Sot'aesan's Eun as a Theoretical Foundation for Environmental Ethics

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Sot'aesan's Eun as a Theoretical Foundation for

Environmental Ethics

Bokin Kim

Won Buddhist Temple of Philadelphia

Gotama Buddha (563-483 BCE) quite evidently never faced the complex of environmental problems encountered by contemporary technological society. Yet attempts to resolve contemporary environmental crises and to establish viable environmental ethics continue to turn for assistance to such religious teachings. There is an increasing awareness that the human race faces such an enormous task that all kinds of efforts, whether secular or religious--are needed, working in cooperation toward the same end. Here we will turn to a contemporary Korean reformer of the Buddha's teaching, Sot'aesan (1891-1943), as an example of the reinterpretation of traditional Buddhist teachings in light of these new environmental demands.

Sot'aesan, as the Korean reformer of traditional Buddhism in the modern context, was more aware than Buddhist teachers of the past of the impact of scientific development and an increasingly materialistic civilization. His interpretation of the Buddhist essential concepts was clearly aware of the dangers and disadvantage of the scientific revolution, as well as its merits and advantages. Sot'aesan's teaching of Eun (grace or beneficence), is a reinterpretation of the basic Buddhist doctrine of pratityasamupada and the Hua Yen concept of shih shih wu-ai. It can be understood to suggest one significant contribution toward delivering our endangered humanity from the environmental crisis that has accompanied the coming of the scientific revolution. The elaboration of Sot'aesan's Eun is a Won Buddhist suggestion1 toward the establishment of a common ground for ecosophy and ecopractice.

Here I will 1) describe briefly the phenomena of current environmental issues, 2) introduce the problems faced by Buddhist teaching in its interpretation of the needs of environmental ethics, 3) elaborate how Sot'aesan's Eun can function in the context of environmental crisis, and 4) conclude with Won Buddhism's proposal of a world common market that addresses global environmental problems through economical cooperation.

Won Buddhist perspective is compared with the theoretical approaches to environmental issues in other religious traditions. It may have an important part to play in the discussion among the world's religions concerning how human practice must change in order to avert a future environmental catastrophe.

There seems to be a growing consensus about the need for a new morality, a new way of thinking, for the human race as a consequence of the era of scientific technology. The development of scientific technology undoubtedly brought about a great change between human beings and nature, as well as among the members of the human race. Before the scientific revolution, humanity struggled against nature; but with technology, it is possible to try to conquer nature. Now, human beings can transform natural resources at will.2

This idea of taking from nature, or what I will call mechanistic thinking, is the basic concept of the technological period. Such mechanistic thinking perceives reality as atomistic and distinctive.3 From the perspective of mechanistic thinking nature is a distinctively separate entity that can be controlled or manipulated. This misconception about the reality of nature has led us to ecological crisis--natural resources not only are being depleted but contaminated and destroyed forever.

In the current generation, there is a growing awareness of the need for a new morality, a new awareness, or a new form of thinking to replace the technological morality that has driven humanity to the brink of ecological crisis. Many suggestions for this new turn have come from both secular and religious perspectives. This new morality emphasizes both a new concept of humanity's relationship with nature and the application of modern technology itself to the task of the preservation of the ecosystems and the biosphere--instead of totally rejecting technology.4

There has been much discussion about humanity's relationship with nature from the Buddhist perspective. Nature in the Buddhist tradition is considered both positive and negative. Various forms of nature, including plants, represent the truth of impermanence, and thus they are considered "a master or demonstrator of the way."5 Thus, nature is considered good and positive since it reveals a norm for human conduct. However, nature is also considered negative. When one reads the early teachings of the Buddha--all mundane existence is dukkha(impermanent or unsatisfactory), one might feel that this teaching represents an inescapable negative judgment on the reality of nature. Since Buddhism considers all mundane existence, including nature, as ultimately unsatisfactory because it is marked by pain and death, Buddhists may appear to have little motivation for the conservation of nature.6

However, when Buddhist scholars reflect upon the term "Buddha nature" in relation to environmental ethics, one discovers a counterpoint to early Indian Buddhism's negative evaluation of nature. Chinese Buddhism, for example, taught that all things have the same root and are of one body.7 All things, that is to say, are considered the manifestation of Buddha, having the same root of Buddhahood and one body of Buddha. Understood in this way, Buddha nature is present in all things.

