Jail Cell, Monk’s Cell

By Judith Toy

Bending to enter the conference room where we held meditation at Countytown Prison in Pennsylvania, Joshua darkened the doorway. He didn’t stand; he loomed. Joshua was a scary-looking six-three or six-four, over three hundred pounds, with a blue anarchist tattoo etched into his shaved scalp. It was a Thursday evening in the second year of our weekly visits to Countytown. A Zen master’s warning flashed in my mind: “Don’t leave a drunk or a bum outside the monastery gate; you might be excluding Lord Buddha.”

We didn’t ask about his jail time. It wasn’t until much later, standing in my living room in North Carolina with Josh, that I learned he was a sex offender. Not long after he began his prison sentence, the doctors had diagnosed him with schizophrenia and placed him on anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps because of the heavy drug dosages, he was a mouth breather, adding to his sinister aura.

Forgiveness Too Late

For two and a half years, my husband Philip and I took our practice every Thursday evening to Countytown Prison. Thanks to the collected strength of the inmates in the prison sangha, my initial fears of walking into the prison were quelled. This was the very place where Charles Grand, the murderer of three members of my family — my sister-in-law Connie and my two nephews, 16-year-old Allen and 14-year-old Bobby — had been held prior to his trial. Some of these young men had known Charles.

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After becoming Thây’s student and after practicing mindfulness for five years, through looking deeply, I came to forgive Charles. Still, I was afraid to face him, and I did not tell him of my forgiveness. He had confessed to the crime and was convicted for three consecutive life sentences without parole. One day it was too late for me to tell him “I forgive you.” Charles took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his jail cell. I deeply mourned his passing. Now, at Countytown Prison, I had a chance to give to the living what I owed to the dead.

What I’ll never forget from one of those early nights is the flower. A dear friend had brought us a fresh gardenia as an offering for our home altar. On a whim, we took the perfect blossom with its leaves like wax and laid it on the table in the small, pie-shaped conference room where we met with the men. Its fragrance served as both candle and incense; no fire was allowed.

One of the guys was nicknamed Fiji. Fiji had a voice like a cement mixer. He shared with us during dharma discussion that he was a Vietnam vet, that he had committed multiple atrocities in the war. Because of this he had suffered deeply and continuously in the years since, often becoming obsessed with the urge to kill himself or to kill another.

“I wanna put the war behind me and find peace,” Fiji said.

All of us accepted the prison sounds — metal clanging against metal, the public address system, the frequent shouts — as the ground of our meditation. Each moment unfolded into the next. As Philip and I prepared to leave the room, we noticed the men’s intense interest in the gardenia. They passed it around the room, inhaling its sweet scent, touching its creamy petals and leaves. I keep a mental snapshot of Fiji with his nose in the flower: Fiji and the Buddha, Fiji and the Christ.

Grace of Hugging Meditation

Hugging practice became a ritual. Since inmates are ordinarily prohibited the luxury of human touch, I wondered how many of them attended meditation just for the motherly, fatherly hugs that

Philip and I enjoyed with each of them before saying good-bye each week. We practiced hugging meditation to be truly present to each other through three complete shared breaths. Afterwards, we bowed with our palms joined in a lotus bud. It was not we who initiated the hugging, either; it was the men, these streetwise youngsters whose personalities morphed the moment they walked out the door of the conference room and returned to the prison halls — their street. Out would pop the exaggerated swagger of boys who hadn’t been properly fathered, the street jive. Thus I began to look deeply at some of the peer pressures on these men. As I got to know them as real and vulnerable and even innocent, my fears abated.

Still there were days when a prison destination was not high on our list of evening recreations. The recliner and a good book beckoned. Or after a long day my eyes wanted to close. On the outside, I often noted my resistance to the strict routine of the metal detector or being subjected to the hand-held detector, arms outstretched, making me feel like … a criminal! Hmmm.

En route to the prison Philip and I sometimes bickered. Yet without fail, once we settled into seated meditation and walking meditation with the men, our moods lightened. Without fail, by the time we gave and received our good-bye hugs, Philip and I were walking on clouds.

We were supported by a friend from Old Path Sangha. Steven was a devotee of the Indian avatar Sathya Sai Baba and an observant Jew. When we told him that the late father of one of the men in our group, Deepok, had been a disciple of Sai Baba’s, Steven asked to join us on Thursday evenings. We were deeply grateful that he was able to stay on, continuing to practice with the men when Philip and I moved away to North Carolina in 1999.

