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question Is Advayavada a religious Buddhism?

answer Advayavada Buddhism is a non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that essentially proclaims that there is 'no cloth apart from the threads, no threads apart from the cloth'. What perhaps strikes some people as an unsubstantiated article of faith is our assertion that progress is inherent in existence, but what Advayavada Buddhism in fact teaches in this respect is simply that we humans experience and identify as progress (pratipada, patipada; pragati) that which follows the manifest but otherwise indifferent direction in which wondrous overall existence advances over time. There is no doubt a parallel with religion here: the religious person will probably say that what he or she experiences as progress is that which is in agreement with God's wishes and inner plan. There is also, maybe, a certain affinity with panentheism, which says that all is in God, 'somewhat as if God were the entire ocean including the fish and we were the fish'.

question Straightforward, unadulterated panentheism is based upon the analogy of 'an organism (God) comprising individual, semiautonomous cells (all known and unknown constituents of reality)'.

answer Indeed, an overall organism allegedly endowed, moreover, with a will and inscrutable mind of its own! (This is somewhat less the case in panendeism, where a so-called watchmaker deity is said to only persist contingently in its creation to varying degrees.) In Advayavada Buddhism, totality does not have such features, and what Advayavada Buddhism teaches is, very simply, that we humans experience as good, right, beneficial or wholesome, indeed as progress, that which follows the otherwise quite indifferent direction in which wondrous overall existence advances over time.

question The Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, who is considered a panentheist by some, asserts in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that God's decrees and commandments, and consequently God's providence, are in truth nothing but Nature's order. Prof. Steven Nadler speaks in this connection of a) a general providence and b), taking into account Spinoza's further statement that what we can effect by our own power can be called God's, or Nature's, internal help, of what prof. Nadler tentatively dubs a special or internal providence, which rewards the pursuit of personal virtue.

answer Bearing in mind that he equates God fully with the ordinary course of Nature, Spinoza indeed says this in chapter 3 of the Tractatus: "Whatever human nature can effect solely by its own power to preserve its own being can rightly be called God's internal help, and whatever falls to a man's advantage from the power of external causes can rightly be called God's external help." If one equates the ordinary course of Nature further with the dynamics of pratityasamutpada or interdependent origination, the parallels with the message of Advayavada Buddhism, become very obvious: To follow the Middle Way is, mutatis mutandi, quite equivalent to God's, i.o.w. Nature's, internal help or providence as described by Spinoza.

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Note: The fact that Spinoza throughout his work speaks of God, albeit meaning something quite different, makes him an easy target for spiritual hijacking by religionists of all denominations. Spinoza's famous formula "Deus sive Natura" (God, i.o.w. Nature) clearly departs from the traditional interpretation of the term God, but was and is necessary, say some, in order to understand Spinoza's Substance. Spinoza's Substance and Nature are synonymous and interchangeable - Spinoza's Substance and God as traditionally understood are not.

In Spinoza's philosophy the one and only substance has two matching attributes, the attribute of extension containing all material things and the attribute of thought, which mirror each other, an ontological parallelism or correlation we can wholeheartedly support. However, according to Spinoza in the final pages of his Ethics (EVP22ff), the one substance can retain or retrieve a something from the mind of a human body that no longer exists in time, meaning that, according to him, the human mind has a temporal and a non-temporal part, which is, of course, dualism plain and simple, and he states moreover that this non-temporal something in the human mind, and which is to somehow be retained or retrieved by the one substance, can actually grow during the lifetime of the human being (EVP38 and 39), which is quite contradictory because change of any nature is a temporal phenomenon.

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question You speak of progress but make little mention of evolution. Is the Fourth Sign of Being you speak of not evolution?

answer Evolution is an ontological fact and progress is an epistemological concept. What we say in Advayavada Buddhism is that human beings experience as progress what accords with the overall course of Nature, and that, because we experience the Noble Eightfold Path as progress, we then know that it accords with the course of Nature, which is rooted in the underlying fact of evolution; in a way, Advayavada Buddhism is a, or maybe, the Buddhist face of the global evolutionary movement.

question Is Advayavada Buddhism, then, a kind of cosmodicy?

answer The cosmodicy meant by Caroline Rhys Davids when she coined the term in the early 20th century would imply that existence as such is 'good'. This is not what we say. What we believe and teach is that what we human beings experience as good and wholesome, indeed as progress, is that which agrees with the otherwise neutral overall nature of existence. Good and bad are exclusively human concepts which you cannot apply to existence as a whole - the wood is completely silent and only sentient beings hear the falling tree!

