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In many Buddhist stories we hear about people attaining enlightenment, stream entry and other blessings.

It seems like it is much easier to progress in the path when there is a living Buddha around, is that right? Or is it related to the way society was, more religious and devoted?

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I guess it is both. On one hand, Buddha new the weaknesses of each individual and was able to recommend what type of meditation that's suitable for him. He new how much each person's five spiritual faculties were developed and provided the right recommendation. This type of knowledge that a Buddha possesses is called indriya-paro-pariya-ñāṇa. I think this is why some monks practice different kinds of meditation techniques alternatively since there's no Buddha to guide them now.

On the other hand, the people during Buddha's time have had perfected paramis onto such an extent that some of them would get enlightened by hearing just one stanza of a sutta. e.g. Bāhiya the merchant, Sariputta thero and Moggallana thero.

In Puggalapannatti of abhidhamma pitaka mentions four types of people,

Ugghatitannu - an individual who encounters a Buddha in person, and who is capable of attaining the Holy Paths and the Holy Fruits through the mere hearing of a short concise discourse.

Vipancitannu: an individual who encounters a Buddha in person, but who is capable of attaining the Paths and the Fruits only when the short discourse is expounded to him at some length.

Neyya : an individual who needs to study the sermon and the exposition, and then to practise the provisions contained therein for 7 days to 60 years, to attain the Paths and the Fruits during this lifetime if he tries hard with guidance from the right teacher.

Padaparama : an individual who cannot attain the Paths and the Fruits within this lifetime. can attain release from worldly ills in his next existence if he dies while practising samatha or vipassana and attains rebirth either as a human being or a deva within the present Buddha Sasana.

In Buddha's time most of them were type 1,2 and 3. So I guess Bāhiya the merchant, Sariputta thero and Moggallana thero fall under the first category.

These days unfortunately most people fall under third and fourth categories.

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To dissuade one from believing that the Buddha does the enlightening, I offer two stories of Shakyamuni's close disciples.

The first is Ananda that serves Shakyamuni all his life and does not find enlightenment. This was a source of frustration to see all these people finding enlightenment and Ananda is with the Buddha around the clock and does not find enlightenment until after his death. Ananda had the principles down pat but he could not find the living buddha within.

In the flower sermon is another example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower_Sermon The Buddha gets up to give a sermon and says nothing, does nothing, just stands there, and then he raises a flower. All the people present are confused and discuss among themselves what he is saying. Then one disciple, Mahākāśyapa, gets it, awakening washes over him and he stands up. He is speechless. Mahākāśyapa can only smile.

Neither awakening was due to Shakyamuni Buddha and what he did. When the flower was ready it bloomed. No one could force it. It just happened.

The buddha consciousness within is what we awaken to. Is there anywhere we can go where that is not? I have found no such place. I have found no one or nothing that can awaken anyone. The buddha within is always shining, the clouds part and it is revealed.

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The buddha's ability to teach and lead people in realising the Dhamma is unsurpassed. Also his understanding is by far the best. Definitely having your paths cross with such an individual your be a great advantage.

Having said this the Dhamma is there. You still can practice it and realise the Dhamma though it might be a bit harder these days. (Ability to find qualified high quality teachers, also the world being more materialistic and sensual and we lacking perfections.)

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