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Animals in Buddhism: In Defence of Hierarchical Evaluation

Colette Sciberras

Recent years have seen copious publications that bring together Buddhism and environmental ethics, and the question regarding the status of animals within the tradition has formed an important part of the inquiry into its green credentials. Often, Buddhism is charged with being anthropocentric, or with involving some other, similar bias towards human interests, and these accusations generally arise due to the hierarchical organisation of living beings within its traditional cosmology. In this paper, I review these charges in light of some basic Buddhist doctrines, and argue that the objections stem from a misapplication of two philosophical assumptions to certain extracts from the Pli texts. My general claim is that if we consider Buddhas teachings as a whole, there is little to suggest that he recommended discriminatory behaviour towards nonhuman animals. I start by defining anthropocentrism, speciesism, and human chauvinism, and go on to provide a few reasons why such charges have been brought against Buddhism. It will emerge that the objections rest on two key ideas; there is, first, the assumption of a fundamental divide between humans and other animals, and second, a belief in a restrictive moral circle, which, by including certain beings, automatically excludes others. Buddhism, however, does not endorse these ideas, and the charges against it only arise when commentators misappropriate these, or similar, beliefs into their account of the Buddhas teachings. The teachings emphasize continuity between living beings, and not difference, and I will argue that despite the fact that Buddhisms hierarchical view of life places humans at the summit, there are no

prejudicial implications, since it does not discriminate between forms of life in terms of moral worth. Although there are some passages from the Pli canon that are generally taken as evidence of anthropocentrism, I conclude that these are too infrequent to support the charge, especially when considered against the far more common references to continuity between, and concern for, all sentient beings. Anthropocentrism, Speciesism, and Human Chauvinism The basic idea behind the concept of anthropocentrism, as suggested by the term itself, is a view that regards human beings as the centre of all significance, and human needs and wants as foremost among the interests of all beings. Simon Blackburn defines it as any view magnifying the importance of humans in the cosmos, for example, by seeing it as created for our benefit (Blackburn 19). Anthropocentric and egocentric are analogous, therefore, in that both terms suggest that whatever is not at the centrenonhuman animals in the former case, and all other people in the latterare there for the sake of the person described as anthropocentric or egocentric, and can be used in whatever way he or she sees fit. Gary Steiner reveals the depth at which human centeredness is ingrained in the West. He argues that even in theocentric societies, where the world is believed to be centred on god, still, deities are generally depicted as human beings, and, one might add, in pre-modern societies, they were often believed to display qualities and to act in ways that were all too human indeed. This, Steiner says, shows the influence of anthropocentric thinking, which, even when it posits a Higher Being, conceives of it as similar to us, and always regards animals as occupying an inferior place in the cosmic order (Steiner 12) (1). Many environmentalist thinkers and supporters of animal rights have made it their purpose to overturn this kind of worldview, which they regard as being based on an unfounded prejudice that favours the human.

A related term is that of speciesism, originally conceived as an extension of the anti-racist and anti-sexist critiques. Speciesism is defined as the improper stance of refusing respect to the lives, dignity, rights, or needs of animals other than the human species (Blackburn 358). Paul Waldau characterizes it as the inclusion of all humans within the moral circle and the exclusion of all other animals from it. If a being is included within the moral circle, this means that its life, its freedom from captivity, and from instrumental use are protected, while direct, intentional infliction of harm, pain, or unnecessary suffering are seen as morally unacceptable (Waldau 38 39). Just as racism can be represented as the belief that it is wrong to keep white people captive, but permissible to enslave blacks, similarly, speciesism can be characterized as the claim that, say, conducting experiments on human babies is unacceptable, but unproblematic if performed on chimps (Singer 3839). As the example shows, if this kind of critique is valid, and such discrimination between animals is truly based on an unfair bias, then, much of the world is, in fact, speciesist. The discussion, therefore, centres on the reasons that are provided for differential treatment of humans and other animals. If such criteria can be found and shown to be valid, then the charge of speciesism can be rejected. Consideration of the criteria for discriminatory treatment of animals brings us to the third, and least known of our cluster of concepts, that of human chauvinism. This occurs whenever the grounds for inclusion within the moral circle are defined from the outset in such a way that only humans are included. Often, they are altered every time new information is obtained, which would otherwise build a case for the inclusion of some other animals (Hayward 5354). A human chauvinist, for instance, will consider only intelligence to render a being worthy of moral consideration, and, when it is proved that some other animals are also intelligent, she will redefine the

