We pay homage to the Dhamma (the teaching of the Buddha) for making known to us the nature of existence.
We pay homage to the Sangha (the order of monks) for preserving the teaching and practicing its precepts.
- In recent years Western visitors to Thailand have displayed an increasing interest in our national religion, Buddhism. “Who was the Buddha?” “What did he teach?” “What do Buddhists believe about life after death, good and evil and the beginning of the world?” To answer these and similar questions the present writing is intended.
The Buddha’s teachings can be understood on two distinct levels. One is logical and conceptual and is concerned with an intellectual comprehension of man and the external universe. It is on this level that the above questions are more easily answered.
The second level is empirical, experiential and psychological. It concerns the ever-present and inescapable phenomena of everyday human experience -- love and hate, fear and sorrow, pride and passion, frustration and elation. And most important, it explains the origins of such states of mind and prescribes the means for cultivating those states which are rewarding and wholesome and of diminishing those which are unsatisfactory and unwholesome. It was to this second level that the Buddha gave greater emphasis and importance. For its truth is demonstrable within the realm of everyday human existence, and its validity is independent of any world view or belief about life after death.
However, as a means of introducing Buddhism to those who have little or no previous knowledge of the religion, this writing will give greater emphasis to the first level. The experiential and psychological aspects of the Teaching are outlined at the end.
In this introduction we shall focus our attention on the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali language. These scriptural writings form the basis of the Theravada school of Buddhism which predominates in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Ceylon.
About the year 623 B.C., in a region which is now the land of Nepal, a son was born to King Suddhodana, ruler of the Sakya clan. The child was named Siddhattha Gotama, and his father surrounded him with vast stores of material wealth and luxury. Although the young prince was given an excellent education, King Suddhodana took measures to prevent the boy from learning of the misery and suffering which prevailed throughout the world. However, we are told that on a certain occasion young Siddhatha rode through the village streets and beheld a man old and decrepit; then he saw a man severely stricken with illness; and finally a dead man. Shocked by the cruel realities of life and moved by a deep compassion for the sufferings of humanity, the young prince abandoned the pleasures of his aristocratic heritage and went forth alone in search of truth and salvation.
First, he sought out the great spiritual teachers of his day and mastered their meditative exercises; however, he soon realized that trance states and mysticism are not the paths to salvation. Next, he undertook the disciplines of rigorous self-mortification, as was commonly practiced in ancient India. But asceticism proved to do little more than produce a weak and fragile body. Finally, after six long and strenuous years, he sat in quiet meditation beneath the now-famous Bodhi Tree. There, looking deep into the nature of his own being, he achieved a level of insight which few men have known. This he called Nirvana, and from that time forth he became known as “The Buddha” or “the Enlightened One”. The remaining 45 years of his life were dedicated to the service and instruction of his fellow beings.
The Buddhist world view can best be understood if we see it as being based upon five major assumptions:
|I. MUTABILITY or CHANGE|
All objects, conditions and creations are regarded as being in a continuous state of change. Nothing finite is eternally fixed or unchanging. Birth, growth, decay and death are inevitable for all material objects, men, societies and states of mind. Herein lies the answer to the mystery of creation; new forms arise out of the old; each new condition is determined by that which preceded it.
|II. CAUSE and EFFECT|
This process of change, however, is not considered to be chaotic but rather is regulated by a universal Law of cause and effect. The laws of cause and effect are impersonal, impartial and unchanging. The only things which do not change are the laws of change.
|III. SELFISHNESS and SUFFERING|
The Law of cause and effect includes not only the laws of physics and chemistry so familiar to the Western world; it also includes laws of moral or psychological cause and effect known as kamma-vipaka, or more commonly, “karma”
Karma acts through time, and thus the full effects of one’s thoughts and deeds may not become manifest until some years later. Karma is inescapable, for the Buddha said:
“Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, nor if we enter into the clefts of the mountains, is there known a spot in the whole world where a man might be freed from an evil deed.”
“Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, nor if we enter into the clefts of the mountains, is there known a spot in the whole world where death could not overcome a mortal.” (Dpd. 17-8)
One important aspect of the law of karma is that selfishness results in suffering for the selfish party in proportion to the amount of wrong that has been committed. Conversely, love, compassion and other virtuous states of mind create proportionate amounts of happiness and emotional well-being. Often this is stated as, “Desire is the cause of suffering”. And in this context the word which has been translated into English as “Suffering” is the Pali word Dukkha. Dukkha is a term which includes all types of unpleasant experiences such as worry, fear, sorrow, dissatisfaction, disharmony, etc. When the mind is craving pleasures or is strongly motivated by greed, hatred or egotism it becomes predisposed to dukkha. A paradox is noted in that happiness is best found by those who are not preoccupied with looking for it. Thus we find in Buddhism no eternal punishment or eternal reward, but rather happiness and sorrow in proportion to one’s own thoughts and actions.
Karma operates independently of any social mores or cultural standards of good and evil. Also, it does not account for all pleasure and displeasure, for the Buddha said that many of one’s pleasant and painful experiences are not the result of one’s previous actions. (Anguttra-Nikaya I, 173)
|IV. NIRVANA (Nibbana)|
Since all which is born must die, since all which is finite must change, the only thing immortal, infinite, and unchanging is that which was never born and is not compounded. This is Nirvana. But the Buddha talked relatively little about Nirvana. For since it is neither matter nor energy, and since it does not exist within space and time, it is completely unrelated to anything with which we are familiar. Thus, it cannot be described, conceptualized nor understood by the normal human mind. It is known only by direct experience beyond sense perception and is the end of all dukkha. When Nirvana is experienced, egotism has died, for Nirvana comes only with the abolition of all selfishness and craving. Yet one does not vegetate but continues to act and work as long as the body remains alive. This is Buddhist salvation, and it is found by the training of one’s mind and a maturing of the personality. Since it can never be known or comprehended except by direct experience, one should not concern oneself with looking for Nirvana per se, but rather one should seek to abolish selfishness from his own personality, and this is a rewarding endeavour regardless of whether or not the highest goal is reached. Said the Buddha:
“Liberated, the wise are indifferent to the senses, and have no need to seek anything; passionless they are beyond pleasure and displeasure.”
it is stated that the above four premises can be verified by one’s own reasoning and experience with no dependence on external authority. In a Tibetan text the Buddha is quoted: “Just as people test the purity of gold by burning it in fire, by cutting it, by examining it on a touchstone, so exactly should you, my disciples, accept my words after subjecting them to a critical test and not out of reverence to me.”
On the basis of the above five postulates there develop a number of important ramifications:
Truth is universal and unchanging; and thus, depends upon no one revelation or institution. The facts discovered by the Buddha are available for all to discover, and in this sense a man can be a Buddhist and never hear about the religion of Buddhism nor the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha is quoted as saying: “It is certainly hard to change one’s set opinions, but a man should let himself freely test all philosophical systems, adopting and rejecting them as he sees fit. But the man who is wise no longer concerns himself with this or that system (of philosophy), he neither prides nor deceives himself. He goes along his independent way.” (Sutta-Nipata 785-786)
To one who accepts the teachings of the Buddha, rituals, offerings, prayer wheels and similar attempts to bring forth supernatural help are of virtually no value. The only value of prayer and homage to Buddha images is the humble and earnest state of mind which may be produced, for such a state of mind has great karmic value.
In the final stages of the path to Nirvana one must rely solely on one’s own efforts and not seek the aid of gods or men. The Buddha’s dying words were: “Decay is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with mindfulness.” (Digha-Nikaya 11,156)
On an earlier occasion, he spoke: “The man enmeshed in delusion will never be purified through the mere study of holy books, or sacrifices to gods, or through fasts, or sleeping on the ground, or difficult and strenuous vigils, or the repitition of prayers. Neither gifts to priests, nor self-castigation, nor performance of rites and ceremonies can work purification in him who is filled with craving. It is not through the partaking of meat or fish that a man becomes impure, but through drunkenness, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, self-exaltation, disparagement of others and evil intentions--through these a man becomes impure.” (Fundamentals of Buddhism)
|3. World View|
The Universe (and all that is in it ) is ordered by impartial, unchanging laws. These laws have been operating throughout all time into the infinite past and will continue to operate into the infinite future. There never was a first beginning, and there never will be a final end. The Buddha further said that there are at least a billion other world-sun systems like our own, and as these grow old and die out new solar systems evolve and come into being. Yet unlike the laws of physics and chemistry, the course of events is not a blind matter of chance. Buddhism regards the Universe as a harmoniously functioning whole with a unity behind its diversity. Man was created by the laws of nature; the world was not created for man.
