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The Nine Yanas
Jul 10, 2006, 13:28

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Westerners approaching Buddhism for the first time are often confused by what seem to be contradictions between the assertions and views of one teacher compared with other Buddhist teachers. This is perhaps all the more surprising as they all seem to start from the same premises: The four noble truths. Indeed Westerners are not alone in finding these differences perplexing. Throughout the Buddhist canon there are reassurances to practitioners that "there is no contradiction in any of the Buddha’s teachings".

The basic illness is the same but personalities and capacities differ. Therefor it is said there are as many different approaches to Buddhahood as there are differences of nature and capacities of people. Buddhist teachings are methods or vehicles (yanas) leading towards self-discovery rather than expositions of "The Truth". The methods employed at any time by a teacher will be those appropriate for the individual student depending upon experience, situation etc. What is appropriate in one setting might be ludicrous in another. Buddhist teaching is fluid and infinitely adaptable to the actual needs of every and all sentient beings when given by a realised master.

The Nyingma classifies the teachings into 9 yanas or vehicles for realisation. These are all equally precious and each is complete within itself with a ground, a path and a fruit. Although each can represent a step along a continuum towards the Great Perfection this does not mean that each would necessarily be completed before commencing the next. Some experience or insight at least of the fruit associated with each (if not the full realisation) is a prerequisite or base of the next. Equally each may be practised as a complete path to realisation (though it is normally said by Nyingma practitioners that only the Vajrayana vehicles provide a route to complete Buddhahood and that neither of the first two Hinayana vehicles is complete.) It is also sometimes said that each implies all of the other yanas. Therefore, for example, all the yanas, including Ati yoga, might be taught from within the perspective or the base of the Mahayana. A teacher may suggest a student engages in practices from any of the yanas as appropriate to the developmental needs of the student at the time. A student of dzogchen might therefore practice the twelve ascetic actions and Hinayana view for a while.

They all have the common purpose of overcoming the same problem, that is ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukha): When the individual enters into dualism evolving a subjective self experiencing an external world as other, any sense of completeness is lost because all phenomena are temporary. This leads to the process of "ego" continually manipulating the phenomenal world for security or satisfaction.

The Yanas are in three groups. Hinayana and Mahayana which work principally at the level of body; Vajrayayana working mainly with voice or energy; Dzogchen the pinnacle or fruit of the inner tantras of the Vajrayana which works at the level of mind. These distinctions can themselves seem somewhat subtle and even as being false if taken purely at face value. For example all Buddhist teachings relate to ‘mind’ and early Buddhists distinguished themselves from the Jain’s by their concept of ‘intention’. It is a matter of where the main experiential ground for practice lies.


"(The four great benefits you will receive from studying the path to Enlightenment as taught in Atisa's Bodhipathapradipa are as follows.) You will understand that there is no contradiction in any of Buddha's teachings. You will be made aware that all the scriptural texts are to be taken as sound advice (as there is no contradiction between the texts and their practice.) You will then easily discover the significance of the threefold theme (dgongs-pa) of Buddha's teachings: (renunciation of the sufferings of samsara, Bodhicitta, and a true understanding of Sunyata.) Moreover, you will be protected from the abyss of the great mistake (nyes-spyod chen-po). Because (the study of the stages of the path to Enlightenment has these four benefits), what intelligent person among the erudite masters of India and Tibet will not have his heart and attention stolen away by this best of teachings, which has been studied by many fortunate ones, and which is taught in a graded path according to three levels of human motivation."

(Lines of Experience (Lam-Rim Bsdus-Don) The Main Aspects of the Practice of the Stages on the Graded Path to Enlightenment by rJe Tzong-kha-pa)


The Hinayana Hinayana

The term Hinayana can be used to refer to non-Mahayana schools in general, but it is not used in this way in this context. The Hinayana follows the path of renunciation as taught by the Buddha when he was in his human form and as recorded in the Sutras: One recognises suffering (dukha) and its cause, and seeks to put an end to conditioned existence and attain Nirvana.

