What do we miss when we don't read the whole sutta?
Among the things they’ll teach you, of course, is what they’ve learned from the wise before them, going back to the Buddha. Some of this knowledge can be passed on in words, but in a list of the qualities to look for in the wise—and to learn from them—the Buddha shows that there’s more to wisdom than just words. A person worthy of respect, he says (Anguttara Nikaya 7.64), should have a sense of seven things: the dharma, its meaning, oneself, moderation, the right time and place, social gatherings, and how to judge individual people.
What’s striking about this list is that only the first two qualities deal with verbal knowledge. Having a sense of the dharma means knowing what the Buddha did and didn’t say; having a sense of meaning means knowing how to explain the dharma’s difficult concepts and ideas: the general principles that express its values, and the basic techniques for implementing them. These are things we can pick up from dharma talks and books.
But the Buddha didn’t teach a one-size-fits-all-in-every-situation technique. Even his seemingly abstract principles are meant for particular stages in the training. “Not-self,” for example, is useful in some instances and harmful in others. This is why the Buddha added the last five members of the list: the sensitivities that turn the techniques and principles into genuine skills.
Having a sense of oneself means knowing your strengths and weaknesses in terms of conviction, virtue, learning, generosity, discernment, and quick-wittedness. In other words, you know which qualities are important to focus on, and can assess objectively where you still have more work to do.
Having a sense of enough applies primarily to your use of the requisites of life—food, clothing, shelter, and medicine—but it can also apply to intangibles, such as when you need less desire, effort, concentration, or thinking in your practice, and when you need more.
Having a sense of time means knowing when to listen, when to memorize what you’ve heard, when to ask questions, and when to go off into seclusion and practice on your own. Having a sense of social gatherings means knowing how to speak and behave with people from different backgrounds and classes of society.
Having a sense of social gatherings means knowing how to speak and behave with people from different backgrounds and classes of society.
Having a sense of individuals means knowing how to judge which people are worthy of emulation in their pursuit of the dharma and which ones are not.
Even though we can talk about these last five qualities, we can’t embody them through words. They’re habits, and the only way to pick up good habits is by being around good examples: people who’ve already been trained to embody these qualities in the way they live.
This is why the Buddha—in trying to establish the dharma for future generations—didn’t just leave a body of teachings. He also set up the monastic sangha and organized it to carry on the tradition of all seven of these qualities: his habits as well as his words. To ensure that the standard of the dharma would last over time, he first made it clear that he didn’t want anyone tampering with his teachings.
Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And one who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are the two who slander the Tathagata.
It’s easy to understand why the Buddha phrased this so strongly. He had chosen his words with great care, and he wanted the same level of care in those who quoted him. Fidelity, in his eyes, was an act of compassion. He intended his words to be taken as a standard for what was and wasn’t dharma—anything consistent with his words was to be accepted as dharma; anything inconsistent, to be rejected as not—so it’s only natural that he’d warn his followers not to muddy the standard. Otherwise, later generations would have no trustworthy guide in their search to end suffering.