Dr. Ambedkar

Help new Buddhists in India go on retreat

2456436261_befc012827_oBorn as an “untouchable” in India (literally considered so polluted that a caste Hindu would have to purify him or herself after making physical contact) Bhimrao Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956, in Nagpur, India.

The significance of this is that, despite having been banned from sitting in a schoolroom with other (caste Hindu) children, Ambedkar had managed to gain an education, study abroad, and had become India’s first law minister—and the architect of the newly independent country’s constitution.

Ambedkar realized that most ex-untouchables were chained to the idea that they are inferior and that it was by changing themselves—through the practice of the Buddha Dhamma changing those deep-seated ideas—that they could become truly free.

Ambedkar’s conversion was a symbolic rejection of Hinduism and its brutal caste-based apartheid system. He proceeded to convert half a million of his supporters who were gathered around him. Unfortunately he died soon afterward, leaving his conversion movement adrift.

A number of Buddhists stepped into the breech and continued to provide support and inspiration for these new Buddhists. Among those was Urgyen Sangharakshita, who was later to found the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order).

These “Dalits” (meaning “the oppressed ones), are largely the poorest in a country in which poverty is endemic. Members of the Triratna Buddhist community have continued working with these new Buddhists, providing much-needed healthcare, educational resources, and opportunities to practice Buddhism.

This November a major retreat is being held at the Urgyen Sangharakshita Meditation Centre, in Maharashtra, India, over the Diwali vacation. I’ve contributed money to supporting this event, and I invite you to do the same.

Of the millions of Dalits who have converted to Buddhism since 14th October 1956, only a small proportion have been able to ‘hear’ the Dhamma. They have much devotion but little knowledge.

These retreats have been held over the last 4 years with between 500 and 600 people attending from some of India’s poorest communities.

These retreats take advantage of the Diwali holiday, when people are more free to attend, to give Dalits the opportunity to hear the Dharma they thirst for. Most are very poor, and to allow them to come, these retreats are offered free. It is a great opportunity for them to not only hear the Dharma, but to experience Sangha. Triratna is undertaking to raise the money for approximately 550 people to go on retreat.

Hearing the Dharma in the context of a retreat can, in India, have remarkable results. Triratna Order member Vipulakirti, who co-leads these events, said, “I met a woman on one retreat who told me that her husband had been on the retreat the previous year and had been completely transformed. Previously he had been a drinker, beaten her regularly and taken no responsibility for the children. Now he didn’t drink, treated her with kindness and helped with childcare. He had discovered what being a Buddhist meant in practice, to the benefit of himself and his family.”

If you want to help these desperately poor new Buddhists to deepen their practice, turn their lives around, and continue with the work of transforming and humanizing Indian religious culture, donate via ‘MyDonate‘. MyDonate take no commission. Your entire donation goes towards spreading the Dharma in India and transforming the lives of hundreds of people.

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The third reminder: Karma

Wheel of Life

Karma can be scary. Does it mean if we get sick we have done something wrong in our life? This was one of the question on my friends lips in her dying process. ‘What had she done so wrong to get pancreatic cancer?’

Nothing, she had done nothing wrong. The only karma in her dying is that she was reborn as a human, and if we take a human birth we will inevitably get sick, or age, and die.

If I get a cold it does not mean I have been unskilful. It could mean though that I went out in the cold, didn’t wrap up well, and so I caught a cold. Hence my action had a consequence. But someone else may have done something unskilful, gone out in the cold weather without wrapping up well and not catch a cold. Their actions had a different consequence. They may well not have been under the weather. There can be so many factors to why if we commit the same action, why the consequence is not the same.

In 1999 the captain of the England Team preparing for the world cup Glen Hoddle was sacked because of his misguided and ignorant views on karma. He believed that the: ‘disabled, and others, are being punished for sins in a former life.’ This was also once an ignorant view of black people and sadly today some people can think this of the Dalits of India.

The Four Reminders

Most Buddhists do not talk of sin. We speak about unskilful and skilful actions. And furthermore there is no devil to punish us for our sins in Buddhism. There is only the mind that can haunt us like a tormented ghost. The leader of the Dalits, the late Dr Ambedkar once referred to caste as nothing more ‘than a notion of mind.’ Most definitely not a sin, or a punishment due to past lives. Therefore he believed we could liberate the mind, and he changed the Karma of his people by converting to Buddhism because this was the religion that would emancipate their minds. His mass conversion in 1956 allowed hundreds of thousands of people who were called ‘Untouchables’ to rename themselves as Buddhists. It was the beginning of the uplift of his people. If we were to recognize the potency of the mind we would be able to step out of the confinements of the body we are born in and free ourselves from societies oppressions.