|4. Worldliness and Other|
Worldliness -- The world as such is not regarded as evil, but rather it is craving for the gross and subtle pleasures of material existence that Buddhism seeks to destroy. Thus when speaking of liberation, the Buddha meant freeing of the mind from enslaving passions and prejudices; not adhorrence for material existence per se. He also denounced self-torture. Consequently, the Buddha’s first sermon taught the Middle Way, which is avoiding the extremes of excessive sensual indulgence and asceticism.
Buddhist monks undertake to train themselves to give up all but a few necessary possessions in order that they may not be deceived by unconsciously clinging to worldly possessions. And since most of the Buddha’s teachings were directed to monks and nuns, the majority of recorded dialogues are concerned with the ideals of non-materialism and non-attachment. However, the Buddha recognized the needs of the lay people and gave them much advice also. He once said:
“The wise and virtuous shine like blazing fire. He who acquires wealth in harmless
ways is like a bee that gathers honey.
Riches mount up for him like an anthill’s rapid growth.
With wealth acquired in this way, a layman fit for household life in portions four
divides his wealth. Thus will he win friendship.
One portion for his wants he uses (including charity).
Two portions he spends on his business.
A fourth he keeps for times of need.” (Digha-Nikaya lll,188)
To the Buddhist knowledge should be obtained through one’s own reasoning and experience. This is the same method as employed by modern science, except that Buddhism expands this to a study of one’s own mind, as well as a study of the world of sight and sound. Faith, scriptures, mysticism and revelations are not considered to be infallible roads to truth.
On one occasion the Enlightened One came to the village of Kesaputta where lived certain tribesmen known as the Kalamas. They knew the Buddha to be a renowned spiritual teacher and addressed him as follows:
“There are some monks and Brahmins, Venerable Sir, who visit Kessaputta. They illustrate and illuminate only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile and pull to pieces. Venerable Sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty, in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and Brahmins spoke the truth and which falsehood?”
To this the Buddha replied:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain. Uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon an authoritative tradition; nor upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon speculative metaphysical theories, reasons and arguments; nor upon a point of view; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon accepting a statement as true because it agrees with a theory that one is already convinced of; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration ‘Our teacher says thus and so’. Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill’, abandon them.” (Anguttara-Nikaya l,189)
Buddhist ethics has two levels, a positive and a negative. Negatively it advocates the eradication of all greed, hatred and egotism from one’s mind. Positively, it advocates the cultivation and development of metta, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as inherent aspects of one’s personality. “Metta” is a Pali word and is usually translated into English as “love”. However, in Pali there several words, each with different shades of meaning, all of which can be translated as “ love”. If we simultaneously think of the words “friendship”, “love” and “kindness”, we will have some understanding of the true meaning of “metta”.
In the Metta Sutta the Buddha is quoted:
“Just as a mother might protect from harm the son that was her only child, let all-embracing thoughts of love for every living thing be thine. An all-embracing love for all the universe, in all its heights and depth and breadth. An unstinted love, not marred by enmity.” (Sutta-Nip.149)
The Buddha was the first man in history known to have advocated the returning of good for evil:
“Hatred ceases not by hatred in this world. Through love it comes to an end. This is an ancient law.” (Dhammapada 5)
“Overcome anger by love, evil by good. Conquer the greedy with liberality and with truth the speaker of falsehoods.” (Dhammapada 223)
If one has truly removed all selfishness and developed love and compassion, there is no need for strict moral codes or other artificial rules of conduct. For such a person would never be inclined to do wrong, and thus his virtue would be natural and spontaneous rather than arbitrary and premeditated. Said the Buddha:
“Some there are who having taken vows and observing them think morality alone to be the highest and say that purity is achieved by restraint. They say ‘Here then let’s train; purity lies herein’. “If such a one has fallen away from some rule or ritual, having failed to do a certain performance, he is agitated, yearning all the time for purification; just as one who has lost his caravan while away from home.