Ego is regarded as being like a tree bearing poisonous fruits and the remedy is to dig up the roots one by one. ‘Negative habits’ are obstacles to realisation and all have to be overcome. This is accomplished by following rules of conduct and making vows. The paradigm is that of a renunciate monk or nun, whose interaction with life is entirely governed by vows. Through the development of different meditative states he or she recreates himself/herself as a pure being who has transcended the causes of suffering, an Arhat, who is no longer bound to the cycle of rebirth and death in conditioned existence.

It actually forms the starting point and basis of all Buddhist practice Hinayana yet is actually not practised as a complete vehicle in its own right; it is implicit within but transcended as a practice by ever increased realisation forming the ground of the range of Buddhist teaching. Hinayana in fact relates to the capacity of individuals, rather than referring to a Hinayana school. In that sense other vehicles can inadvertently be practised from the point of view of the Hinayana. Someone might for example appear to be practising a tantric vehicle but due to lack of active compassion in fact may be practising from the position of the Hinayana. If you are, say, practising Ati yoga meditation fuelled by personal fear of a hell rebirth the immediate results would be limited to the "Hinayana" level, although the Ati yoga meditation might generate an auspicious connection which would bear fruit in future lives. But equally it may be practised under the guidance of a qualified teacher because it is appropriate to the needs at the time although as a support to practice of a higher vehicle.

Hinayana means 'lesser vehicle' and concerns the initial drives and perceptions that lead a person toward a position in which loving kindness becomes the principal motivation. Practices cited below for the Hinayana are illustrative only.


The Shravakas (Nan thos)

These are ‘Listeners’. She/he is fearful of suffering in samsara. He/she listens to Buddhist teachings, realising suffering is inherent in all conditioned phenomena and meditates on the four noble truths seeking her/his own liberation.


There is no ‘self’ existing in an individual but phenomena have a genuine basis in existence, as the Vaibhasika school (bye brag smra ba) holds, in indivisible particles and moments of consciousness.


Self discipline and ethical behaviour are rigorously maintained. The Practitioner listens to the teachings, meditates on their meaning, assimilates them and applies antidotes as necessary to correct behaviour. These might consist of generating unpleasant connotations for objects of desire. Thus he/she overcomes conflicting emotions (kleshas), attains inner peace (samatha) and understands no person or thing has a truly existent, independent self.


Such sets of ascetic practices as illustrated below appear to have been optional in early Buddhism, and not necessarily definitive of "sravaka" practices (though they have always had a place in Buddhist meditation, especially the "forest renouncer" traditions). They are illustrative of the general approach to practice, however.

Traditionally he/she practices the twelve ascetic actions (sbyangs-pa’i yon-tan bcu-gnyis) acting chiefly to achieve personal liberation.

Wearing the dress of a dung sweeper (phyag-dar khrod-pa)

Owning only three robes (chos-gos gsum-pa)

Wearing bad coloured clothes (phyings-pa-can)

Begging for food (bsod-snyoms-pa)

Eating only one meal a day (ldan-gcig-pa)

Fasting (zas-phyis mi-len-pa)

Staying in isolation (dgon-pa-pa)

Sitting under trees (shing-drung-pa)

Sitting in exposed places (blag-pa med-pa)

Sitting in charnel grounds (dur-khrod-pa)

Sitting without sleep (tsog-bu-pa)

Begging in turns (gzhi ji-bzhin-pa


The practitioner is eventually liberated to become an Arhat (one who has destroyed his adversary; obscuring emotions) perhaps after many lifetimes. From the viewpoint of the nine yana system, this is not full realisation however.


The Pratyekabuddhas

‘Independent buddhas’ (rang rgyal-ba’i theg-pa), from the orthodox Nyingma viewpoint of the Nine Yanas attain a ‘limited’ realisation without relying on a teacher in the current lifetime, though he/she may have had teachers in past lives.

She/he meditates on dependent origination (rten ‘brel). Phenomena only arise as a result of causes and conditions. There is no prime cause. Contemplating death and the causes of suffering he/she ponders the twelve modes of dependent origination (rten-cing ‘brel-bar ‘byung-ba’i tshul bcu-gnyis). This leads him/her to find the misery of samsara originates in ignorance. These are:

1. Ignorance (ma-rig-pa) is the condition for habitual tendencies;
2. Habitual tendencies or samskara(‘du-byed) are the conditions for consciousness;
3. Consciousness (rnam-shes) is the condition for the name and form;
4. Name and form (ming-dang gzugs) is the condition for the six senses;
5. Six senses (skye-mched drug) are the condition for contact;
6. Contact (reg-pa) is the condition for feeling;
7. Feeling (tshor-ba) is the condition for emotional love/craving;
8. Emotional love/craving (sred-pa) is the condition for grasping;
9. Grasping is the condition for existing;
10. Existing is the condition for birth;
11. Birth is the condition for old age and death;
12. Old age and death is the condition for ignorance; and so on.