question I wonder what your support for this interpretation of humans experiencing Nature as progress might be. There's abundant evidence in media of various sorts -- good, bad, or indifferent in quality -- of people who contrarily do not experience the overall course of Nature as progressive at all, but instead as destructive and teleologically negative, especially today in conditions of global warming, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, oceans rising, meteorites, and so on.

answer If you look closely, all those unpleasantnesses you mention do not pertain to wondrous overall existence but are the result of mistaken views, immorality and mismanagement. When we say how man experiences the neutral course of Nature we of course mean man unencumbered by these contingent shortcomings and mistakes that impair his vision and understanding of things - the reference standard is wondrous overall existence and not failing mankind.

The ultimate purpose of Advayavada Buddhism is to help lift the prevailing disparity or mismatch between humanity and existence; humanity as it is is deeply alienated from its habitat and the more so from the underlying evolutionary process.

question What do you think of the idea that God guides the process of evolution?

answer Creationists of all denominations will of course desperately hold on to the essentially irrational idea of a creator god at all costs. The flagrant encroachment on science by Intelligent Design supporters and their wedge strategy is fundamentalist religionism pure and simple. The most detrimental aspect, however, is their ambivalent commitment to life on earth. As a result of their teachings and indoctrination, the followers prefer to call themselves and each other "guilty sinners" rather than celebrate and cherish the truly wondrous creation which they ascribe to their god and of which they are an integral part.

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question Do you not agree that the vast common ground shared by all people without exception everywhere is predominantly secular? Is it not crucial to develop awareness in society of this fact so that it may become the universally accepted basis for conflict prevention and resolution all over the world?

answer The common ground shared by all 'isms' is indeed essentially secular or non-religious. Whether they admit to it or not, all religions and beliefs contain and share a very large secular, nonmetaphysical component. Take, say, the universal struggle against evil, caring for our children or, more simply, eating. We must all eat, whatever our religion or belief. The need to eat, the biological requirement to nourish ourselves, obviously belongs to the neutral common ground of all people without exception. Now, some people say grace before eating. Clearly, only this ritual of saying grace can be said to belong in any way legitimately to the particular religious belief involved, but certainly not the basic need to eat as such. The universal need to eat pertains entirely to the shared secular component we speak of, and it is in our view quite presumptuous for any religion to interfere with this natural human necessity and others, like clothing and sexuality, which all obviously belong unconditionally to the whole of existence. (cf. radical mediocrity)

We therefore say 'First our common ground, then our religion or belief', and the ten principles underpinning all our Foundation's initiatives all essentially belong to, and sustain, the common ground we speak of. They are, for your ready reference, the following unequivocal principles of (1) the secular state; (2) a multicultural society; (3) liberal democratic government; (4) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (5) gender equality and education for all; (6) fair trading and sharing; (7) non-violence and peace; (8) Common Ground conflict resolution; (9) the care for health and environment; and (10) international cooperation and solidarity.

question The human community cannot reclaim its common ground until it can move religion completely off of the property. The various religions of the world are sitting directly on top of it, having hijacked the common ground from its rightful owners. I am referring to the community property of morality and ethics and to the common cause and condition that is fully addressed by the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and The Four Signs of Being of Buddhism and certain other secular sources of practical wisdom.

answer Though officially less radical than you, deep in his heart the writer could not agree more - what religion as the main rationale for the present socio-economic organisation of humanity is doing to his beautiful world, to the only world we have, is a source of much pain to him. Nevertheless, he of course accepts and supports that, as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, worship and observance'. When we speak of a multicultural society we indeed mean one freely allowing cultural and religious pluralism and diversity of choice.

question What is 'radical mediocrity'?

answer La condition humaine postmoderne (Henk Oosterling), utopia vulgaris (John Willemsens). Radical mediocrity, as we understand the term, is our common ground with the cultural overlay caused by our dependency on modern media (tools and appliances, travel, communication, and access to information) which stifles our individuality and, with it, our critical ability. Some see the concept 'radical mediocrity' more positively, as having a potential for a new kind of person, an 'interbeing' or 'zwischenmensch', a 'dividual', instead of an 'individual', the challenge being to uncover and develop the spiritual and creative dimension of such a postmodern society - the core of radical mediocrity would be affirmative because 'we want to be connected to all others'. (cf. Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, which propounds the opposite.)

