Guest Post by Russ Riley

Today, the first ever guest post at The Endless Further.

My nephew, Russ Riley (left), is a student at Hastings College in Nebraska.  Last semester, he took a class on Buddhism, and naturally, to complete the course he was required to write a final paper.  I think it’s pretty good.  His teacher did, too.  Gave Russ an A-.  And I want to share it with you.

Now, since we live some 1500 miles apart from each other, I have not been much of an influence in Russ’ life.  So whatever interest he has in Buddhism is a result of his own spiritual journey.  Matter of fact, I don’t believe we had ever talked about Buddhism together until just recently.

Likewise, I gave him some guidance on the paper (after all, what good is having an uncle who is Buddhist if you can’t tap into his vast storehouse of wisdom), but I didn’t help him too much.  And it was his professor who suggested the theme of Jack Kerouac and the Beat movement and how jazz music relates to Buddhism. 

In any case, without further ado, here is one young man’s thoughts on some of the Dharma:

How You See Is What You Get

Russ Riley

The search for happiness can be a tough one, especially with the monotony of everyday life. When people are in our way and we have to be somewhere right now, it can be easy to forget what is actually happening right now. We can very easily get caught up in our thoughts and emotions and before we know it we’re stuck in a fit of anger and frustration: all because that car didn’t get out of my way, or because I didn’t deserve to stub my toe on that crack in the sidewalk. When we practice Buddhist philosophy we can come to an understanding that happiness is all around, and that our perception is what needs to change. In order to find true happiness we must let go of our expectations and live in the present moment.

Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now. This is something we don’t often think about with our Western mindsets. To Be Here Now means to live completely in the present moment. It means not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, but thinking about the feelings and senses of the eternal present. It means thinking about the hardness of the chair you’re sitting in, the feeling of your breath flowing in and out across your lips, the breeze lightly brushing your skin. When we practice being in the present moment we are practicing one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. One person who was particularly good at this was Jack Kerouac, one of the most influential writers of the 1950’s. He was known for his spontaneous behavior and helping create a movement called the beat movement. His writing style was as spontaneous as the lifestyle he lived and wrote about, as he often typed on 120-foot long teletype paper. This style was called spontaneous prose, a much practiced stream of consciousness with a trail of untampered thoughts, one leading to the next. Kerouac developed this style so that the words on the page were his purest thoughts. It is quite clear that this writing style has many similarities to that of an improvised jazz solo, even more specifically, a bebop solo played by Charlie Parker. Phrases were well thought out, allowing breathing space for the reader, just like Parker’s solos, each passage based around a key idea. Both based in New York in the 50’s, they ended up crossing paths and Kerouac was blown away by Parker’s spontaneity and originality in his musical phrases. As the bebop movement grew, it became more than just music. It became a lifestyle, an image of these fast paced, high energy entertainers living a life free from all the worries and problems of the real world. A prime example of this lifestyle is the beat generation, which Kerouac wrote about and helped start. Being a ‘beat’ meant you were nonconforming and original, questioning social, religious, and political matters. It meant living in the moment, being in the now.

Kerouac has said that bebop and Parker in particular were very influential on his life and works. In fact, Kerouac was so moved by Charlie Parker that he wrote the following poem about him, comparing him to Buddha.

Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
Charlie Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on TV
After weeks of strain and sickness,
Was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes
The expression that says “All Is Well”
This was what Charlie Parker
Says when he played All Is Well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit’s joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session
“Wail, Wop”
Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.

Jack Kerouac thought Charlie Parker looked like Buddha. At the beginning of the poem, Kerouac refers to Parker as the Perfect Musician, similar to how a monk would call Buddha the Perfect Being. Kerouac, a man who practiced Zen Buddhism for part of his life, compares Parker’s face to Buddha. He also attributes a spiritual significance to his musical playing abilities. Kerouac praises Parker’s creative energy as if it were a spiritual force working towards a musical awakening. When he wrote about his writing style, spontaneous prose, he compared it to playing jazz music. In an excerpt from the book, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Kerouac describes his theory of composition: “PROCEDURE: Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” This example of how the artistic visions of Kerouac and Parker crossed paths is perfect. They both had a thirst for spontaneity and originality. Kerouac saw the Zen in Charlie Parker’s approach to jazz in this new style called bebop. In this poem, Kerouac isn’t so much comparing Parker as a person to Buddha, but more so it’s a reference to how Charlie Parker’s playing makes him feel. All Is Well.