“All rule and ritual left behind, all karma blamable and praiseworthy, not concerning himself with cleansing nor with stains may one freely fare.”
However, rules of ethics are of great value and importance to the majority of mankind. And thus, when speaking to lay people, the Enlightened One gave much practical advice, such as in the Sigalovada Sutta:
“In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents:
1. Once supported by them I shall now be their support.
2. I shall perform duties incumbent on them.
3. I shall keep up the lineage and tradition of my family.
4. I shall make myself worty of my heritage.
5. Furthermore, I shall offer alms in honour of my departed relatives.”
“In five ways, young householder, parents thus ministered to by their children show their compassion:
1. They restrain them from evil.
2. They persuade them to do good.
3. They train them in a profession.
4. They contract a suitable marriage for them.
5. In due time, they hand over their inheritance to them.”
“In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employee:
1. By assigning them work according to their strength.
2. By supplying them with food and wages.
3. By tending them in sickness.
4. By sharing with them unusual delicacies.
5. By granting them leave at times.”
“Thus, ministered to as the zenith, the clergy show their compassion to the lay man in six ways:
1. They restrain him from evil.
2. They persuade him to do good.
3. They love him with kindly thoughts.
4. They make him hear what he has not heard.
5. They correct and purify what he has heard.
6. They reveal the path to a heavenly state.”
Action is precipitated by thought, and for this reason evil exists first in the mind. Consequently, Buddhism regards hatred, egotism and immoral intent as wrong as the actions which they may or may not produce. In fact, Buddhist ethics are not founded upon obedience to a set of commandments, but rather they are based upon a true insight into the hazards of greed, hatred and delusion and the inherent values of love, equanimity and compassion. Consequently the words “good” and “evil” in Buddhism do not carry the same connotations of shame and guilt as in the West. In fact the Buddha often avoided the words “good” and “evil” and instead used “wholesome” and “unwholesome” or “desirable” and “undesirable”.
Buddhists are taught not to depend on the arbitrary customs, traditions and mores of society to find truth, happiness and well-being; nor should they look to society to find a code of ethics. This, however, does not imply a total apathy toward social organizations. The Buddha not only taught against the inequalities of the caste system, but also was the first person in history known to have advocated the abolition of slavery.
For over 2,000 years, Buddhists have built hospitals and resthouses, while Buddhist rulers have, in the name of their religion, drained swamps, built wells and carried out other measures in the interest of public welfare.
On the subject of illness, the Buddha said:
“Whosoever, brethren, would wait upon me, whosoever, brethren, would honour me, whosoever, brethren, would follow my advice, he should wait upon the sick.” (Vinaya Mahavagga)
And regarding the caste system he taught:
“Not by birth is one an outcast.
Not by birth is one a noble.
But by deeds is one an outcast.
And by deeds is one a noble.” (Sutta-Nip. 136)
Since all finite creations must perish, since all which is born must die, no-where in man is there to be found an immortal soul. Instead, Buddhism regards the human personality as a functioning aggregate of sensations, memories, perceptions and concepts all manifesting on a background of consciousness. The only thing which is regarded as immortal is that which is never born, is not finite and not personal; this is Nirvana.
If there is no soul, does Buddhism then teach that death is the termination of all conscious existence? This question cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”.
It is not strictly true that Buddhism teaches reincarnation, nor does is advocate an absolute annihilation. Rather, it takes a position some place between these two extremes. The Buddha was born a Hindu, and in the Hindu religion each conscious being is regarded as having a soul. Each soul is a manifestation of the great Universal Soul which the Hindus call Brahma or God. Brahma is the Absolute, the basis of all creation, and the ultimate goal of the finite soul is to return and unite with Brahma. This union with Brahma is the Hindu conception of Nirvana and is achieved after many reincarnations. With each new life the soul learns new lessons; sins, suffers from its sins, and goes to the next life somewhat better than before. At last it is purified of all selfishness, attains Nirvana, and is no longer reborn.