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question A middle-way slant on the Buddha's great silence on metaphysical questions would be something like this: To answer them Yes or No in the same spirit in which the questions were asked would be to fall into one of the metaphysical extremes - eternalism or nihilism (they arise together). It is in this extremist spirit that the questions were asked. Buddha's silence on these questions was an expedient means accomplishing several things at least: to communicate that he didn't share that thought-world, and also to not reinforce the metaphysical extremism implied in the question.

answer From the non-dual and life-affirming standpoint of Advayavada Buddhism, which is derived from Madhyamaka philosophy, the so-called great, thundering or noble silence of the Buddha about certain metaphysical questions is clearly understood to express that they are unanswerable questions which pertain exclusively and unilaterally to a world view he does not in any way share. Our position is that the belief of some peoples in the intrinsically unprovable existence of a transcendent creator god, and the like, is culturally determined, and that any questions about, for instance, agnosticism and atheism belong unilaterally to the world view of the believer only and are, for that simple reason, essentially unanswerable by non-believers. Persons with a naturalistic world view, like Brights, humanists, etc., would therefore also do well to avoid getting embroiled in senseless discussions about the purely hypothetical existence of one or more gods and the like.

question How about Heaven and Hell?

answer The belief in such things is completely baseless and therefore very detrimental to progress in all important fields of real life which of course only takes place here and now. To wholeheartedly accept the fact of our own mortality seems to be a most difficult thing for many.

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question Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial - at once full of hope and full of fear - of the vastitude of human ignorance.

A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insuffient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith. (Sam Harris, in his excellent book The End of Faith)

answer One of the most annoying aspects of religionism is the arrogant conceit and impertinence of the average believer who maintains that his fantastic credo does not necessitate proof of any nature.

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question As a Christian moral philosopher, I find very obvious evidence of sin entering the subconscious minds of humans as habits of thoughts and actions which become psychologically conditioned over time with positive reinforcements causing humans to do destructive things which are not rational. Buddhists of course do not see any such problem. That nihilism is not credible, and it promotes the problem instead of overcoming it.

answer Advayavada Buddhism maintains that by following a Path as taught by us one is able to return to the fold of an overall existence which, expressed purely in terms of human perception and experience, is undeniably sequential, dynamic and progressive. It is an extraordinary teaching, with enormous societal implications, because this Path is, of course, applicable, not only to individuals as you and I, but to societies as well. As things stand now, however, humanity lacks the qualities required to govern the itself and the world properly, and this fact is at present very much aggravated by the prevailing passivity and dumbing-down tendency undermining the entire Western world.

question Is it not quite apparent that there is a sin problem which is not being solved - in Buddhism as well as every place else?

answer The shambles humanity is in is, indeed, the result of sin and ignorance. The recurrence of genocide is particularly sad and disappointing. But we must be careful not to become a carrier of sin and part of the problem ourselves by refusing to place our trust in the whole, by whatever name you wish to identify it, and in the resilient natural goodness of our Buddha-nature - the major religions and beliefs, which cynically cultivate and live off the failings of humanity, including their own, are unfortunately on the rise again. Our own clear and important message and invocation is instead one of reconciliation with the wonders of overall existence. Nirvana, which is there for all, is indeed when we experience our own existence in the present moment as being completely in tune with existence as a whole becoming over time now in its manifest direction - the total extinction of all suffering is a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is beyond our commonly limited and biased, and all too often sadly deluded, personal experience of it.

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question I'm curious to know how dependent origination, pratityasamutpada, fits in with your idea of progress as the fourth sign of being.

answer Interdependent origination is how wondrous overall existence becomes over time. "Dependent origination is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that" (Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, New York 1995). Now karma, as we see it, is our share of interdependent origination at the sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility - karma is, so to say, our stake in incessant pratityasamutpada, and what we feel and experience as good, right, wholesome, and beneficial, indeed as progress, is that which accords with the overall, otherwise indifferent, direction of existence becoming over time. The Taoist sage follows the Tao by imitating Nature - the Advayavadin understands the Noble Eightfold Path as nothing less than an ongoing reflexion at the human level, and in human terms, of the whole of existence becoming over time in its manifest direction: he sees the Buddha as the prophet of existence as it truly is, as it truly is beyond our own commonly limited and biased personal experience of it.

question Does Advayavada Buddhism propound a system of tenets, i.e. a way of asserting objects, selflessness and so forth? At times I hear Prasangika-like differentiations, but not clearly enough to hold them apart. For beginners like myself struggling to progress from provisional, accessible, views to more 'final' ones, such distinctions are most helpful. I ask this not to engage in debate, but merely to place what I am reading about Advayavada Buddhism in the framework of prior studies.