criteria, so that, say, only those that can use language will be included in the moral circle. The charges of anthropocentrism and speciesism have each been brought against Buddhism, for diverse reasons. In the next section, I shall review this criticism, and examine certain assumptions on which it relies. The Charges against Buddhism The charge of anthropocentrism arises against Buddhism, at times, because the latter is seen as occupied predominantly, if not exclusively, with human matters. As Malcolm David Eckel puts it, it is concerned with the human achievement of human goals, that is, ultimately, the attainment of nibbana (Eckel 64; Holder, 119) (2). Although, as we shall see below, neither Holder nor Eckel endorse such as simplistic view, one version of the objection seems to be that the teachings, and the path they set out, are intended for human beings alone. Famously, the Buddha emphasized that he taught nothing but suffering (dukkha), the causes, of suffering and the means to extinguish suffering (M i 140; D i 189). He set up an order of monks and eventually and somewhat reluctantlyallowed women to be ordained as nuns. He accepted lay followers too; yet, the Pli canon specifically states that he refused to ordain nonhuman animals, or even to allow them to listen to the teachings. In itself, this does not seem to be such a serious offence; indeed, it stands to reason that animals, being unable to grasp the Buddhist teachings, cannot perform the role of monastics, and any attempt to teach them to meditate would immediately strike us as a colossal waste of time. Elsewhere, I have argued that a position that differentiates between animals in terms of their qualities aloneas in this case, where the difference has to do with their level of intelligencedoes not always imply a distinction in moral worth, or that animals ought to be treated differently. The charges

of anthropocentrism, and especially speciesism, will only arise if, from the differences that we acknowledge to exist between us and other animals, we wrongly infer that it is appropriate to treat other animals in ways that we would not accept for human beings (Sciberras 228). The prohibition against ordaining animals originates from a canonical story about a nga (3) who, having grown weary of life, pretends to be a human being and joins the order as a novice. When the Buddha discovers his true form, he advises the nga to practice some basic acts of discipline, so that, in his next life, he will be born as a real human being, and be able to follow the Buddhist path. The implication, then, is that animals, are not capable of (spiritual) growth in this doctrine and discipline (Rhys Davids and Oldenberg 219) (4) and they too, like all other forms of existence, such as worldly gods and ghosts, must aspire to be reborn as humans first. Thus, it appears that, in regarding spirituality as an exclusively human domain, the Buddha ended up elevating the status of humans above that of animals. This was further consolidated through the hierarchical view of life portrayed in the traditional image of the Wheel of Sasra (bhavacakka). The worlds of humans and of the gods are depicted in the upper part of the wheel, forming the three happy destinations or higher realms (sugati), while other animals, hell beings, and hungry ghosts occupy the three lower realms (apya) (Nyanatiloka 119). Eventually, humans would be raised above the gods too; the Tibetans, for instance, speak of the precious human life (Tib. mi lus rin po che). The question, therefore, is whether this consists of the same sort of magnification of human importance which amounts to anthropocentrism, and whether it makes any implications about the way we ought to treat other animals,

which could justifiably be called speciesist. Before I turn to these questions, however, I shall consider some other reasons why such charges have been made. Several authors have suggested that Buddhisms hierarchical view of life brings with it a deprecatory outlook towards other animals, which reveals a serious lack of respect for the nonhuman inhabitants of this earth. Ian Harris points out that in the traditional Buddhist cosmic order, animals are usually classified alongside matricides, patricides, thieves, hermaphrodites and slayers of the Buddha (105). Lambert Schmithausen makes a similar compliant, when he argues that the violent aspect of nature, where animals kill and eat the weaker, is deeply abhorred in Buddhism, and in its ultimate analysis and evaluation of existence there is no motivation for preserving animal life (1011). Paul Waldau infers from this allegedly derogatory view that Buddhism might be speciesist. In brief, his claim is that there is a constant disparagement of all nonhuman animals, which are lumped together in one group, and negatively evaluated. Nonhuman animals, he says, are seen as culpable, products of bad conduct, that endure a fundamentally unhappy existence. The tradition, he argues, has never emphasized seeing animals in terms of their realities (154) Worse yet, there is also an acceptance of harmful instrumental use of animals, which, in his view, is revealed through the fact that the canonical texts often contain references to such uses, for instance, they include several stories about elephants that are held in captivity. All this, Waldau believes, is suggestive ofthe existence of pervasive species based exclusions, that is, speciesism (155). There is no space to discuss fully the merits of Waldaus arguments here (5). Instead, I would like to examine certain assumptions that such arguments rely on. First, it appears that such critiques start from the position that there is a fundamental