Genuine friendships developed between the two mindfulness groups — our Old Path Zendo Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the sangha at Countytown. We continued the custom of taking a flower and passing it around before saying good-bye. Deepok developed a habit that led to the naming of the prison sangha: as we passed the flower around to the men each week he’d pinch off a petal or a fragment of a petal and file it away in his pocket. He stowed the sweet-smelling bits in his cell as reminders of our times together, as a token of Mother Earth. Later we learned that they were seized as contraband by the guards during a lock-down. They were certainly mistaken for drugs! Deepok told us the lockdown was worth it, and he continued to pinch petals. Such was his longing for what these small fragments symbolized — earth, its flowering, peace, acceptance, new life. We couldn’t find it in our hearts to deny him the petals.

Thus the prison group was named by the men: Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

The Making of a Hermitage

At the close of the first year at Countytown, four inmates were growing solid in their meditation and mindfulness practice. Big Joshua was one of them. Others would come and go, some out of choice and some because they were reassigned or released. They consciously dedicated their practice to the folks at Old Path

Sangha, and we of the Old Path Zendo Sangha sat twice weekly on behalf of Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

We did not ask what their crimes were, whether they were guilty or innocent. We just sat. We enjoyed our breathing. We practiced silent walking meditation, in peace. We smiled. We hugged. We beamed out our love.

Over the months that Joshua attended weekly meditation, I watched with deep happiness as he took to the practice like an eagle to air, making of his jail cell a monk’s cell. He asked deep questions, ordered books on Buddhism and read them cover to cover, recited the Four Noble Truths and the Heart Sutra, studied the five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or habit patterns, and consciousness). Josh was an open vessel, filling, filling.

“I ordered books from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Parallax Press, Zen Mountain Monastery, Richard Gere’s Foundation, and from Bo and Sita Lozoff of the Human Kindness Foundation and the Prison Ashram Project,” he told us at the prison. “The meditation practice makes me look forward to every day,” he said, “breathing in and breathing out, working on my form and lack of form. I’ve found a way to discipline myself, a way to counter the chaos.”

“Minds innocent and quiet take [prison] …for a hermitage,” wrote the English poet John Lovelace. Josh’s typical prison day began at 4:30 or 5:00 when he sat in meditation for 45 minutes and practiced walking meditation like a cat, pacing the limited confines of his cell. Then he chanted sutras. At 8:00, he went to work in the commissary warehouse, a coveted minimum-security-status job that Joshua attained only after three years of good behavior. After work and dinner in the prison cafeteria, he routinely sat in meditation again for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then he would read from his growing Buddhist library and go to bed.

But it had not always been a monk’s cell and minimum security for Joshua. “I started out my prison time right away getting into trouble for fighting. There was this new guy on the block. He must’ve figured you start with the biggest man and work your way down, because he picked a fight with me. So I just lifted him up with one hand and split his temple with the other. For that I got 28 days in the hole.”

“What’s the hole?”

“Well, it’s a four-by-nine-foot cell that holds a bed, a desk, a toilet, and a sink. The guards take you out every other day for a shower. You have contact with guards only. The officers were actually pretty cool with me.”

“What would you do if that inmate picked a fight with you today?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” Joshua quietly replied.

An Unexpected Visit

About a year after Philip and I bequeathed the prison sangha to Steven and moved south to North Carolina to found Cloud Cottage Sangha, Joshua phoned us to say he was out of jail. We’d stayed in touch, and now he had an important request.

“I want to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings,” he said.

“We’re hosting a dharma teacher from California, Lyn Fine, in North Carolina this September, Josh,” I said. “If you can get yourself here you can stay with us, and we can arrange a ceremony to have Lyn and the sangha offer you the precepts.”

It took a huge effort on Joshua’s part to make the journey. First he secured permission from his halfway house to go on leave for religious reasons. Then he got the okay from his supervisor to take a leave of absence from his job. Finally, he needed money for bus fare; his grandmother complied with a loan, and we set a date for his arrival.

On the long Greyhound ride, Joshua wrote untitled poems:

Impermanence is the
only constant.
Change is the one true
quality.
Suffering, joy, hate,
love, these too
shall pass. Sitting still
I center,
Quiet my mind,
Rest in the joy of
my breath.

Josh’s Greyhound bus arrived on time. Back at Cloud Cottage, which is truly a cottage in size, Lyn slept on the futon in the den and Joshua put his giant body down on our living room couch.

“I have to talk to you,” he said. “I have a question. Can someone who’s a sex offender receive the precepts? I…I’m not sure I can do this because of my crime. And Judith, I don’t even remember what I did! I was blacked out on drugs!”

Ironically, just at that moment into our back door came a sangha member who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. Just as she walked in, bearing a gift of soup, I was answering Joshua, “Of course you can receive the Trainings. Your past doesn’t matter.” My mind raced in quick succession to Charles Grand raping my sister-in-law Connie and murdering her, of the Buddha accepting a penitent mass murderer as one of his monks, of Jesus eating with prostitutes.