In reply to the question, “What will happen to me when I die?” The Buddha might answer, “What are you?” For the word “I” or “self” includes not one thing but many. Death, of course, means the cessation of all bodily functioning. What then becomes of the mind? With our modern knowledge of neurophysiology, there can be little question that most, if not all, of the things we call mental activities are directly dependent upon the electrochemical workings of the brain. When the brain ceases to function, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness come to an end.
Buddhism teaches that mind without matter is an impossibility; a body is a prerequisite for consciousness. However, it also teaches that a body alone is not enough. There is a nonphysical aspect of the human psyche which must be present before consciousness can occur. This nonphysical aspect of the mind is referred to as the bhavanga-sota or subconscious life-stream. It is said to survive the death of the body and then manifest in a new body.
The nature of this bhavanga-sota is peculiar to each individual and is the percipitate of his former actions and experiences. Each person has his or her own inherent blend of conscious and subconscious tendencies; e.g., pride, an interest in music, an aptitude for art, a love of nature, feelings of insecurity, and so on. Each of these carries with it its own karma. Selfish tendencies carry with them the karma of selfishness which is suffering (i.e., dukkha) in proportion to the amount of wrong that has been previously committed. The condition in which each man finds himself is the result of his own former thoughts and deeds. His present behavior is what will determine his future state. Thus, each man makes his own destiny.
The bhavanga-sota is, like all other finite creations, constantly in an evolving, changing state, acquiring new attributes while abandoning or modifying old ones. Such changes are identical with the changes in one’s personality. As most people go through life they are influenced by their families, societies and other features of their environments to the degree that they become products of their environments. As a result, the development of their personalities is largely a matter of chance. The purpose of Buddhism is to guide and direct the development of one’s personality so that such development is no longer a matter of chance. Niravna is the ultimate goal in this process of maturation, and with Nirvana rebirth comes to an end.
“What is it, Venerable Sir, that will be reborn?”
“A psycho-physical combination, O King, is the answer.”
But how, Venerable Sir? Is it the same psycho-physical combination as this present one?”
“No, O King. But the present psycho-physical combination produces karmically wholesome and unwholesome volitional activities, and through such Karma a new psycho-physical combination will be reborn.” (Milinda-Panha 46)
A man’s conscious memories, his present self-concept, his views and attitudes toward his own existence, his specific prejudices and his beliefs and opinions will perish with the body. Consequently, one could never say that the same person will live again.
|10. Knowledge and Intelligence|
On this matter, the Buddha said:
“In a man can become pure simply by changing his views, if by mere knowledge he can be freed of sorrow, then something other than the Noble Eightfold Path makes pure and puts an end to sorrow. But this cannot be.” (Sutta-Nipata 789)
The understanding of only a few important facts is necessary for salvation. One can go on indefinitely acquiring facts and yet never achieve the understanding which leads to Nirvana. Thus, knowledge of oneself is more important than knowledge of the world. Said the Buddha:
“It is not from views, from tradition, from mere knowledge, nor from virtue and achievement, that purity is attained, Magandiya. Nor is it from being without views, without tradition, without knowledge, without virtue or achievement that purity is attained.” (Sutta-Nipata 839)
Intelligence, like knowledge, is regarded as a valuable tool, a means to an end but not an end in itself. In the final analysis reality transcends normal human understanding, and thus one of the highest achievements of the intellect is seen when it points beyond itself to reality.
Said the Buddha: “Though he may conquer a thousand thousand men in battle, greater still is the man who conquers himself.”