My karma as a black woman was that I used to let society’s prejudice oppress me. I in fact oppressed myself with my own thinking.

Karma is about our actions having consequences. And each consequence may be a gain or a cost. That’s it, in its simplicity. It’s not that if you do an unskillful deed you will be punished by the wrath of God. But yes, if you do an unskillful deed there will be a consequence, which may mean that it will prey on your mind, prey so much that you turn to another unskillful action to get rid of the thoughts in your mind. Creating a vicious cycle.

My karma is this. My actions will have consequences. Full stop. If I don’t accept reality, see things as they really are. If I don’t accept that I am going to die, my living will be full of suffering. My dying will be full of suffering. This is the law of karma. My actions of denial will have a consequence.

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“The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom Selected and Edited by Jack Kornfield”

The Buddha Is Still Teaching

“In these pages you will find the Dharma … Dharma is kept alive by those who follow the path,” writes Jack Kornfield, the beloved American Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock meditation Center, near where I live in San Francisco.

For the past two months I have had this little book in my messenger bag, a compilation of selections that Kornfield tells us will “bring the Dharma eloquently to life for us in our own time, place and culture.” Indeed it is full of inspiration, and has been a treat to open it, never knowing what treasures will await on the page, as I ride the train during evening rush hour, as I relax at home after supper, when I read after my morning meditation.

Title: The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom
Author: Selected and edited by Jack Kornfield
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-692-5
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store; Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The selections are generally quite short, ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs, and they are drawn from many teachers who have inspired my own Buddhist practice over the years. I have been making a practice of reading one selection from this book and then just savoring it as I look around the crowded train, has I take in the silence of the evening, or as I make breakfast.

This book is “dedicated to the generation of teachers who have so beautifully carried the lamp of the Dharma to the West” and is organized in four sections: Wise Understanding; Compassion and Courage; Freedom; and Enlightenment and The Bodhisattva Path, drawn from 75 different teachers. A reader could stay with one section for a while and look for connections between the teachings, or could skip around, allowing the teachings to mix spontaneously. She could read one selection a day or finish a whole section. There are many ways to enjoy this book.

I have enjoyed rediscovering quotes from books I read long ago, now re-reading them with fresh eyes. Words that seem timely and wise from familiar teachers like Dilgo Khyentse, my own teacher’s teacher, from Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, Pema Chödrön and Charlotte Joko Beck. And also from teachers less familiar to me, such as Taizan Maezumi, Tulku Thondup, and Noelle Oxenhandler. There is a balanced representation of teachers from different traditions. And I enjoyed hearing the voices of so many women Buddhist teachers. The book has a lovely format. It is small, but dense, the pages are beautifully laid-out and the font is pleasing to the eye.

Jack Kornfield introduces the volume as “a Buddhist treasure: the equivalent of new Buddhist sutras.” He reminds us that the teachings of the Buddha are “the Lion’s Roar, words of fearlessness and unshakable freedom”. I would agree that the wisdom of the Buddhist teachers in this book do point to this fearlessness and freedom. I was, however, surprised to find that not all entries were by Buddhist teachers. In fact, there were even three entries by Gandhi, whose words Kornfield explains “echo those of the Buddha.” He describes these entries as “the good medicine of the Dharma.”

I would argue that Gandhi’ sentiments are not appropriate in such a book, and are not taken by all as “good medicine.” Gandhi was not a Buddhist, he was a Hindu. In his political career Gandhi had a lot of conflict with the community which some refer to “The new Buddhists”, those traditionally considered in Hinduism as “untouchable”, who were followers of the social reformer Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhi opposed many meaningful reforms that would have fundamentally changed the injustice of the caste system in newly-democratic India, and he called the oppressive, non-Buddhist, caste system “the backbone of Indian society.” Gandhi is not a hero to this community, and it seems insensitive to include him in such a lovely volume, considering the ways he blocked Dr. Ambedkar’s political reforms. It is also particularly ironic, since one entry of Gandhi’s is entitled “Religion and Politics”. This selection ends by saying that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

I believe it would have been more inspiring and more appropriate in such a book to include a quote from Dr. Ambedkar, who actually converted to Buddhism, as a way of escaping caste oppression. “Buddhism alone among the world’s religions,” Ambedkar wrote, “is compatible with the ethical and rational demands of contemporary life.” In terms of “Religion and Politics,” Ambedkar famously said, “My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual.” This is “the Lion’s Roar” for our times.