difference between humans and other animals. While it is true that Buddhist cosmology divides existence into separate realms containing different forms of life, I shall argue in the following section that the sense of continuity between living beings is far more pronounced. To begin from the presupposition that it is the divide, rather than the connection, that is more crucial, is to read Buddhism from a European perspective, in other words, to apply certain Western categories that do not necessarily belong to the doctrine. That is to say, to argue that Buddhism views humans as occupying a higher status than other animals assumes from the outset that the tradition endorses the dualistic view that contrasts humans with all other natural forms of life, and this seems to beg the question that is being addressed. Second, there seems to be the assumption that any differences that are recognized among beings imply a difference in our moral obligations to them. Again, this belongs properly to Western ethics, where creatures are assumed to have different grades of moral worth, and where the very concept of a moral circle implies a border between those that are and those that are not worthy of moral consideration. Once again, it seems unlikely that such a conception exists in Buddhism, and below, I shall argue that the tendency is far more inclusive than Western ethics has generally been. That is, to assume that there is a divide between beings that are morally significant, and those that are notan assumption on which the charge of speciesism depends is, once again, to carry over Western ideas into ones critique of Buddhism. Continuity versus Hierarchy in Buddhism The emphasis on continuity in Buddhism can be appreciated from various doctrines, including rebirth (jti, upapatti-bhava), not-self (anatt), and the view of all beings as ones mother. Taken together, these portray a striking vision of universal connectedness, which arises from our shared predicament of having participated in

cyclic existence for countless rebirths, and from beginningless time, as conveyed by the image of the Wheel of Sasra. The Buddha conceived of rebirth as an endless trajectory through the different realms, with their respective highs and lows, and maintained that we have all been all born, at some time or other, in every single domainas gods, demons, ghosts and hell beings, as well as animals, and people. For this reason, he says, A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find... A being who has not been your father... your brother... your sister... your son... your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find (S ii 189; Thanissaro Mother). Stereotypical accounts of Buddhist peoples often portray them as anxious to avoid harming even the tiniest creature (cf. Norbu) and this kind of attitude is normally held to emerge from a belief that that creature might have been ones mother in a past life. I propose that this is somewhat inaccurate; it is not the mere possibility of there having been a relation that inhibits Buddhists from harming creatures. Rather, the concept of mother sentient beings is based on the secure knowledge that, given that we have all been reborn an infinite number of times, each creature we encounter has actually been, at some time, our mother, our father, teacher, lover, enemy, and so forth. It is commonly accepted that there is a close correspondence between the hierarchical realms of Buddhist cosmology and our inner states of mind, including higher levels of meditative consciousness (Gethin 202). The various strata of sasra and the range of beings that inhabit them, that is, have always had both a literal sense and a psychological one, so that as well as having autonomous existence and external

reality (6), hell beings, ghosts, gods, and animals can be understood as representing anger, lust, sensual pleasure, and ignorance respectively (7). The two interpretations are tightly coupled, and sometimes even conflated. According to Rupert Gethin, for example, during the later, scholastic phase of Buddhism, the difference between them was regarded as a mere shift in time scales (195) On the psychological interpretation, therefore, an individual moves from an experience of hatred to one of attachmentand in this way, travels from the hell realm to that of the hungry ghostsin a matter of moments. To be physically reborn in another realm is a continuation of the same process, although one that spans a much longer period of that individuals existence (Gethin 195). At least one author believes that the literal interpretation of Buddhist cosmology is not appropriate. Relying on Richard Gombrichs claim that the Buddha was not really interested in what existed out there, (cited in Hamilton 73) Sue Hamilton argues that the Buddhas talk of the realms of sasra was intended to serve as a metaphor for the way the mind works, and that the literal interpretation was a later addition (73). Even the term loka, which is generally translated as world or realm, is most commonly used, she says, as a metaphor for the entire life of the individual human being. (81) She goes on, such metaphors serve to emphasize the extent to which the Buddha [is] consistently drawing attention away from the external world to the subjective world of experience (82). Familiarity with the Buddhist doctrines of not-self and emptiness (suat) will further reinforce this view. These can be characterized as the claim that there are no sharply delineated individuals, whether we consider persons or things, nothing is independent or irreducible, and nothing has a fixed, abiding nature. Rather, what we generally conceive of as an individual, when analyzed carefully, turns out to be a

