pudgala has such and such virtue and practice that are superior or inferior (正了知補特伽羅德行勝劣，謂如是如是補特伽羅有如是如是德行或勝或劣).
- People who want to go to the monastery and befriend the bhikṣus
- People who go into the temple and see the bhikṣus but don’t ask questions when it’s appropriate
- People who ask the bhikṣus questions when it’s appropriate
- People who listen to the Dharma single-mindedly
- People who investigate the Dharma, retaining and reciting it
- People who hear the Dharma and understand its meaning
- People who accomplish the Dharma that they hear
- People who hear the Dharma, can endure its cultivation, and discern and protect the true Dharma
The Metaphor of Ghee
All three Chinese sutras compare the final person in this item to ghee in this fashion (with minor variations):
“It’s because of the cow that there is milk; because of milk that there is cream; because of cream that there is butter; and because of butter that there is ghee. Just as ghee is the best of these things, so is that person the best of people.”
Notes Attached to the Abhidharma Passage
In addition to the definition of these seven topics, T1536 also includes a question and answer.
“Question: What’s the reason that these seven are called ‘virtuous dharmas’? Answer: ‘Virtuous’ refers to the virtuous man (sat-puruṣa). These are his dharmas, so they are called virtuous dharmas. That is, these dharmas are only won and obtained by the virtuous man. Since they are possessed and made manifest only by that man, they are called wondrous dharmas” (問：何緣是七名為妙法？答：妙謂善士，此是彼法，故名妙法。謂此諸法唯善士邊可獲可得，此是彼士所有現有，故名妙法。).