Nature in particular is considered one with Buddhahood. Natural phenomena represent Buddhahood. For example, "the babbling of the valley stream" is "the very eloquence of the Buddha."8 Since all nature is possessed of Buddhahood, it is deserving of respectful treatment. The Buddhist understanding of nature is very different from a mechanistic view of nature. According to scientific mechanism, nature is mere physical matter, and the earth is only dead matter. From this mechanistic perspective, the value of nature and living beings is considered purely instrumental to human purposes, and nature is the object of control and manipulation for human desires and designs. This kind of scientific view has driven humanity close to ecological disaster.

However, the Buddhist understanding of nature seems to suggest different ways to treat nature compared to the mechanistic way. The Buddhist idea of the presence of Buddha nature, indeed, moves us toward a sort of biocentric ethics. Biocentric ethics holds that since all living beings have moral standing--inherent good and worth--humans have duties toward them.9 Buddhism, likewise, teaches that since all nature is possessed of Buddhahood, human beings ought to treat nature with respect.

Although such a notion of Buddha nature is indeed a positive contribution toward an environmental ethics, there are problems in such a use of this traditional Buddhist teaching as a guide to ecological conduct. These problems have been described as follows:

If Buddha-nature, being identical with the true essence of all entities, pervades everything, it follows that not only natural beings but also products of civilization possesses Buddha-nature, and not only walls and tiles, even cars, highways, dumping places, toxic waste, nuclear bombs, etc10

If this is so, then the teaching of Buddha-nature might lose its significant potential to motivate practical action toward environmental protection. One response suggested limited usage of the term “Buddha nature,” arguing that

The presence of Buddha nature or at least its full or essentially unspoiled presence, is somehow limited to natural thing and beings, or at least not admitted for destructive or pollutive elements of civilization.11

Here, Sot'aesan's interpretation of the teaching of Buddha nature provides a helpful clue. According to Sot'aesan, all things are manifestations of Buddha, from which people receive either punishment or blessing. Thus for Sot'aesan, ethical behavior means to treat each Buddha appropriately in order to receive blessings, not punishment.12 If the manifested Buddha is not only the source for blessings, but also the source for punishment, then when human beings contaminate nature, they receive harm, not blessing, from nature. When human beings create destructive or pollutive elements, they receive harm, not benefit, from their scientific civilization.

One might raise the criticism that Sot’aesan’s distinction between harm and benefit or punishment and blessing is non-Buddhistic when compared with Zen’s non-dualism. Certainly, there are differences between Zen’s concern for non-dualism and Sot’aesan’s concern. Sot’aesan did not ignore the dualistic dimension of mundane life. Instead, he acknowledged the dualistic components of human life and tried to make the correct distinction between dualistic dimensions. Thus, harmful elements need to be differentiated from beneficial elements.

Although all things, including living nature or man-made destructive elements, are manifestation of Buddha, the ways one treats two manifested Buddhas—humanly-devised destructive elements, on the one hand, and living beings, on the other hand--should be very different. To nurture nature is the way to treat living beings for blessing, while to eliminate destructive elements in technology is the way to receive blessing rather than punishment, if their creation is not simply prevented in the first place.

Besides the Buddhist teaching that we should treat all beings as Buddhas--which can be seen to imply an important environmental norm--it is important to examine how Sot'aesan evaluates modern technology and how his understanding of Eun can provide a norm for environmental conduct related to modern technology. Since the mechanistic world view and modern scientific technology, as well as the materially affluent lifestyle of contemporary society, are at the heart of our contemporary ecological crisis, it is important to elaborate Sot'aesan's evaluation of modern technology, which he sees as one of the major causes of this late-modern crisis.

Sot'aesan's attitudes toward modern technology and material civilization are both positive and negative. He often stated that modern technology and material civilization influenced human life and society negatively, since they cause people to ignore spiritual values and emphasize only materialistic ones. However, Sot'aesan did not think that material civilization necessarily must retrogress spiritually and morally in this way. Rather, he saw modern advances in material civilization as providing an incentive for the creation of a highly developed spiritual civilization. When spiritual civilization is threatened by technological development or material civilization, the real progress of the former can be accomplished only with the help of the latter. He would agree with an ecologist who has said, "in spite of the complexity of the development and application of modern technologies, I still think they are the only way to solve the problems of human society."13 Only the integration of both material and spiritual civilization will bring forth a truly developed civilization. A truly civilized world is envisioned in the Scripture of Won Buddhism as follows:

Whereas materialism dominates the contemporary world, a supreme morality will prevail in the coming world, cultivating the human spirit and overcoming the materialism. The material civilization will become useful for elevating morality.14

Since the spiritual cultivation of the contemporary era has not progressed further than previous spirituality or morality--which itself was not challenged by a highly developed material civilization--it is not yet capable of utilizing the material civilization of the contemporary era for positive ends. A new morality or spirituality needs to emerge in order to accommodate modern technology or material civilization; and material civilization must be turned toward the stimulation of a highly spiritual civilization.