collection of causally related but ephemeral phenomena; the traditional account of the constituents of a human being, for instance, lists the body, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, and these too can be broken down into moments of consciousness and particles of matter. Our tendency, however, is to reify complex phenomena, that is, we view ourselves, other beings, and the furniture of the world as somehow concrete, or as truly existing from their own side, separate from all the other factors that participate in their being, and independently of our experience of them. We conceive of individual things as simple and existentially or logically independent, and as having an essential nature, and this causes us to desire some and to fear or be repulsed by others. This reification, therefore, is the ignorance that the Buddha speaks of, and which needs to be eradicated in order to attain nibbana. Only when we realize the emptiness of all phenomena, and the lack of self of all beings, will this reification, and our consequent suffering end. In short, when we consider Buddhist doctrine as a whole, it appears that the assumption that was identified above, that posits a fundamental divide between humans and all other creatures, does not fit the tradition. No being is essentially either a human or a nonhuman animal, but on the literal interpretation at least, we all can and do take each form at different times of our existence. To think of a being as a clearly defined and separate self is misguided, and therefore, so is the assumption that there is a fundamental difference between humans and other animals, rather, as we have seen, there is an intimate relation between all beings, and all share the same characteristics. It seems that, in positing a hierarchy of life, the Buddha was not referring primarily to the external world, or to actual natural beings, but setting up a distinction in various inner states. Therefore, what appear to be derogatory remarks about animals were probably intended as a commentary on certain forms of human

behaviour, and the Buddhist emphasis on continuity, as I hope has become clear, suggests that human and nonhuman animals hold much more in common than is generally supposed by those that start out with dualistic presuppositions. To internalize fully the belief that all other creatures have, at some time, been ones mother, and to understand that we all have nonhuman elements within our own psychewhether these are what are generally known as animal instincts, or perhaps, rather more elevated divine attributescannot but lessen the opposition some perceive between ourselves and other animals. Buddhism and the Moral Circle The concept of a restricted moral circle is the second assumption on which the charges of speciesism and the like were said to rely. As I have argued elsewhere against attributing this idea to Buddhism, I will only briefly outline my claims here (8). Buddhist morality is encapsulated in the form of the Five Precepts (paca-sla), the first of which can be construed as a prohibition against killing, or else, in its stricter interpretation, involves an injunction against all forms of intentional harm (Schmithausen 11). The scripture containing rules for monks and nuns (Vinaya Pitaka) sets out the meticulous care that must be taken to prevent harming creatures; for instance, water must be strained before being drunk, in order to avoid ingesting small organisms, and even picking flowers, or digging soil, is considered an offence (Ariyesako n. pag). Although there is less detail when the Buddha addresses his lay followers, still, the proscription against killing living beings is made very clear. Waldau has picked out a few paragraphs from the Vinaya, which imply that the gravity of killing a human being is far greater than that of killing another animal. One of the most conspicuous among these is the fact that a monk who accidentally kills a human being will be expelled from the order, whereas killing an animal