answer On the one hand we have the conventional truth of empirical reality as perceived by our senses and, on the other, the complete unreality i.e. emptiness of things from the standpoint of ultimate truth because we know them to be produced and sustained by causes and conditions. Jeffrey Hopkins writes in his Meditation on Emptiness: 'The key to the Prasangika assertion of conventional phenomena is that though they assert the existence of what the world says exists, they do not assert that phenomena exist the way that the world sees them', with which we feel very comfortable. We suppose that this places us roughly, as far as this is concerned, in the Candrakirti camp of Madhyamaka.

See also 'Madhyamaka is advayavada' from Prof. David R. Loy's Nonduality, A Study in Comparative Philosophy on our excerpts page. Prof. Loy quotes there from Candrakirti's Prasannapada and states as follows: "Nagarjuna holds that dependent origination is nothing else but the coming to rest of the manifold of named things (prapañcopashama). When the everyday mind and its contents are no longer active, the subject and object of everyday transactions having faded out because the turmoil of origination, decay, and death has been left behind completely, that is final beatitude."

It is important to bear in mind, however, that it is as a result of the purification of our perception of the phenomenal world at the level of conventional truth (samvriti-satya) that we shall come to understand the full significance of ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). The Noble Eightfold Path indeed operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha's Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara (mithyasamvriti-satya) are progressively transformed, purified first into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti-satya), and it is through true conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the paramount non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. To experience the phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth is nothing less than Nirvana - to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is.

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question There is a consciousness which precedes differentiated existence, 'prior to' the arising of duality, the division of self/other, heaven/earth, nirvana/samsara...

answer We do not share this ontology. In Advayavada Buddhism there are, throughout and at every stage of existence, no other "two" than the part and the whole. We humans are but one manifestation of being of the whole and consciousness (to know) simply describes one, albeit important, way in which we are. Therefore shunyata = advayata. The use of such nouns as 'consciousness' and 'awareness' mislead people into believing that there are such 'things' as consciousness and awareness, while they in fact only refer to the sentient activity of knowing. Consciousness and awareness are, in our Advayavada vocabulary, at most different degrees of knowing. The fact that we all know (cognize) in the same way is merely further proof of the oneness of our species. Our position is more or less summed up in the following 'important note' earlier on in this section: 'Advayavada Buddhism supports the view that consciousness (to know) is a biological phenomenon. All living beings - plants, animals and humans - experience the world in their own ways. Each organism engages in a creative relationship with the external world, bringing forth a myriad of different ways of knowing, whereby the physiology of the organism changes accordingly (immanently) in the process.' (cf. conatus, élan vital, cognitive imperative)

question There is a world of difference between sketching this out as a philosophical construct and actually experiencing this reality directly. Who knows that shunyata = advayata?

answer It is through insight into the intrinsic emptiness of all things, in other words, insight into the incessant activity of universal causality or pratityasamutpada and the total absence of things with permanent inherent existence, that the oneness of existence is revealed and, hopefully, experienced. This is why the ultimate essence of existence is sometimes called the advayadharmadhatu.

question Since all things are impermanent, the 'thingness' of the referents of ordinary nouns is an illusion; such are properly seen as just a manifestation of the ongoing activity of pre-existing karma. So 'consciousness' has as much right to be a noun as 'chair' (and 'chair' has much the same difficulties if you try to really pin the concept down.)

answer Our position is that it is as completely wrong to reify consciousness, as it would be to call walking, or to walk, a thing.

question I wonder if there could be awareness without our need to reify it. In other words, just like a chair 'has' a dimension of pure being outside of our concepts about it, so does awareness. Today's scientific tendency is indeed to reduce all experiences (consciousness) to biochemical processes in the brain. I am not sure if this has any value in terms of human experience. The talk about awareness, and all phenomena of samsara and nirvana dissolving into awareness, is more an attempt to describe a meditative experience. I think there are some valuable pointers on this issue in Yogacara's critique of Madhyamika. I think in certain systems this 'to know' (as an activity) is described as a dynamic aspect of consciousness or 'mind', in contrast with the unchanging aspect which they term 'awareness'. What I sense in your answers is an existential concern that the establishing of any absolute value tends to remove us from our humanness and interdependence.

