Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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Being Wonderfully Together

Report from the Order of Interbeing Second International Conference

“Being Wonderfully Together” was the theme for the Second International Conference of the Order of Interbeing held September 30 to October 2, 1996, at Plum Village. More than 100 core community members from Australia, New Zealand, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Canada, the U.S., Vietnam, and other countries attended. Most of the meeting time was devoted to working group meetings and reports, following an agenda prepared by agenda committee members Fred Eppsteiner, Howard Evans, Mai Nguyen, and Francoise Pottier. We also had one inspiring afternoon tea meditation.

Reports from Working Groups

Administrative Structure

After reviewing the current structure and the role of monastics and laypeople, we proposed that the work of the Order fall under the guidance of a Council of Elders (composed of members, both older in age and those who have practiced twenty years or longer) and a Coordinating Council (composed of nine positions). On the Coordinating Council, at least one monastic and layperson will share responsibility for each area (communication, practice, training, youth and family, Sangha building, and social action). We also proposed the formation of a small Administrative Committee, composed of two directors, two secretaries, and two treasurers. The Youth Council as such will be discontinued, but the YouthlFamily committee will provide for retreats and attention to youth issues. After discussion and nomination in the General Assembly, members of the current Administrative Committee are: Co-Directors: Thich Nguyen Hai, Jack Lawlor, Therese ~itzgerald, Fran~oise Pottier; Co-Secretaries: Thich Phap An, Karl Riedl, Fred Eppsteiner; Co-Treasurers: Sister Huong Nghiem, Lyn Fine, Andrew Weiss. The following are committee proposals. They are not Order resolutions:

Education/Training

Implicit in our recommendations is the need for local Sanghas to provide consistent opportunities and introductions to practicing mindful sitting and walking, chanting, tea meditation, etc. The four-year Dharma teacher training curriculum devised by Sister Annabel was reviewed and suggested as a course outline. We suggest flexibility in how local Sanghas implement their training programs. Each group must learn how to strike a balance between welcoming newcomers and deepening the practice of long-time members. Sanghas can integrate the training into their weeknight sittings, Days of Mindfulness, retreats, or whatever schedule is practical and enjoyable for the group. The Order will conduct a survey of members to determine, among other things, what talents are available to facilitate Sangha d ve opment, training, and retreat activity. Efforts will be made to coordinate with the Communications/Resources Group to create a library of videotapes, audiotapes, and transcripts of Thich Nhat Hanh’ s Dharma talks.

Communications I Transcribing I Resources

We discussed the need for transcriptions and translations; how local Sanghas could use their talents to help transcribe and edit Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh and others, following the lead of the Lotus Buds Sangha in Australia; how to develop archives of audio and videotapes; how talks could be indexed for particular topics; and how to facilitate individuals and groups obtaining audio and videotapes and transcriptions, especially of winter retreat talks which Thay gave in Vietnamese.

Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

Thay has replaced the term “precepts” with the telm “mindfulness trainings” to more accurately reflect their intention and purpose. A first draft was revised on the basis of suggestions from more than 30 people, and appears on pages 22-23.

Application for the Order of Interbeing

An application form and guidelines are being developed. General recommendations:

  1. Keep the current guidelines for applicants, but add requirement of a one-year mentoring period. When the core community reaches a decision on an applicant, it should use its Sangha eyes and nourish the bodhichitta of the applicant, even if that means suggesting a delay. While the Dharma teachers and core community make the decision on an application, long-standing members of the extended community should be consulted in the process.
  2. To encourage experimentation, local Sanghas are authorized to embellish the application procedures to address local culture, geography, and circumstances, provided that the goals and aspirations of the Order are not compromised. For example, local Sanghas may choose to formally celebrate the submission of an aspirant ‘s letter in a public or private ceremony, permit the aspirant to select a mentor or mentors from among the core and extended community (or another resource), and provide the aspirant with a gift copy of the book Interbeing.
  3. Provisions of the charter regarding ordination may be waived in individual cases under special circumstances (such as medical
    hardship) provided that the chairperson of the Order and the local or most appropriate Dharma teachers are first consulted and, if time permits, the local or most appropriate core community members.
  4. The charter’s existing description of the extended community should be retained,but it should emphasize that long-standing members of the extended community (i.e., those who have participated regularly for a year or more) should be consulted about potential ordinations, whether or not that member has taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings.
  5. While the charter may continue to state that partners of an Order member should be members of either the core or extended community, it is proposed that language be added stating that, in the alternative, an aspirant would live harmoniously with his or her partner so that the aspirant’s partner supports his or her practice.