Now we turn to Sot'aesan's Eun as it might function as a contribution to a new morality for environmental conduct. As discussed above, Sot'aesan viewed modern technology and material civilization in a twofold relationship to the natural environment, both part of the root of our ecological crisis, and yet as an opportunity to address the need for a new morality which can guide modern technology into a more harmonious relationship with nature.

Sot'aesan's Eun can be considered a creative interpretation of the early Buddhist teaching of "pratityasamupada [causal, dependent origination]."After his awakening, or enlightenment, Gautama Buddha taught the teaching of pratityasamupada, saying that this appears because of that and this disappears because of that and vice versa. The Buddha’s teaching of causal, dependent origination describes the interdependent relationship of existence. Similarly, Sot’aesan described the reality of beings in term of “the Principle of Cause and Effect” based upon his awakening.15 Sot'aesan realized that reality is dependently originated, or mutually interpenetrating, as described in early Buddhism. Since one cannot exist without the existence of the other, each thing in the universe is considered as a source for the existence of the other. Thus, all things in the universe are mutually indebted for their existence. The characteristics of mutually indebtedness is what Sot’aesan describes by the term, Eun. Since things are mutually indebted, one cannot live without the help of others. Thus, Sot'aesan's Eun can be considered a creatively reinterpreted norm for the Buddhist abstract concept of pratityasamupada.

Sot'aesan's teaching of Eun can also be considered a creative interpretation of the later Hua-yen teaching of "shih shih wu-ai [mutual interpenetration among facts]”. Hua-yen Buddhism maintains that things mutually interpenetrate each other without any obstruction among them. The reality of mutual interpenetration is figuristically described by “jewels in the Indra Net.” That is, the Hua-yen teaching seemed to focus more on the holistic dimension of the early Buddhist teaching “pratityasamupada.” What is needed in the Hua-yen’s shih shih wu-ai is an explanation of how individual things are related with holistic characteristics of the universe. What Sot’aesan’s Eun describes individualistic is the dimension of pratityasamupada.

Sot’aesan categorizes existence into Four Graces (or beneficiences), namely the Grace of Nature, the Grace of Parents, the Grace of Brethren, and the Grace of Law. The totality of the universe is composed of the mutual interpenetration of Graces. The Grace of Nature explains how all beings in the universe are indebted to nature’s virtues and benefits, such as heaven, earth, sun, rain, wind, etc. The Grace of Parents explains how all living beings in the universe are indebted to parent’s life-giving and nurture throughout three lives (past, present, future). The Grace of Brethren explains how members of the human race are indebted to fellow human beings through the various fields, such as education, politics agriculture, manufacturing, business, etc. The Grace of Law represents how human races are indebted to the various laws. We are indebted to the grace of sages and saints who guide us through the moral principle. We are also indebted to the grace of civil and judicial law, which keeps justice and order for the nation and society. In this way, each thing in the universe, as a centering point for the universe, is mutually indebted to each other.

Though in traditional Buddhism, those concepts such as "pratityasamupada" and "shih shih wu-ai" can be considered as providing a philosophical basis for an ecomorality or ethical ecological behavior, they did not seem to adequately address the modern need to formulate clear and practical norms for the regulation of human behavior toward nature, other humans, or the material world. The Won Buddhist teaching of Eun, however, acknowledges the modern need and respond to the need in order to make Buddha Dharma applicable for common people in the modern society.

The teaching of Eun helps to make more concrete the norms of relationship among people, between people and nature, and between people and material things. While previous religious teachings focused mainly on morality among people, Sot'aesan was clearly aware of the need for a broader understanding of morality, including both the natural world and material world.

When one clearly realizes that one is indebted to another, this realization can lead humanity to learn to act toward others--humans or nature--with an adequate sense of gratitude, which the theoretical concept of pratityasamupada could not formulate concretely enough. Unlike a mechanistic view of nature as an object taken for human benefit, Sot'aesan's Eun addresses humanity's right conduct toward nature as well as toward other human beings.