Jack Kornfield himself says that the task of selection was difficult, and I can only imagine that it must have been so. This is, in fact, a lovingly-compiled book and a source of inspiration in many ways. Kornfield writes in his introduction that the book demonstrates that “two and-a-half millennia have nothing to diminish the freshness of the Buddha’s teaching, or their universal applicability of our lives.” Yes! Kornfield also writes that, “The Buddha insisted that his awakened disciples, when traveling to new lands, teach the Dharma in the language and vernacular of their times.” If we believe that the Buddha’s teachings are universal, and appropriate to our times, then let us expand that view to our fellow Buddhists who live outside the United States, and have embraced Buddhism as a way of rejecting 3,000 years of an oppressive caste structure.

The instructions are to read the selections in this book slowly, to listen to them. “Let these luminous words bring The Buddha’s awaking to your own heart and mind. Reflect on them, practice them, let them transform your life.” It is a lovely invitation. Eh ma ho!

“These are the teachings that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” Gautama Buddha

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Support the struggles of marginalized Buddhists in Hungary

A petition has been started in order to protect the rights of Buddhist Gypsies, or Roma, in Hungary.

This year a nationalist government was elected in Hungary. The new government rewrote the constitution and passed a law that deregisters all but a few mainstream Christian and Jewish religious organisations. These steps were taken with the aim of curbing tax abuses, but the blunderbuss policy “de-registers” all faith groups that count fewer than 1,000 members, or that have been in existence for less than 20 years.

Groups that manage to get established — and stay established for 20 years — and accumulate over 1000 members, cannot get official recognition without a parliamentary vote with a two-thirds majority. This amounts to an impossibly high hurdle, meaning that essentially no new groups can get government recognition and enjoy the tax benefits that established traditions have.

This affects many organizations, since under the new law, only 14 of 358 registered churches and religious associations will be granted legal recognition according to Christian Century. Groups such as Methodists, Pentecostal churches, reformed Jewish churches, and all the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hinduist congregations, are being de-registered.

Prominent pro-democracy dissidents from the Soviet era have written a letter condemning the new law. “Never before has a Member State of the EU so blatantly dared to go against the principles of freedom of beliefs, equality before the law, and separation of church from state. These are all established fundamental rights in our common Europe,” they said.

Some established churches have welcomed the law. Zoltan Tarr, general secretary of the Hungarian Reformed Church, commented, “We wanted a new law to make it more difficult to establish churches here – and we’re happy the present government has now done something.”

Buddhism, as a religion that is relatively new to Europe, is badly affected by the new system; no Buddhist organizations will be allowed to have tax-exempt status. Among those affected are the marginalized Roma, or Gypsies, who have recently embraced Buddhism.

Historically, the Roma people originated in India, leaving, for unknown reasons, about 1000 years ago. One theory is that the name Roma is derived from the Sanskrit ḍōmba, meaning “a man of low caste living by singing and music.” If the Roma left India in order to escape caste discrimination, they fared little better in Europe, where they have often been a despised population. Recently, however, Hungarian Roma, inspired by the conversions of Indian Dalits (former so-called “Untouchables”) to Buddhism, have formed the Jai Bhim network, under the umbrella of the Triratna Buddhist Community.

The name Jai Bhim is an explicit reference to the leader of the conversion movement in India, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Sensing a deep affinity with the Dalits of India, Roma converts to Buddhism refer to themselves as “the Dalits of Europe. The Jai Bhim Network “educates, agitates and organises on the footsteps of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar in schools and congregations in rural Roma communities.” The organization was formally established in 2007 in order to promote the social integration of Romas, and has received support from Buddhists in Europe, India, and Taiwan.

When the Jai Bhim Network’s registration lapses at the end of this year, they will lose government funding for the schools that they run, and will find it very difficult to continue to provide education to the 1,000 students who study with them.

Subhuti, an English-born Buddhist who is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, has a long-standing involvement with the Dalit Buddhists in India, and for six years has gone to Hungary twice a year in order to support Roma Buddhists.

According to Subhuti, the work that the Roma Buddhists he supports is beginning to flourish. “Besides the very effective education they offer to Gypsy students who have no other realistic opportunities for education, they are beginning to have a deeper impact on Hungarian Gypsy society. At the recent census, some 500 or more Gypsies declared themselves to be Buddhists.” He sees this as a very significant development, similar to the mass conversions that took place in India in 1956, when Ambedkar let tens of thousands of Dalits to Buddhism.