Discipline is essential. Only through persistent self-discipline, said the Buddha, can one overcome passions and sloth and eventually achieve Nirvana. Yet, though a man must purify himself, he cannot take himself to Nirvana; for Nirvana is beyond the realm of finite human endeavour, and becomes manifest of its own when one has finally broken the bonds of attachment. Again the Buddha is quoted:
“He who does not rouse himself when it is time to rise, who, though young and strong, is full of sloth, whose will and thought are weak, that lazy idle man never finds the way to wisdom.” (Dpd. 280).
|12. As an Institution|
Buddhism regards itself as a group of important truths, which, when properly understood, can be of great value to almost any human being. It is important that these teachings become institutionalized and an indigenous part of a society, for there is no other way that they can reach all levels of humanity and also last for a period of many generations. In addition, if such a teaching does not exist, intolerant ideologies, superstitions and erroneous theologies will necessarily arise to satisfy the spiritual needs of a given culture. At one time the Enlightened One spoke:
“Released am I, monks, from ties both human and divine. You also are delivered from fetters human and divine. Wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the gain, for the welfare and happiness of gods and men. Proclaim the Teaching excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle and excellent in the end, in the spirit and in the letter. Proclaim ye the life of consummate purity.” (Vinaya Mahav.)
On the other hand, once a man becomes concerned with Buddhism as an institution and works for this as his primary cause, he has lost sight of the fact that truth is universal. The word “Buddhism” is only a symbol which represents certain beliefs and concepts. These truths could be equally as well represented by some other word, institution, or symbol. Once we become prejudiced towards Buddhism, we cease to be Buddhists in the true sense of the word. Each Buddhist has the opportunity to give his knowledge to others. It is not really necessary that he gives it to them under the name of Buddhism, but to do so helps to insure an embodiment of this knowledge and thus advances the opportunity for it to be acquired by others. In Digha - Nikaya I the Buddha said:
“Monks, if others were to speak against me, or against the Teaching, or against our monastic order, you need not on that account entertain thoughts of ill-will and spite, and be dissatisfied with them. If you do harbour hatred that will not only impede your mental development, but you will also fail to judge how far that speech is right or wrong. But also, monks, if others speak highly of me , highly of the Teaching and our monastic order, you need not on that account be elated; for that too will mar your inner development. You should acknowledge what is right and show the truth of what has been said.”
To its credit, Buddhism can claim that in the 2,500 years of its history, it has not burned one witch, fought one holy war nor destroyed heretics.
However, no religion can exist for long among millions of people without undergoing some change and corruption. Prayer wheels, the worship of images and the offerings to the Buddha are all examples of this. Also, later Buddhists, especially in China and Japan, created many legendary stories about the Buddha and his teachings. Nirvana was replaced by a glorious heaven where the Lord Buddha sits on His throne, and faith became more important than understanding.
|The most fundamental and important aspect of human existence is not one’s beliefs, nor social status, nor intellect, nor material possessions; rather it is motives, emotions, feelings. Almost by definition it is feelings, and feelings alone, which give purpose, meaning, value and significance to our every action and encounter. Without feeling or motives there would be no incentive for one to think, speak or act; life would be chronic apathy. Yet some feelings are more rewarding, wholesome and meaningful than others. And quite often feelings (be they mental or physical) are unpleasant, empty, sorrowful, disharmonious, worrisome, irritating, frustrating or in some way of negative value; in other words, dukkha.|
Thus the Buddha summarized his doctrine into the Four Noble Truths, which are:
However, it is not the mere attainment of a blissful existence which should motivate one towards moral behavior. On this matter the Buddha said:
“To be seized by spirits (allegorically) means living a virtuous or religious life chiefly in the hope of being born, as a result of one’s merit, in a heavenly world, as an angel, or a divine being (and this is to be avoided.)”
|The Noble Eightfold Path consists of :|
These steps are not taken one at a time, but rather are worked on simultaneously in the maturation of one’s personality. No man finds Nirvana overnight, and to rigidly force oneself to abandon all worldly conduct before one is capable of such a step can be as undesirable as clinging to habits of excessive sensual indulgence. In the words of the Buddha:
"Just as,brethren, the mighty ocean deepens and slopes gradually down, hollow after hollow, not “Just as, plunging by a sudden precipe; even so, brethren, in this Dhamma-Discipline the training is gradual, it goes step by step; there is no sudden penetration of insight.” (Udana 54)
“By degrees, little by little, from time to time a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes the dross from silver.” (Dpd. 239)
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