A thought on why people awakened during dhamma talks in the time of the Buddha

For some time, the topic of why so many people seem to reach various stages of awakening while hearing the dhamma in the Suttas, including when I posted about it here, an occurrence which seemingly never occurs in the present day.

Some insight just came to me reading Ajahn Chah’s talk Supports For Meditation (p. 149 in 2nd vol of Collected Teachings), where in the first paragraph he states:

While listening to the Dhamma we are encouraged to firmly establish both body and mind in samadhi, because it is one type of Dhamma practice. In the time of the Buddha, people listened to Dhamma talks intently, with a mind aspiring to real understanding, and some actually realized the Dhamma while listening.

Reflecting on Luang Por’s suggestion that people in the Buddha’s time listened to talks while in samadhi, alongside the sati/memory connection, the idea occurred to me that it is likely in the Buddha’s day, people listened to talks in a completely different manner from how we do so today, perhaps a manner which is even currently inaccessible to us. In an oral culture such as the Buddha’s, people would have no choice but to listen to dhamma with the attention to fully memorize it if they wished to be able to access it at a later date. This aural retention was likely a skill held widely across society and developed from an early age since all information could only be recorded mentally. Combining this with ascetic practices aimed at developing samadhi more generally, it seems quite likely that disciples listening to the Buddha teach would be listening in a mental state of such focus and concentration that we would find hard to imagine today when almost all information can be recalled through near instantaneous access to a reference, thus explaining why people awoke to talks then but not now.


Well there’s another explanation too.

I don’t know about other people but when I meditate under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya or near Buddha relics, I can feel a difference, as if I was getting extra help.

Now this comes from a tiny amount of ash that once belonged to the Buddha’s body. If we were to meet him in person, it is likely that the effect would be thousands if not millions of times stronger. Then it doesn’t seem so far fetched to assume that such an effect would have heavily influenced the Buddha’s listeners in a positive way.


Thank you for sharing your insightful experience Bante. I suppose it’s possible elements of both factors or even ones not mentioned at all in this discussion.

Just to play the skeptic, looking through a somewhat Durkheimian lense, I do have a little doubt about the way locations that through the power of the religious collective become sacralized holy sights are colored more by group experience than anything intrinsic to the place itself. As an example, before I became Buddhist, I was a rather observant Jew and heard time and time and time again about how powerful the Western Wall was—stories about people just praying there or touching it and feeling instantly connected to God or filled with surety that God existed (and then often followed by a comment about how powerful it must have been to visit the temple while it still stands, which in a way parallels your thought about being in the present of the living Buddha). However, when I finally visited the wall, at a time I had more than plenty faith, I found it to be a rather disappointing and boring old brick wall that didn’t do much for me.

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“Just to play the skeptic,” what makes you so sure people aren’t getting enlightened these days reading the suttas or listening to dharma talks?

There’s a significant “sample bias” here, as most enlightened people aren’t going to talk about their experience openly… especially if they got enlightened doing something other than formal meditation!


Excellent point!

I find it helpful to try to connect questions like this to personal experience. Certainly I have no experience with awakening. But I’ve had states arise spontaneously as I go through my day - suddenly mindful, suddenly feeling deep Metta, suddenly serene. And while it is difficult to truly let go of all ego reactions while listening to a Dhamma talk - “oh that’s not what Bhante X says” or even more likely “I knew that! I’m special” - when one does get beyond the reactive chatter the right Dhamma talk at the right time can trigger quite profound shifts from time to time. I imagine those are experiences most can relate to.

It doesn’t seem far fetched that for someone far along on the path listening to a Dhamma talk by the Buddha might bring about an awakening.


Folks may be interested in the July archive of suttas from Daily ReadingFaithfully. All the suttas that month were on the topic of listening to the Dhamma:


As to the original question, it would appear that more people attained stages of enlightenment in general in the time of the Buddha compared to today. So I’m not sure we can say that the variation we see is exclusively for the listening cause of enlightenment.