Individuals and particles of matter are empty of true existence but moments of consciousness are real. Thus selfllessness is realised fully but only partially the selflessness of phenomena. This characterises the Sautratantika School (mdo sde pa).


Contemplation of the 12 dependent links in reverse order.

Fruit and Action

The goal is personal salvation so others are not taught but may be inspired by the siddhis resulting from practice. The practitioner ultimately becomes an Arhat but in this system, it is considered that it is not complete Buddhahood.


From the perspective of Mahayana the pursuit of personal salvation whilst others continue to suffer is not ideal. Instead one should work for the greater good and if necessary return to the suffering of cyclic existence to help others transcend it as often as is required to drain the dregs of samsara. It is therefore, like the Hinayana, a path of renunciation. To return to the analogy of the poison tree, instead of cutting roots one by one, in the case of the Mahayana the main root alone is cut allowing the others to wither as a consequence. In the Mahayana, also known as the Great Vehicle, or Bodhisattvayana, the liberation of others from suffering is the motivation of Mahayana practitioners or Boddhisattvas who understand that neither the individual nor pheneomena have substantive existence. The vow to gain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings and develop limitless compassion for all others is inseparable from wisdom, the realisation of emptiness. Everything is perceived as being dreamlike or illusory. But the law of cause and effect is recognised and with compassion he or she uses this to benefit sentient beings. Nevertheless, in contrast to reliance on codes of conduct in the Hinayana of Hinayana, motivation is considered all important in governing ones actions rather than the actions themselves and that motivation is compassion. The Buddha reportedly said: "It is intention that I call karma". In the earliest Buddhist monastic code, and to this day, a monk himself has the responsibility to judge whether or not he has infringed the vinaya. The issue is not a matter of whether or not motivation is important but what the motivation is!

Meanwhile having realised her or his ultimate nature free from clinging and all limiting conditions, he or she rests in the great evenness of non-dual absolute truth.


Neither phenomena nor the individual has reality. In the Cittamatra (sems tsam pa) all phenomena is mind created, but reflective non-dual awareness exists. The Madhyamaka (bdu ma) has two schools: The Svatantrika (rang rgyud pa) considers phenomena really do not exist at all but relatively they appear through the combination of causes and conditions, perform their function and have a verifiable conventional existence; Considered from the Nyingma 9 Yana system, the Prasangika maintains phenomena are completely devoid of existence and cannot be characterised by any concept whatsoever whether ultimately or relatively, but absolute truth is the pristine wisdom of the Buddhas free from conceptual elaboration.


                    Practice of the Thirty Seven Branches of enlightenment. The Tathagatagarbha

or the potential for enlightenment is recognised within oneself and one aspires to fulfill this. All clinging to external phenomena is pacified by shamatha meditation achieving calm samadhi. Practising vipasana meditation one recognises all outer phenomena is unreal and all inner dualistic concepts of subject/object are void. Remaining without notions of what is real in the evenness of absolute nature in which there is nothing to add and nothing to subtract, inner-calm meditation and insight is united.


Between formal meditation practice one benefits beings, Practising the Six Paramitas one considers all living beings to be superior to oneself. These are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and insight. A further four paramitas are added; skilful means, strength, prayer and pristine wisdom. When these are all permeated by wisdom they transformed into transcendent activities.


Finally the Bodhisattva achieves the path of no more learning, the eleventh spiritual level (bhumi) and becomes a fully enlightened Buddha. Having achieved the Dharmakaya he or she manifests the rupakaya (the bodily form combining sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya) to perform compassionate activity on behalf of all sentient beings until the dregs of samsara are finally drained.