intentionally only requires expiation (123124). While the existence of such passages is undeniable, their frequency appears negligible, especially when compared to the vast number of canonical texts that encourage the development of lovingkindness (mett) and compassion (karu), and which promote an attitude of nonharm (ahis). In each case, these benevolent attitudes and acts are directed towards all living beings, and the sheer number of repetitions of this phrase, contrasted with the paucity of extracts that suggest discrimination, militates against Waldaus charge of speciesism. Schmithausen points out that the class of living beings was originally conceived as including plants, soil, water, air, and seeds. Eventually, it was narrowed to include only sentient beings, and certain forms of life began to be conceived as lacking any form of consciousness. Consequently, the restriction against damage caused to minerals and vegetation was loosened to some extent, although, Schmithausen adds, it was never abolished entirely. It is likely, he says, that the rules were relaxed a little in order to free monks and nuns from what might have seemed like unnecessary inconvenience and qualms (Schmithausen 68). Later still, when Buddhism had spread to China and Japan, the idea that sentient beings alone were the proper recipients of benevolence appears to have been considered something of a limitation. A long debate ensued about whether plants, trees, and even nonliving objects were capable of attaining enlightenment, that is, whether they could be considered to possess the seed of Buddhahood. It seems that the trend was to argue in favour of widening the class of sentient beings (La Fleur 95). In short, Buddhism does not share the predilection of Western ethics to conceive of a restrictive moral circle; rather, the tendency has always been towards inclusion. In the West, Aristotle, Kant, and indeed, most prominent ethicists, have

started from the assumption that there is a characteristic, or else a set of characteristics, that render certain beings morally considerable. Until modern times, it was generally believed that while all people possess this characteristic, no other animal does, and favourite candidates included, of course, rationality and the use of language. Then, Jeremy Bentham argued that neither of these was relevant to moral worth, and instead he proposed sentience, since the capacity to feel pleasure and pain is presupposed by any moral theory that, like utilitarianism, derives its principles from the universal pursuit of happiness and well-being. The tradition of seeking to account for moral considerability through the possession of some characteristic continues to our times. Critics of speciesism, such as Waldau, argue that since many other animals possess such characteristicssentience, primarily, but also a degree of intelligence, communication, tool-making and social organisationthen these animals ought to be included within the moral circle (Waldau 6375). Yet, Buddhism does not take this approach at all. Instead, as we have seen, it begins from as wide a moral circle as possiblethat is, all living beingsand this is occasionally narrowed down to include only sentient ones, merely as a matter of expediency. Nowhere does there appear to be the suggestion that it is the possession of any particular characteristic that renders a being worthy of love and compassion, or else, that it deserves to have its life and well-being protected, because it is sentient, or rational, or whatever. In fact, the Karaya Mett Sutta suggests precisely the opposite:

Whatever beings there may be, without exception, weak or strong, long, huge, or middle-sized

Or short, minute, or bulky.

Whether visible or invisible, And those living far or near, Those born and those seeking birth: May all beings be happy! (Sn 1467; Buddharakkhita) Refuting the Charges and Defending Hierarchy It is time to return to the charges of anthropocentrism and speciesism, and to ask whether these are valid in light of what was said above. As both Eckel and Holder acknowledge, such critiques are not altogether straightforward, because although Buddhism is mostly concerned with human goals, these do not exclude the good of other beings. The path to nibbana, as we have seen, inherently includes concern for the wider network of life (Eckel 64). Therefore, the fact that human beings are regarded as the sole candidates for spiritual fulfilment is not the sort of magnification that constitutes anthropocentrism. This is because, first, no being is either human or nonhuman essentially; rather, there is a great degree of fluidity in the way beings progress towards, and regress from, the state of human being. Second, the elevation in status of humans has no moral implications, or at least, there are too few to overturn the general prohibition against harming beings. If we consider Steiners account of anthropocentrism, we can see the complete lack of such thinking in Buddhist doctrine in that, although the gods are conceived as human-like, this is also true for animals and other nonhuman creatures. There are plenty of stories where animals are anthropomorphized, especially in the Jataka Tales, and examples of the reverse, where humans are described as displaying animal behaviour. As we have seen, the psychological interpretation implies that we all have