Fortunately, our friend with the soup at the back door escaped hearing any of this conversation, or it might have made her dinner difficult. Just then, Lyn Fine came out of the other room to join us, and I introduced her to my friend. We served my friend’s carrot soup with a hearty bread. There we were, an unlikely gathering, teachers, perpetrators, victims — no self, no other — gathered for a mindful meal, a true Zen Eucharist. In this way, we practiced interbeing.

One Dharma Journey

Lyn led the retreat that weekend, in a friend’s house set on a vast, tree-dotted lawn in a mountain cove. On a crystal autumn day of marigolds and maple leaves, we held the ceremony for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Tearfully, I watched as Joshua brought his massive body down to touch the earth, receiving each of the Three Refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life;
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness;
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.

After the ceremony, Lyn gave Joshua his lineage name, Peaceful Light of the Source, linking it to mine and Philip’s, also given by her — Clear Light of the Source and Shining Stream of the Source.

Our linked names mean so much to me, for it was Josh who had transformed my guilt and regret at never having contacted Charles, to say in person, “I forgive you!” It was five years after the murders that I was able to forgive the boy who killed my family — five years of daily meditation and mindfulness practice. But before I’d been able to tell him so, Charles killed himself. Might I have saved his life by telling him of my forgiveness? Perhaps.

I saw on Joshua’s ordination day that Joshua’s journey was my journey. Joshua and I inter-exist. Despite a long and bumpy ride, I, too, was learning to “rest in the joy of the breath.” Like Josh, I was unfolding my heart to the perfect understanding that transforms hatred and degradation into love and forgiveness.

In the chaos of prison life, Josh had longed for peace. There, he had come to discover his inner teacher, his true self. Back home in Souderton, Pennsylvania, after entering the stream of our Buddhist tradition, he founded Dharma Rain Sangha.

“I met one of the Countytown guards on the outside who told me, ‘I knew you didn’t belong in there,’” he said. But maybe he did belong in there. How else for this gentle giant? How else would Joshua’s dharma journey have begun?

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Minding the Fire, Zen Stories of Forgiveness. Other essays from her book can be found in Best Buddhist Writing 2006, published by Shambhala, and in the new Buddhist quarterly, Right View.

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Hugging with True Love

Thay’s Presence in a  Mother-Daughter Relationship

By Bobbie Bosworth

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As many of us know, things can get pretty tense between teens and parents. That was the case with me (the mom) and our daughter when she was a teen. For various reasons, she became very unhappy and directed her unhappiness at those she loved the most. Our relationship became strained, and for a few years, I felt deep confusion about how to help her. It became hard to show love when I was getting messages like “stay away” or “leave me alone” from her. She also needed her parents so much at that time. How to build bridges and yet honor her wish for independence and separation? How to let her find her own way and yet support her when she was so depressed by the huge problems of this world?

One of our answers came from Thay in a very simple practice: hugging meditation. In hugging meditation, when my daughter and I were able to hold each other and breathe, as Thay recommended, there seemed to be an immediate lessening of tension and a recognition of our shared love. When we could drop out of conflict and allow ourselves to just hold each other, it always seemed to help. At times, she didn’t want to do it and neither did I. But if we just held each other, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for quite a long time, something started to happen. We would relax and feel the warmth of each other. We would remember our basic deep love. We would sometimes cry. We often got to a deeper place with each other, to “big mind” or that to which we all belong. We would get beyond our little lives for a moment.

Happily, my daughter is now in her mid-twenties and is a wonderful mother. Our relationship has gotten much easier. We share so much now that she is raising a child. My daughter and I agree that most humans are starving for true love and connection. We both cannot get enough hugs from her son. We’ve also found that this practice, hugging meditation, is deeper than most people realize.

For me, hugging does not come easily, but I often think back on my daughter’s hard teen years and remember the simple connection we made through hugging with real love. I hug more now, as an expression of true feeling. To hug with intention, to hold another human (or animal) with love and best wishes, is a way to realize our true interbeing. It can be profound, and it certainly helped my daughter and me through a difficult time. We cannot thank Thay enough for his teachings, his writings, and his love for his Sangha and the world.

Editors’ note: To practice hugging meditation, you ask the other person if she would like a hug. If she agrees, following your breathing, take her in your arms and continue to be aware of your breathing as you hold her. You are 100% there for her and contemplate how wonderful it is that she is warm and alive. A hug should last for at least three long inand out-breaths.

Bobbie Bosworth, True Capacity of the Earth, and her husband live in a remote town in southern Utah. The natural environment is their Sangha. Bobbie was the first Buddhist chaplain in Salt Lake City.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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