In 1956, a Zen Buddhist and friend of Kerouac, Gary Snyder, suggested that Kerouac write a sutra. What he wrote became The Scripture of Golden Eternity. The work consists of 66 prose poems, which deal with the nature of our consciousness and the impermanence in everything. Mainly influenced by his Buddhist background, the title “scripture” alludes to his Catholic upbringing. In the first verse, he says:

Did I create that sky? Yes, for, if it was anything other than a
conception of my mind I wouldn’t have said “sky”-That is why I
am the golden eternity. There

are not two of us here, reader and writer, but one, one golden
eternity, On-Which-It-Is, That-Which-Everything-Is.

In this passage Jack Kerouac introduces another very important concept in Buddhism, which is, the oneness of everything and nothing. He believed that everything is a part of something greater. That we are all one essence functioning in a nonexistent and unimportant reality. Kerouac refers to himself as a divine being when calling himself the “golden eternity.” He also implies that others are part of this divine being when he says, “You are the golden eternity because there is no me and no you, only the golden eternity.” He is emphasizing the importance of the unity of humanity. I think the golden eternity refers to the realization of Buddhist philosophy, the principle that once one understands the endless mystery of everything and nothing, once one realizes we are all one energy, one can understand true happiness.

The problem in Western society today is that we are so focused on individualism and being different from others. We generally define ourselves by what we are not, instead of what we are. This creates a “this and them” mindset and only feeds our nasty egos. In the West we have our Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated. But upon first inspection of this saying, it feeds the ego. It is based on you helping other people for personal benefit. I will act in a positive way towards you, so that the result is you acting positive towards me. I’m helping you with the intentions of getting help for myself. This should not be the case. We should be compassionate to others simply because it is the right thing to do. In Buddhism, it is said that every sentient being is the same energy. If you look close enough, smaller than atoms, protons, and electrons, there is just energy. If we think this way, it becomes obvious that we must not be harmful to others, because we are all the same. Not the same beings, but the same being.  Another more scientific way to look at it is to look at the four most common elements in the human body; hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Not only are they most common in human bodies, but every other living thing on Earth. Furthermore, these elements are among the most abundant in the universe, with hydrogen making up 75%, oxygen the third most abundant, followed by carbon, neon, iron, and nitrogen. The same elements that make up 96% of the human body make up more than 75% of our universe.

The idea that we are all one is an idea that was brought forth by Siddhartha Gautama himself. This teaching is described best in one of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts, the Vajracchedika Pranjaparamita Sutra, or the Diamond Sutra. It was discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907 in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas. The complete history is unknown, but it is said to be an adaptation of another sutra, translated in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated many of the Buddhist sutras. The Diamond Sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” he or she should get rid of all notions “other.” When a bodhisattva helps someone, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. One must empty the mind of all concepts of discrimination. Buddha says that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words. He says no one can attain transient wisdom, and that the very idea of attainment is one that should be forgotten.

Another essential Buddhist concept deals with our perceptions.  Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Perception is very important for our well-being, for our peace. Perception should be free from emotion and ignorance, free from illusion. In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle to understanding.” He explains that if we hold something as truth, we need to be ready to abandon it or else when truth comes to knock at our door we will not open it. He gives a very good example: A man with a young son whom he loved very much was away on a business trip. While he was gone, bandits came and burned down his village and took his son. When the man returned he saw the destruction and panicked. He found a corpse of an infant whom he thought was his child. He held a cremation ceremony and carried his son’s ashes wherever he went. He loved his son more than anything. One night his real son escaped and came knocking on his door in the middle of the night. When the man asked who it was the boy told him it was his son. He man became angry and thought it was some boy making fun of him and yelled at him to go away. They never saw each other again (48). Knowledge is an obstacle to our understanding. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge. For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.

Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand, but throwing away what we hold as truth will help us better understand and become more aware. Kerouac wrote a verse in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity that expresses this concept very well. It states:

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

In the first line of this verse Kerouac is referring to meditation, seeing the world as it truly is, free from illusion, being totally aware. One will see good things and bad things, but underneath all of that is just energy. Understand that it is all emptiness, empty of any self that is intrinsic, permanent, and independent. He refers to atoms emitting light, saying there is no personal separation of any of it. All things are all interdependent. We are all one. When Kerouac says, “A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not” he is implying that whether good or bad, change happens. One day it is cloudy, another day it is not, but do not worry about stuff happening, be happy. Think not of the future, nor of the past, but be here now. This attitude is where Zen and Beat align. Happiness is all around, you just have to perceive it as such. In the last line of this verse Kerouac means that when we are looking for truth, we may be confronted with what we think is not truth. When we let go of our previous knowledge, we can fully understand. The idea of light and dark can be compared to that of good and evil. The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are not two separate things, but they are innate, inseparable aspects of life. The line “devoured by darkness” is referring to the fact that it can be very difficult to let go of what we hold as truth. In order to truly understand and perceive reality, we must be ready to abandon our truths. Without darkness, there is no light. Without light there can be no darkness.

Kerouac’s verse reminds me of a famous singer and song writer who became quite well known for his teachings of peace and love. His name was John Lennon and he wrote a song called Tomorrow Never Knows, which says, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining.” The idea of this verse correlates with Kerouac’s Scripture verse quite well. In Zen, not knowing is an important concept. When we can lay down all our thoughts, let go of our preconceived notions and expectations, and surrender to the void, we can truly understand and see the light.

No matter who you are, where you are from, which religion you are a part of, you can practice Buddhism. We can all help the world be a more peaceful place by starving our ego and fueling our compassionate loving side. Abandon your views, let go of your judgments, be in the present moment and desire nothing. Buddhism is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. There are no rules and constrictions, just concepts to practice and apply to daily life. Be good to one another, for deep down, we are all the same energy. With these realizations we can find our Buddha nature and contribute to a more loving peaceful world. Happiness is everywhere as long as we remember where we are, and what time it is; as long as we remember to Be Here Now.

Work Cited
Camia, George -. “Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, & Zen Buddhism.” Roots Rock Boston. Roots Rock Boston, 3 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 May 2017.

Weekes, Henry, Mo Hafeez, Samuel Burnt, Tobias Berchtold, Richard Birch, and Ayush Joshi. “Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and the ‘Beat Generation’.” Wall of Sound Magazine. Wall of Sound Magazine, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 May 2017.

Inc., Wolfram Research. “Abundance in the Universe of the Elements.” Abundance in the Universe for All the Elements in the Periodic Table. Wolfram Research Inc., n.d. Web. 19 May 2017.

Kerouac, Jack. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. San Francisco: City Lights, 1994. Print.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, Rachel Neumann, and Mayumi Oda. Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax, 1987. Print.

Riley, David. “Jack and the Buddhastalk.” The Endless Further. The Endless Further, 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 May 2017.

Riley, David. “Secrets of the Diamond Sutra.” The Endless Further. The Endless Further, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 May 2017.

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We are the Earth

Earth Day.  I remember the first Earth Day in 1970.  I was a senior in high school.  We had an assembly out on the football field and listened to a couple of speakers.  Not a big deal.

Forty-seven years later, it is a very big deal.  This year, there are plenty of interesting events to participate in, including a March for Science to take place today in more than 500 cities around the world.  According to the organizers, 13,500 people have signed up to attend the San Francisco march and science fair alone, while an additional 17,000 have expressed interest in the events via social media channels.

The President of the United States says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, a truly irresponsible stance driven in all probability by a dislike of regulations rather than any philosophical outlook, for I suspect this man has few core beliefs outside of those about his own greatness.

In the U.S., climate change denial is wrapped up with religion.  The SF Chronicle reports, “Many evangelical Christians believe that stewardship of the Earth and taking care of the poor and sick are core to their faith.”  8 in 10 evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, and what I find interesting is that many of these Christians believe that God gave humans dominion over the earth, yet few of them believe that human action has much of an effect on the environment.

Buddhism and Taoism are more sympathetic to the idea of climate change, because these religious philosophies, as they have been practiced in China and Japan, view nature as a partner in the quest for spiritual development, as opposed to a thing to exert dominion over.