elements of every form of life within us, and since the teachings are not primarily about objective reality, it seems that the worst charge that can be brought against Buddhism is that it uses animals to symbolize everything that is shallow or depraved in human beings. While there seems to be a valid argument here that points to a deep lack of respect, it is far less serious than the claim that Buddhism endorses or encourages prejudicial discrimination against nonhuman animals. The absence, in Buddhism, of a dualistic conception of humans and other animals, and of a restrictive moral circle, provide strong grounds for an egalitarian outlook that even those with the best intentions cannot reach, if they begin with such assumptions. To return to Waldaus critique, a large part of his argument about Buddhist speciesism relies on his having identified certain characteristics that other animals share with human beings; in brief, these include intelligence, communication, social-organization, and tool-making (69-86). He argues that since Buddhism fails to recognize these qualities in elephants, apes and other key animals, then it must be speciesist (117-36; 154-5). From another perspective, however, one can see that Waldaus argument contains elements of human chauvinism, in the sense that he defines moral considerability in a way that relies on characteristics that are, primarily, human. One might ask, what is so special about these qualities that only they should be valued? Compared to the Buddhist view, Waldaus account, which only deems certain animals to be morally considerable, seems very partial indeed. Finally, a few words must be said in defence of the Buddhist hierarchical organisation of beings. It has become common, as Sponberg has shown, to assume that any trace of hierarchy leads inevitably to domination and exploitation, and therefore, he goes on, we have even banished that dreaded h-word from all forms of polite conversation (n. pag). Yet, Buddhism would be seriously diminished without

the belief in higher and lower forms of life, that is, if it were read as implying continuity alone. Without having something to aspire to, whether worldly enjoyment in a god-like rebirth, or something much higher, like nibbana, there would be no sense in our following any path at all. In other words, if our environmental- or animalfriendly tendencies lead us to reject altogether the deprecatory view of nonhumans that is suggested by the Buddhist hierarchy, it is important that we do not end up being unable to discern the differences between beings that motivate us take up one path rather than another. Summary I have defended Buddhisms hierarchical view of life from the charges of anthropocentrism and speciesism, by claiming that it does not imply a fundamental divide between humans and other beings, either in nature or in moral worth. Instead, I have suggested that the sense of continuity between beings is far more pronounced. Continuity emerged from the way that beings move up and down the hierarchy through the course of their lives, and that humans display animal qualities and viceversa. Buddhisms basic doctrines support the idea that there are no hard-edged beings with essential natures, and therefore, they contradict the dualistic assumption that opposes humans to all other animals. The second assumption that I argued against was that of a restrictive moral circle. I claimed that Buddhism generally tends towards inclusion, as seen in the First Precept, which is an injunction against harm to all living beings. Buddhism does not share the tendency of Western ethics to regard moral considerability as being dependent upon the possession of any particular characteristic. In short, the charges of anthropocentrism do not appear to succeed, for Buddhism undeniably displays a broad concern for all forms of life. While it is not

entirely free of problematic attitudes towards animals, these are rather minor, and can easily be redressed. One suspects, however, that this could be true of all traditions, that is, there is no reason why any religion should be inherently inimical towards animals. To that extent, therefore, those critics, like Harris and Waldau, who enable us to see the less savoury aspects of our traditions are doing crucial work. It is important that we do not allow our assumptions to cause us to take either an overly-critical or a rose-tinted view of our beliefs and those of others. Abbreviations D M S Sn Notes 1. Clearly, the examples of gods that are a cross between humans and animals, such as Anubis, in Egypt, and Ganesha in India, militate against this argument to a certain extent. 2. Although some Sanskrit terms, like nirvana, are better known, I use Pli here, and throughout, for consistency, and because the discussion is mostly about early Buddhism. 3. A snake-like creature, capable of appearing as a human. These mythological creatures have both divine and demonic aspects, and therefore, ngas cannot be taken as a straightforward representative of the class of all nonhuman animals. This renders problematic the entire rule against ordaining animals, since the moral of the story is later interpreted as applying to all animals (see note 3). Digha Niky Majjhima Nikya Samyutta Niky Sutta Nipata

4. Actually, in this passage the Buddha says only that ngas are not capable of spiritual growth (Rhys Davids and Oldenberg 219), while the later commentary specifies that it applies to all nonhuman beings (Thanissaro Monastic Code 190). Whether or not this extrapolation is justified is an interesting question, which, unfortunately, there is no space to go into here. 5. For a more extensive review, see Sciberras 2008. 6. Below, it will be seen that not all authors accept this literal interpretation, and many argue, in fact, that the Buddha had little to say about objective reality. 7. This account is somewhat over-simplified. It is not the case that hungry ghosts, for instance, do not experience anything apart from attachment, rather, it is their dominant emotion, or mental poison. All beings are said to contain a mixture of the negative emotions. 8. For further discussion, see Sciberras 2008. Works Cited

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