Youth and Family Practice

The Youth and Family Practice group was a wonderful meadow of beautiful smiling flowers. We listened to each other deeply as we promised to have fun and to work from our own experiences rather than theory. We discussed the challenges to practice with youth. We recognized that sometimes children suffer rather than enjoy children’s programs on retreats. We encouraged each other to listen deeply to children and to look deeply at ourselves so that we might make creative growth experiences out of opportunities that arise. Our purpose statement embodies that vision:

We recognize the joy of mindfulness practice with children, families, and communities. We want to embrace the spark of children’s enthusiasm. Through the practice of looking through children’s eyes and into their hearts, we wish to provide loving opportunities for them to creatively explore the Dharma. We recognize the challenge of including children in our practice. We wish to share with each other our diverse experiences of practice. We honor the value of diversity and acknowledge the need for skillful means to make the Dharma available to children of different backgrounds. Therefore, to encourage an experientiallybased approach and to nourish the seeds of mindfulness, we envision these tools for practicing with children:

  • A family section in The Mindfulness Bell, composed of an “adults” page, with anecdotal experiences, suggestions for practice, seasonal practices, and family retreat information, and a children’s page with children’s writings and drawings.
  • A resource notebook which would serve as a family practice handbook. The notebook could be composed, in part, from Thay’ s Dharma talks and from the family section of The Mindfulness Bell.
  • Cassettes and videotapes (fun and instructional), some prepared by young people on retreat and some prepared for youth and children in practice.
  • Making Thay’s Dharma talks for children more widely available in tapes or transcripts.
  • Support for local family retreats through notice of retreats, sharing experience of what does and does not work in local Sanghas, and helping to organize family retreats.
  • A catalog of resources on practice with children, compiled by members of the Youth and Family Council with contributions from the larger Sangha.

Sangha Building

The role and responsibility of Order of Interbeing members is to practice, to offer practice, and to support other people in the practice. The following recommendations were made:

  1. Help Jack Lawlor revise the draft of the manual on starting a Sangha.
  2. Support Dharma teachers to lead retreats within and outside their geographic areas. Assist newer groups and individuals to organize these retreats.
  3. Commit ourselves to practicing consensus, Beginning Anew, and the Peace Treaty in our Sanghas, and deepening our Sangha relationships. Create a suggestion box as a way for newer people to offer their fresh perspective to the Sangha.
  4. Commit ourselves to develop shared leadership by teaching our skills and developing ourselves in less skilled areas, honoring different styles of approaching the work.
  5. Gain wisdom from elders. Help newer folks. Support and receive support from monks and nuns.
  6. Commit ourselves to look deeply at how our collective consciousness and individual experiences shape how we see differences between us, in order to understand and honor differences (e.g. cultural, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, economic).
  7. Commit ourselves to helping Sanghas solve problems. Enlist support of Dharma teachers and international resources to help.
  8. Support and receive support from monastic community. Help Western aspirants enter the monastery. Support and receive support from residential practice centers In the West.
  9. Devise a calendar based on suggestions from Plum Village for international practice (monthly or weekly themes) incorporating seasonal changes, other religious traditions’ important holidays, etc.
  10. Develop mechanisms for networking and support: e.g., Order of Interbeing address and phone list.

Inclusiveness and Special Needs

Recognizing the interbeing nature of all humanity and the suffering caused by isolation and exclusion, we are aware that there are many silenced and marginalized groups in our society, and that we need to listen deeply to these groups and individuals in their own language and ways of living. We need to become more aware and open to the tensions and misunderstandings between us and to explore ways to address areas that reflect our own suffering.

We agree to be open to suggestions from all racial and ethnic groups regarding inclusiveness; to listen deeply to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual members to help eliminate misunderstandings which may exist; and to increase awareness of ways our Sanghas can welcome people with mental and physical disabilities and the chronically ill. Economic inclusion, financial support and scholarship to Sangha events, and health-related dietary needs were all identified. We hope that The Mindfulness Bell will present a broader picture with more diversity.

Social Action

To reflect the complex and diverse nature of social action, and to support our international community in responding to suffering, we submit the following:

  1. To facilitate the exchange of information and the networking of people, resources, materials, and spiritual support, we propose a designated time on the schedule during general retreats where those involved in social action can present their work to the Sangha. In addition, we propose that affinity groups concerning social action be encouraged and supported as part of the retreat schedule.
  2. We propose that The Mindfulness Bell provide a section in each issue to inform members about social action projects; resources and support needed and/or available both within and outside the community; continuing updates of the projects; immediate action calling for response to suffering and injustices. We encourage those involved in social action to write articles for The Mindfulness Bell.
  3. We propose organizing retreats for those involved or interested in social action, facilitated by experienced teachers both in and outside of the Order of Interbeing. We propose circulating the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in a non-Buddhist context as a skillful means of connecting and working with others.

Finances

We discussed the following issues:

  1. The membership fee of $50 for the Order of Interbeing is dana: it is suggested, not required. Of this, $18 goes for a subscription to The Mindfulness Bell. Payments outside of the U.S. can be made by Euro-check to one European account, or in U.S. dollars to the U.S. account.
  2. Local and national Sanghas are encouraged to have their own membership dues to cover local expenses. The UK Sangha has accomplished this by having their newsletter subscription be the Sangha dues.
  3. The Order of Interbeing finances are separate from the finances of Plum Village, Parallax Press, and the Community of Mindful Living.
  4. Questions for discussion: Should local Sanghas tithe 10% of their funds to the International Order of Interbeing? Should a portion (e.g., 25%) of receipts from Plum Village retreats and workshops with a significant involvement of Order of Interbeing members be tithed to the Order of Interbeing?
  5. Twenty to twenty-five percent of Order funds may be used for administrative costs, mailings, and phone calls. A portion of the remaining funds may be used to support Order of Interbeing retreatants at Plum Village and to respond to needs for social action.
  6. Questionnaires may be sent to determine the percentage of funds to go to scholarships and to needs for social action. Decisions about social action responses to be based on questionnaire responses. Decisions about scholarships may be made by financial coordinators.

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