Those concerned about the situation of these marginalized Buddhists in Hungary can show their support by signing this online petition. A second online petition can be found here. (On the petition Név means Name and Foglalkozás means Occupation.)

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Buddhism goes home

Sangharakshita, 1967Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist, lived for 20 years in the East before returning to Britain in the 1960s. Sangharakshita made a return visit to India in 1984, reconnecting with former-untouchables who had been led to Buddhism by Dr. Ambedkar, himself a former untouchable who had become the country’s law minister. Nagabodhi describes one evening of that tour.

Each night Sangharakshita introduces a fresh range of teachings, and explains aspects of Buddhist practice, basing his commentaries on a host of traditional formulations: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the Five Spiritual Faculties…. His discourses are peppered with stories, jokes, anecdotes, and examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr Ambedkar, or simply from Indian village life. His words are straightforward and clear, and leave no one behind.

Purna’s tape recorder hums and whirs, picking up his words. Before long they will be transcribed, edited, translated, and published in the Marathi, Gujerati, and English-medium magazines that circulate within the Buddhist community. During the course of this visit Sangharakshita is creating a legacy of teachings that will keep those publications stocked for years.

 Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience.  

Again and again, he returns to the theme of morality. Ambedkar once said, ‘Morality is Dhamma; Dhamma is Morality’. Sangharakshita distinguishes ‘conventional morality’ – the morality of the group or caste – from ‘natural morality’. In terms of natural morality, some actions – of body, speech, or mind – express lower, less human, even animal mental states. Others express truly human states, express our distinctively human capacity for wisdom, love, and unselfishness. Our first task, therefore, is to become truly human and to get beyond the animal realm of blind craving, blind instinct, and self-centeredness.

To be truly human is to recognize that actions have consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for our environment – and to take full responsibility for our actions. The five Precepts help because they offer a kind of blueprint for more truly human actions and states of mind. These precepts don’t take their sanction from a god, or from the group, but from our innate potential to develop, and from our deep yearning to do so. For this reason ‘natural’ morality is the foundation of human life itself, whether individual or collective. Naturally, if we live a truly ethical life we will be free from conflicts and confusion; we’ll get on well with others, and we’ll know how to help them. Our lives will be clear, free from worry, free from anxiety….

For some reason, almost every night, at around the half-way point, there is a major disturbance. Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience. He can’t be bothered to go the long way round, and thinks he can just trundle across our field. A argument has erupted at the gate.

 We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong.  

Sometimes, a circle of ladies will arrive late, and come floating into the proceedings with their trays of lighted candles and incense, like spirits from a dream. But every night, no matter where we are, a moment comes when the young mothers realize it’s time to put their little ones to bed. As soon as they get up, they seem to disconnect from the event completely, and enter a new dimension. They talk at the tops of their voices, call across to each other, and berate their children, while other members of the audience shout at them, hiss, wave their arms, and try to calm them down. If things get really bad Sangharakshita will take a few discrete steps back and study his notes while Vimalakirti joins in from the microphone. It can take ten minutes for the ripples to subside.

Sangharakshita goes on to explain how mental and emotional freedom, the fruits of ethical conduct, provide the basis for meditation practice. Meditation, he says, opens the way to the higher development of the mind which Ambedkar upheld as the indispensable requirement for a decent life. Ambedkar repeatedly spoke of his faith in the ‘energy’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘inspiration’ that lie within us. These qualities can be contacted directly, through meditation. In a mind that is concentrated and focussed, distractions have no place, the various ‘aspects’ and ‘selves’ that make up a person are brought into harmony. The result is that we begin to feel quite different: we have more energy because none of it is being drained by confusion or vagueness; we can reach down into our depths and discover tremendous power, limitless enthusiasm, and a fundamental level of confidence.

He teaches the practice of anapana sati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, a meditation which brings about this kind of concentration. Anyone who practices it will begin to see their life more clearly and find out what they need to do to make it better. It is a practice that can carry us into realms of thought, feeling, and imagination far richer than those we experience most of the time. This is where the fresh vision will arise, helping us to take our lives and ambitions onto an ever higher level.

 Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned there is an explosion of applause.  

He also teaches the maitri bhavana – the ‘development of universal loving-kindness’. Emotions like love, fraternity, and compassion can be developed, he says. We tend to think that they arise solely as a matter of chance or passing mood, but our emotional states need not depend on outside circumstances at all. Someone who has worked to develop even a little maitri can stand firm in the face of difficulties. He won’t be discouraged by the knocks he receives, he will be able to think clearly and positively – remain in a good state to find a way of beating the obstacles that confront him. If all the members of a Buddhist locality were to practice maitri bhavana, they would not just get on well with each other, they would be able to work effectively together: they would be strong, and they would have an incalculable effect on the localities around them.