Lao Tsu, in the Tao Te Ching, says

Humanity follows Earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

“Heaven” signifies a natural order or organizing principle of the Universe, the “way of heaven.”  The way of Tao is to be in harmony with the way of nature.  The ancient Taoists saw this as not only our nature but also, our duty.

Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and the environment (esho funi).  If there is something wrong with the environment, then it is only a reflection of a “wrongness” within ourselves.  Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other.  We are not in harmony with nature.  We must continue to change our concept of the environment, appreciating the interconnectedness of nature and all things.

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh published a book titled Love Letter to the Earth.  In Chapter 1 “We are the earth,” he writes

“At this very moment, the Earth is above you, below you, all around you, and even inside you.  The Earth is everywhere.  You may be used to thinking of the Earth as only the ground beneath your feet.  But the water, the sea, the sky, and everything around us comes from the Earth.  Everything outside us and everything inside us comes from the Earth…

The Earth is not just the environment we live in.  We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us.”

We are the Earth.

We are nature.

We are the environment.

The key to the problem of climate change is to change people’s minds.  The survival of the planet is too important to allow people to be in denial about climate change or to ascribe the coming catastrophe to a ludicrous conspiracy theory.

“Thus when we say that all sentient beings have within them the Buddha-essence or the Buddha-nature we mean that all sentient beings have minds which can change and become Buddha’s minds.”

– Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

In this case, having a Buddha mind means being a bodhisattva of the earth, that is, a steward of the earth, taking on the planet’s sufferings, vowing to liberate all things in nature.

I know that I am not doing enough.  If I want to change the environmental crisis, I must first change my mind.  If I want to see pure air and water, I must first purify my mind.  I must go to that place within where I know without doubt, without denial, that I am the Earth.

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The Buddhist Poetry of Joanne Kyger

It’s April and that means it’s also National Poetry Month.   An opportunity to remember the Buddhist inspired poetry of Joanne Kyger, who passed away March 22 at age 82.

Kyger became interested in Buddhism when she was living in San Francisco during the late 50s and involved in the Beat Generation poetry scene there.   Her obituary in the NY Times quotes her as saying,

“My own interest in Zen came about because I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger in Santa Barbara. Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing.”

She met fellow poet/Buddhist Gary Snyder in 1958, and in 1960 they went to Japan and got married.  They also went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and met with the Dalai Lama.

Upon her return to the U.S., she published her first book, The Tapestry and the Web.  Kyger went on to publish more than twenty books of poetry and prose during her life.

Her work was a mix of dharma and the Beat Generation scene that became a part of the whole counter culture scene during the 1960s, including experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

Robert Creely said of Kyger, “There is no poet with more whimsically tough a mind… She’s the best of the west.”  And David Meltzer:  “No other poet of my gen­eration has been able to make the pleasures and particu­lars of the ‘everyday’ as luminous and essential and central.”

Basho Says Plants Stones Utensils
     have individual feelings
     similar to those of humans   
 
A zillion little butterfly thoughts
      simultaneously flap.

You are the sum
      of all you ‘know’
        and the more you forget
          the more ordinary
             you are really nothing
                 special   so why
                    all the anxious push-push
                      just hang

the clothes on the line
   Put the black ones
       in the washer
         Feel the myriad little bits
             of sensation
               that make up emotion

                            As the Sun
                           rises high
                         in the sky
                     so does the arrogance
         I’m still  waiting
           for the ‘Buddhist’
              poem to arrive

                 Darn it takes so long
                      for the Dharma
                      Up in arms
                  on the moral high road
              wanting to sum it up
          and END it

April 2002

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World Happiness Report

The annual World Happiness Report is out.  This year Norway ranks as the happiest place on earth.  That’s strange because I always thought it was supposed to be Disneyland.

At any rate, each year the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative, measures world happiness country by country based on such factors as “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”  The United Sates is now number 14.

According to SDSN, social well-being is the best gauge of a country’s progress.  John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press:  “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?  The material can stand in the way of the human.”

To read the World Happiness Report, go to their website.