The Vajrayana

Vajrayana comprises the outer and the inner tantras. Tantra may sometimes be talked of as if only texts containing tantric teaching but in fact tantra means ‘continuation’ and this alludes to the fact that although all phenomena are essentially void they still continue to manifest. Tantra takes the realisation of the emptiness of all phenomena (which is the fruit of sutra) as its base or starting point. From this view instead of relative existence being something to be avoided at all costs, through the passions shunned by sutra it actually provides the energy required for progress towards realisation.

All the tantras whether inner or outer employ visualisation as the principal skilful means, or to be more precise, envisionment. The outer tantras commence at the level of external conduct to purify thought and action in preparation to receive wisdom. Kryatantra and Upatantra are both referred to as the Path of Purification. Yogatantra and the three inner tantras are the Path of Transformation.

The inner tantras also start from the realisation of the emptiness or voidness of all phenomena but mainly use inner yoga, working on the tsa lung system of the practitioner’s body to transform his/her whole dimension into the dimension of the realised being visualised in the practice.

So tantra is based on pure vision and is also motivated by the aspiration to free all sentient beings and oneself from delusion as quickly as possible but through ‘skilful means’: Relative truth becomes the path by regarding phenomena as the limitless display of primal wisdom. This is progressively more directly experienced within each of the six classes of Vajrayana vehicles.

The Hinayana and Mahayana are known as ‘causal vehicles’ as one is accumulating merit and wisdom, which will reap their fruit in Enlightenment and therefore working at a "causal" level. The Vajrayana is described as the ‘resultant vehicle’ as through skilful means it starts from the premise of realisation. In the causal vehicles one recognises the nature of mind as the cause of Buddhahood; in the resultant vehicle one regards the nature of mind as Buddhahood itself. Mahayana recognises Buddha nature as being potential in every being Vajrayana considers Buddhanature to be fully present as wisdom or pristine awareness, the fundamental nature of Mind. One therefore ‘only’ has to reveal or realise it!

Empowerment from an authentic qualified teacher is essential for all Vajrayana practice. The Buddha taught these methods in a manifestation body as well as by other sambhogakaya manifestations. Transmission of tantra is originally received through the manifestation of the sambhogakaya appearing to a master who has sufficient clarity to perceive that dimension and the method of practice in tantra is also that of manifestation. The practitioner is initiated into this practice by the master through visualisation and the reintegration of one’s subtle energies so that he/she follows the example of the original transmission manifesting as the deity entering into the pure dimension of the mandala. The practitioner realises the sambhogakaya itself, transcending the mundane world of gross elements which are experienced as their essences. Upon death the practitioner enters the dimension of light and sound which is the essence of the elements and in that state of being is able to continue to benefit sentient beings as the deity whose practice has been accomplished during lifetime.



The Three Outer Tantras



All phenomena are without self-nature (chos thams chad ngobo nyid med pa rtogs). It is free from the four limiting concepts of existence and non-existence, appearance and emptiness. Phenomena are viewed as the mandala of enlightened deities.


You visualise yourself, the dam tshig sems dpa', usually in your ordinary form, as subject and the deity, the ye shes sems dpa', in front of oneself as if a king and to obtain blessings, siddhis, from the wisdom deity (yidam).


Cleanliness, concentration, fasting and mantra recitation. The path is to make offerings to the deity.


The result is the attainment of the state of "vajra holder of the three families" (Rigs gsum rdo rje ‘dzin pa’i sa) These are Tathagata or body family (sKu de bzhin gshegs pa’i rigs), lotus or speech family (gSung pad ma’i rigs) and vajra of wisdom-mind family (Thugs rdo rje rigs). Other versions explain this as "realisation of the three Kayas and five Wisdoms of perfect Buddhahood".



Called Upatantra (spyod rgyud) ‘practice tantra’ and the Ubhayatantra (gnyis ka’i rgyud), ‘dual tantra’, because it practices the view of the next vehicle, Yogatantra, together with the action of the former. The meditation is to visualise the wisdom deity in front of you "like a brother or a friend" and to receive blessings and siddhis from the wisdom deity. The fruit is attainment of the state of the vajra holder of the four families with the fourth family being the jewel family of qualities (yon tan rin chen rigs) otherwise expressed as realisation of the Five Wisdoms of perfect Buddhahood. The Empowerment (abhisheka) is the empowerment of the Five Buddha Families.