It surprises me to see Sangharakshita teaching meditation this way. In England I’ve never once heard him explain how to practice meditation at a public talk. But here, in this town, there is no public center for anyone to visit for a follow-up class, and Poona is a long way away. Even while he speaks, I can sense the urgency he feels. Even if just one person here manages to get somewhere with meditation as a result of this talk, he or she will make an impact on the others, another seed will have been sown.

There is a vihara in this locality: a small, rectangular, one-roomed building. It has a Buddha-shrine, and is used as a lodging by visiting monks. Most of the time, though, it serves as a sort of social club. Sangharakshita asks his listeners to keep their vihara beautiful and clean, and use it only for Buddhist activities:

‘A Vihara should be a peaceful place, a place where you can make a special effort to practice the Precepts, a place where you can meditate. If you treat your vihara well, and use it properly, you will have no need to make the costly pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. You will have the Buddha right here in your own neighborhood, reminding you of the real purpose of life, inspiring you to make further efforts.’

 The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing…  

Meditation, practiced successfully and deeply, he continues, provides the foundation for wisdom. In this context wisdom is not something we get from books. Of course it is important to study the Dhamma; that is how we find out what the Buddha actually did and said, and what he advised us to do. But even that kind of book learning is not wisdom; Wisdom is the way we see things when we are living on a higher level. And this kind of wisdom can express itself in a number of ways: as fearlessness, as generosity, as patience, and, of course, as ‘insight’ – seeing things as they really are. He offers an illustration:

‘Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

‘One day while out grazing, the sheep/lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘ “Baa!” said the sheep/lion, “I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will want to eat me up.”

‘ “Us sheep?” stammered the lion, “But you are not a sheep at all! You are a lion like me.”

‘ “Baa! Oh no. I am not a lion. I am a sheep. Why are you trying to confuse me?”

‘The lion had never encountered anything like this before. There was no doubting it, though: here was a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and led the sheep/lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. There, the sheep/lion didn’t see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately “woke up”, and realized that for all those years he’d been living under an illusion.

 In the West, people are more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in “psychological” terms.  

‘We are like that lion cub. We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong. We need to see for ourselves what we really are.

‘Of course, like that lion cub, we may need a friend to come along and remind us about our true selves. But in this respect we are very lucky. We have had two friends, two lions, in the not too distant past. First there was Gautama the Buddha. And then — even more recently — there was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar!’

Repeatedly, Sangharakshita embroiders his stories with references to Ambedkar, and recapitulates the man’s qualities and significance. Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned in this way there is an explosion of applause. The official cheerleader — one of the village elders — sets up a few chants; the atmosphere is jubilant.

One night, after a talk, I asked Sangharakshita about these continual references. It was all so different to the Buddhism I was used to. Were all these references, and the general preoccupation with the social dimension of things, anything more than a ‘skillful means’?

‘What do you mean?’ Sangharakshita was perplexed.

‘Well, in the West, you explain Buddhism far more in terms of individual, even psychological, development. Isn’t that where all this must lead in the end, to individual Buddhists working on themselves to develop Enlightened qualities?’

He laughed. ‘Well, in the West, people are far more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in those more “psychological” terms. Here, people are more community oriented; they experience themselves more as members of a community or family. So here I talk in more, as it were, social terms. But, actually, I’m using a skillful means in both situations. You must not assume that either approach is any closer to the fundamental Dhamma than the other. The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing, and setting up the conditions for their own further development – and that of their society.

‘If anything, you could say that the language of social uplift is more effective – though both approaches have their advantages and limitations, of course. If Enlightenment consists in overcoming the “self-other dichotomy”, we can progress towards it by working on the “other” end of things just as effectively as we can by working simply on ourselves.’

Night after night, he instructs, uplifts, and befriends. If there is any one element that I will recollect above all others, it will be the bond of warmth and intimacy that grows between him and his audience as each talk progresses. No wonder there are people here who remember his last visit, twenty years ago. And no wonder he has never forgotten them.


NagabodhiNagabodhi is a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order. Since 1974, when he was ordained, he has devoted his life to the development of the Triratna Buddhist Community as a Dharma teacher, publisher, center director, and fundraiser. He now lives in London with his wife, Vimalacitta. This passage is excerpted, with permission, from his book, Jai Bhim: Dispatches From a Peaceful Revolution (Free PDF download).


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