It seems to me, though, that happiness is a difficult thing to measure.  At least on a personal level.  While happiness means generally the same thing to most folks, each of us can have a slightly different definition.  And, of course, since time immemorial, philosophers and other folk have been weighing in with their take on the meaning of happiness…

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

And Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Both of these “definitions” correspond with the Buddhist/Taoist notion of happiness, which is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to find joy and tranquility in the midst of suffering.

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BCE, believed that happiness or the ultimate satisfaction in life came from doing nothing, that is, the practice of wu-wei (not-doing, non-action):

“I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this.  It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise.  The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong.  And yet doing nothing can determine it.  Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way.  Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace.  Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life.  Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere!  Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction.  So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done.  But who among us can attain this inaction?”

In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is one of humankind’s basic rights.  It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.  But this is not the greatest goal in life.   When we calm our mind and when what we do is in harmony, we do not need to seek happiness, for we realize that it is already all around us.

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Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West

As I mentioned in a recent post, a new edition of Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West has been published by New World Library and I received a free copy for review.

According to the publisher’s description on the back, “When psychotherapy merely helps us adjust to social norms, Watts argued, it falls short of true liberation, while Eastern philosophy seeks our natural relation to the cosmos.”

In Watt’s view, both Eastern philosophy and psychotherapy have the same goal: death of the ego, the sublimation of the fictional self.  And both could benefit in learning from the other.

It is important to keep in mind this book was first published 56 years ago.  That most of it remains relevant today is remarkable, but there are some places where Watts’ assumptions no longer hold water.  The book was a reaction to the state of psychotherapy in the late 1950’s.  For instance, Watts criticizes American psychology for being “over-Puritan.”  I doubt if that is the case today.

As far as any blending of East and West is concerned, some folks may gloss over this huge caveat:

“Nevertheless, the parallel between psychotherapy and, as I have called them, the Eastern ‘ways of liberation’ is not exact, and one of the most important differences is suggested by the prefix psycho-.  Historically, Western psychology has directed itself to the study of the psyche or mind as a clinical entity, whereas Eastern cultures have not categorized mind and matter, soul and body, in the same way as the Western.”

What we have here is basically “East is East and West is West,” that is, two radically different approaches to the problem of human suffering, one based on intuitive reasoning, the other based on a deductive mode of reason.  I am not sure the twain can ever truly meet, which is part of my concern about how the modern Mindfulness movement seems overly dependent on Western psychology.

That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an influential figure.  He is, as usual, erudite and thought-provoking.  He makes several points very clear, such as Eastern ways of liberation are not religion, and they have nothing to do with the supernatural:

“All my experience of those who are proficient in the ways of liberation indicates that feat of magic or neurotechnology are quite beside the point… I have found no evidence whatsoever for any sensational achievement of this kind.  If they have achieved anything at all it is of a far humbler nature and in quite a different direction, and something which strikes me as actually more impressive.”

Which strikes me as a very nice description of the process of awakening or enlightenment.  The passage appears in a section in which Watts makes his chief assertion:

“Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release.”

Because I tend to look at this through the lens of Buddha-dharma, it occurs to me that there is some evidence to suggest that in developing the sangha, the Buddha was attempting to create a new society, but, in the end, does the Buddhist sangha, all the temples and centers, actually perpetuate the illusion we are seeking to dispel?  Watts says that we should “see that social institutions are simply rules of communication which have no more universal validity than, say, the rules of a particular grammar.”  Easier said than done.  I wonder how freedom from the maya of social institutions relates to the sense of personal liberation that is one of the major characteristics of Buddhism?

I think those who have an interest in psychology will get more out of this book than others will.  Personally, I don’t care too much whether or not “Freud and Jung seem in some ways to be wiser than the Existentialists.”  I don’t practice Buddhist Psychology, and I don’t see the historical Buddha as an ancient psychotherapist as some others do, but for those attracted to that approach, I will remind again, in Watts’ words:

“[It] strikes the uninformed Westerner that Buddhism could be an alternative to Christianity…”

Likewise, the same person may think that Western psychology + meditation could be an alternative to Buddhism.  As Watts noted above, those who are proficient in the Eastern ways of liberation are headed in a “different direction.”  And while we may agree that these Eastern “ways” compare to nothing in the West except for psychotherapy, we must be careful not to think that they are psychotherapy, for that would be illusion.

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