Known as the tantra of union with the nature (rnal ’byor rgyud) because it emphasises inner practice more than outer conduct. The abhisheka adds to that of the Upatantra the blessing of the Vajra Master


All phenomena are free from all diffuse characteristics (Chos thams cad spros pa’i mtshan ma thams cad dang bral ba). This is the view of ‘luminosity inseperable from great emptiness (‘o’d gsal stong pa nyid du lta). That is absolute truth. Relative truth is transmitted through the realisation of Dharmata, that all phenomena are perceived as the sphere of the Vajradhatu mandala (kun rdzob cir snang thams cad chos nyid rtogs pa’i byin rlabs las rdo rje dbyings kyi dkyil ’khor) the mandala of adamantine space.


In the visualisation phase (bsKyed rim)you are the dam tshig sems dpa' and the wisdom deity (yidam) remains before you, then when invited the yidam merges with you like water being poured into water. During objectless meditation, the completion phase (rDzogs rim) of absolute truth you merge your perception of phenomena with the absolute nature beyond characteristics and you remain in evenness. Phenomena are seen as the play of wisdom manifesting as deities.


Principally this is to practice the view of meditation supported by keeping clean.


Realisation of Vajra holder of the Four Families is attained in three lifetimes.



The Three Inner Tantras


Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems dpa) transmitted the Mahayoga Tantras to King Ja of Zahor in India. He also received them from Vimalakirti who had obtained them from Vajrapani in Srilanka. The lineage of transmission was unbroken until the present day and it was Buddhaguhya who passed them to Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava and hence established their practice in Tibet.

Sometimes known as the Father Tantra (Pha rgyud), Mahayoga is the generative phase of visualising the deity as being luminosity inseparable from great emptiness.



This is to realise the inseparability of phenomena and great emptiness (sNang stong dbyer med).


The skilful means to attain the inseparability of emptiness and form is to envision everything as the pure mandala of the deities. This is relative truth.


Pure and impure are not differentiated and the five meats and five nectars are accepted without judgement.


The state of the mandalas of the five, one hundred, one thousand or countless families is attained in this lifetime or the bardo after death.




Vajrasattva and Vimalakirti transmitted these tantras to King Ja and he passed them on to Siddha Kukuraja and thereafter they passed to gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas Ye-shes one of Padmasambhava’s 25 disciples. gNubs-chen taught Anuyoga throughout Tibet and the lineage of transmission remains unbroken to this day. Approximately 22 of these tantras exist in the rnying ma'i rgyud 'bum.


The three mandalas of: Kuntuzangmo, the unborn dharmadhatu (dByings skye med kun tu bzang mo’i dkyil ’khor); whose unobstructed skillful means of luminosity is the mandala of Kuntuzangpo, the yeshe wisdom (Ye.shes kun tu.bzang po’i dkyil ’khor); and their inseparable union is the mandala of Great Bliss their son (Sras bde ba chen po’i dkyil ‘khor).


Practice of the path of liberation (Grol lam) visualising all phenomena and beings as the mandala of deities and the path of skilful means for example the shes rab wisdom completive phase or meditating on the channels, air and essence. Inherent wisdom is developed by skillful means.




The body of Great Bliss is achieved in one lifetime.



The traditional view is that Atiyoga was transmitted mind to mind at the very beginning of time by Adibuddha, the Primordial Buddha Samantabhadra (Kun tu bzang-po) the Dharmakaya aspect of Buddha, to Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems dpa). This miraculously caused the teachings to emerge from the unmanifest Dharmakaya into the Sambhogakaya, but in a state of total purity unsullied by imperfections and unconstrained from any limitations. Vajrasattva communicated the prececepts through symbolic means to human and other beings who were ‘vidyadharas' (rig-‘dzin), "those who have realised knowledge of the Primordial State". Among the non-human Vidyadharas was Garab Dorje in a previous incarnation as a deva. Garab Dorje was miraculously born to a virgin nun in Öddiyana. He transmitted these symbolic teachings to both human and non-human dhakinis but especially to his disciple Manjushrimitra. In turn Manjushrimitra transmitted the precepts to Shrisimha who passed them on to Jnanasutra, Vimalimitra, Padmasambhava and Vairochana, the translator. These were the oral transmissions (gang-zag snyan brgyud). Transmission of Ati Yoga precepts is of three types: direct, symbolic and oral.