answer To see consciousness or awareness as simply 'to know' is admittedly not very glamorous, but there you are. Advayavada Buddhism is a radically non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life of the non-esoteric 'this is It' and what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind. As for the establishment of any absolute value, in Advayavada Buddhism we have wondrous overall existence and its immanent incessant dynamic principle pratityasamutpada, by whatever name you choose to identify them, and the conviction that the dharma of the part is not different from the Dharma of the whole, i.o.w. that there is only one set of rules governing the whole of reality of which we are part.

question You say that Advayavada Buddhism supports the view that consciousness or knowing changes the physiology of organisms.

answer Yes, we are convinced that every organism changes physically (albeit minimally) all the way down to its cells with each and every sensory as well as conceptual experience, however small. A human being changes to some extent every second of his life. Meditation, for instance, also changes the physiology of the meditator, as does visualization therapy. It is an ever-changing body (rupa skandha) which reproduces itself - siblings have parents who have changed in the intervening period of time, however slightly. The person you knew intimately years ago is not the same as the one you meet again today.

Prof. Antonio Damasio asked by us whether, according to him, "perception and cognition continually change the physical structure of the brain", answered "yes, absolutely, my lecture just changed your brain, and your question is right now changing mine".

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question Everything in Nature is caused, including our every decision and action. We are here because we are caused to be here. No other explanation is needed. As for our role in the universe, that is what each of us, as thinking individuals, have to determine for ourselves. Speaking personally, I have decided that my role in life is to promote wisdom in the world, both in myself and in other people. Why did I decide upon this role? Because Nature caused me to. Everything that we are today has been predetermined by our 'past lives' which stretch back into beginningless time. But having said that, I don't go along with the idea of literal reincarnation and souls hopping from body to body, etc. That is religious superstition, in my view. I prefer to view the whole thing a lot more naturalistically. I regard everything that has contributed to the formation of who I am today as a 'past life' of mine: my parents and teachers, my philosophical mentors, my studies, my genetics, the evolution of the human race, the formation of the solar system, and so on back forever. All of these things constitute my 'past lives'. My past lives are therefore infinite in number and most of them unknown to me.

answer This is also, broadly speaking, the position of Advayavada Buddhism - this is why we say that karma is the operation of incessant pratityasamutpada or interdependent origination at the sentient level (pratityasamutpada, that is, as in Madhyamaka philosophy, where 'all causes are effects and all effects are causes', and therefore also understood as 'concrescence', the process of the many becoming one, and the actualization of the absolute and infinite in the here and now).

question What is then your understanding of the connection between an action and its future result (karmaphalasambandha)?

answer As we see it, each and every thought, deed or occurrence modifies to some extent the set of interactive factors which produces the new situation in the future "when the time is there for it to occur".

question Prof. David Bohm writes in Wholeness and the Implicate Order that we might say that "in intelligent perception, the brain and nervous system respond directly to an order in the universal and unknown flux that cannot be reduced to anything that could be defined in terms of knowable structures. Intelligence and [the] material process [of thought] have thus a single origin, which is ultimately the unknown totality of the universal flux. In a certain sense, this implies that what have been commonly called mind and matter are abstractions from the universal flux, and that both are to be regarded as different and relatively autonomous orders within the one whole movement." He adds that "it is thought responding to intelligent perception which is capable of bringing about an overall harmony or fitting between mind and matter."

answer According to Advayavada Buddhism, it is I in toto who is a herenow part or abstraction of the whole. Therefore we cannot respond to the whole, at any level of cognition, but in the way, in the manner, of the whole.

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question I cannot regard 'progress' as a 'fourth seal' in the way you suggest, because I see progress as the illusory grasping of an imagination that is seeking to have an ongoing position which it does not have. I have no problem with constructing a scheme for evaluating 'becoming' in terms of 'progress', as long as this is seen for what it is: a conceptual exercise, a thought-based activity.

answer In our view, the aforegoing is true also for the other three signs or marks of being: impermanence, selflessness and suffering are also basically human concepts, however important. What Advayavada Buddhism seeks to teach is that, in addition to these, what we experience and identify as 'progress' is that which follows the similarly indifferent pattern and direction in which wondrous overall existence advances over time. This is why we say that progress (pratipada, patipada; pragati) is the Fourth Sign of Being. The Advayavadin experiences pratityasamutpada, i.e. the incessant interdependent relatedness and 'indifferent becoming' of existence, as impermanence, selflessness, sometimes suffering and as progress, and believes that, as we advance along the Path, our understanding of these shall deepen and finally climax into the fullest realization of the wonders of being.

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(last modified 30 January 2021)

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