Called dzogchen, ati-yoga yana, upadesha, mahasandhi or shintu-naljor thegpa, this vehicle has three series of teachings, comprising of Dzogchen sem-dé, Dzogchen long-dé and Dzogchen men-ngak-dé. The sem-dé and long-dé series entered Tibet from India in the tenth century, but neither have been widely taught nor have they survived as living traditions in the better known Nyingma lineages. Practice of sem-dé and long-dé declined after the eleventh century. Men-ngak-dé was introduced later, from the twelfth century, and flourished to the present day. Men-ngak-dé is now the main teaching and practice of Dzogchen taught in the major Nyingma lineages.

The three series of Dzogchen equate with the three statements of Garab Dorje, the Tsig Sum Né-dek - 'Hitting the essence in three points' These three points are: direct introduction, remaining without doubt, and continuing in the state. Sem-dé is related to direct introduction. Long-dé is related to remaining without doubt. Men-ngak-dé is related to continuing in the state.

Sem-dé means the series of the nature of Mind (with a capital 'M'). It is the series of Dzogchen with the most detailed transmission through explanation. Sem-dé equates to direct introduction. It offers explanations as direct introduction and offers methods in terms of direct introduction.

Long-dé, relates to remaining without doubt, and has much less explanation within it than Sem-dé. It bases itself on the fact that one has already had direct introduction and concerns itself with remaining without doubt. It concerns methods of returning to the state of rigpa through the felt texture of subtle sensation, in which one remains without doubt. Doubt is an experience. Being free of doubt is also an experience; it's a state in itself. Long-dé is concerned with sensation, experiential sensation. Presence of awareness is found in the dimension of sensation. In many different teachings of the Long-dé there are particular postures using belts and sticks (gom-tag and gom-shing or gom-ten) and supports of various kinds that have the function of pressing on certain pressure points. These pressure points are used to cultivate sensation, in which one finds the presence of awareness. sKu-mNyé is another similar method. It utilises sensation by stimulating the tsa-lung system.

Men-ngak-dé relates to continuing in the state. It contains very little explanation indeed. There are simply directions for how to continue in the state. There are a great variety of methods within the Men-ngak-dé, but their character is very difficult to discuss outside the level of experience required to understand their significance.

There is some disagreement in the Nyingma School, whether Dzogchen is a tantric vehicle or whether it exists within its own category.

Atiyoga as it is taught in better known lineages lacks aspects of sem-dé and long-dé. It is the direct approach to the essential nature of the mind, which is Buddha nature (De bZhin gshegs pa'i sNying Po) through the recognition of the naked awareness state of one’s own mind. These teachings were transmitted by Vajrasattva (rDorje Sems ba) to the nirmanakaya Prahevajra who in turn transmitted them to humans teachers including Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Vairocana. They have three divisions: Those of Mind, Great Expanse and Instructions. The Nying ma gyud bum has 21 texts of Mind and seven of Great Expanse divisions. The Division of instructions of the Innermost Essence are contained in the 17 tantras also in The Nying ma gyud bum.



The view is established that all phenomena are spontaneously enlightened from the beginning.


Through the teaching of the natural revelation of cutting through all substantial and insubstantial phenomena (khregs.chod) to realise dharmakaya wisdom. Use the spontaneous wisdom of the sambhogakaya and achieve the rainbow body of the nirmanakaya, which are spontaneous luminosity (Thod.rgyal).


Without acceptance or rejection you recognise phenomena as the display of the dharmakaya.


Samsara is nirvana: The realisation that the spontaneous perfect state of Kuntuzangpo is ever present and that there is nothing beyond this is enlightenment.


Being a Nyingmapa, is to be open to the whole stream of practice. Although the emphasis is on the three inner tantras one is open to any or all the yanas, and you practise that under a teacher. Your teacher might teach from the perspective of Dzogchen but even so, he or she may give teachings from any of the vehicles. He or she will give guidance according to the particular needs and experience of the practitioner at that time.

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