Sot’aesan’s Eun can be compared with Confucian morality, where the notion of indebtedness was also an important one, especially that between parents and children. In the Confucian tradition, what children get from their parents--such as care, protection, or education--was taken for granted, just as in contemporary society. Children in turn need to repay to their parents what they owe. However, in Confucian teaching, the notion of indebtedness did not go beyond the relationship between children and parents, even though Confucius, like Jesus, taught a Golden Rule about human relationships among people.16

Although such religious teachings in the past emphasized right behavior among people, right behavior between nature and humanity was not a real concern. However, Sot'aesan's teaching of Eun--which is a radical formulation that includes the relationship between humanity and the natural environment--suggests how human beings should act toward all beings in the universe. For we are indebted, not only to fellow human beings, but also to natural beings and the material products made by humanity. Sot'aesan suggested how to repay each Eun, or beneficence, with concrete expressions of gratitude. To repay the Eun (or indebtedness) of nature, one is asked to give and nurture like nature. To repay the Eun of parents, one must protect and help people in need. To repay the Eun of Brethren, one must respond to fellow humans, animals and plants with mutual benefit. To repay the Eun of law, one must practice the right.17

The teaching of Eun can function as a new way of thinking about the relationship between the human race and nature, a way contribute to a shift from a mechanistic and atomistic to a relational and holistic view of reality. The teaching of Eun can contribute to humanity’s attempts "to espouse the morality of protection and maintenance of nature, to adjust technologies to biospheric processes, to restore the environment that man has disrupted."18 In the present generation human beings need to nurture and protect nature as a repayment for its beneficence to us, model after the way nature nurtures all beings.

Sot'aesan taught mutual co-existence and benefit as the form of our repayment to other living beings. First, Sot'aesan described this phenomena of indebtedness, saying that even animals and plants are beneficial to humans.19 Then, he described how to repay the indebtedness, through such common-sense advice, as "Don't break off plants or kill animals without sufficient reason."20 Since all living beings are mutually indebted to one another, it is a human being's duty to pursue mutual co-existence and benefit in our relationships with other sentient beings.

However, as Alfred North Whitehead once said, "life is robbery."21 We need to accept "the uncomfortable truth that one's own survival is possible only at other being's expense . . ."22 Similarly, Albert Schweitzer--who, as a pioneer thinker in environmental ethics, demonstrated an outspoken "reverence for life"23 in order to live an authentic and moral existence--was clearly aware of the situation in which one has to kill another being. Taylor, a major proponent of biocentric ethics, even assumes that conflict and competition are the natural state of life because every individual pursues its interest.24

How could Sot'aesan's notion of Eun contribute to a contemporary respond to this kind of conflicting situation? Although Sot'aesan described the fundamental structure of all existence as Eun, he also clearly stated how sentient beings in the world respond to each other at the phenomenal level: in mutual accord or mutual conflict. The relationship of mutual conflict is well described in the following story in The Scripture of Won Buddhism:

(After he) heard the scream of a hog shot by a hunter . . . Sot'aesan added, "As I saw the hog killed today, I could imagine what the hog must have done in the past; as I saw the hunter kill the hog, I could imagine what the hunter would face in the future.”25

Since such relationships of mutual conflict continue in a vicious circle, Sot'aesan was very much concerned about how this might be stopped. He taught that you must stop taking revenge precisely when you are in the position of being able to take revenge; in this way we can learn to discontinue the conflicting relationship among people. Sot'aesan also taught that even in one's relationship with animals one needs to be careful in order not to create a conflicting relationship such as was illustrated by the story above. In order not to create conflicting karma with animals,26 for example, Sot'aesan prescribed two precepts: don't kill (animals) and don't eat meat without sufficient reasons.27

Since Sot'aesan did not choose vegetarianism as part of his core teaching, he seemed to accept the minimum range of killing for reasons of survival. However, he clearly realized that one cannot escape creating the karma of killing, at least as group karma, as long as one eats meat. That is why eating meat without sufficient reasons is prohibited as much as killing animals. The implication is that consumer is as responsible for today's excessive or needless killing as is the fisherman, butcher, peasant or industrialist.

Sot'aesan stated that human beings and plants, likewise, are mutually beneficial to one another from the perspective of Eun. Sot'aesan described the cyclical process of mutual benefit as follows:

For example, a human corpse decays underground, making the soil rich. Then the grasses which grow thick around the spot will be made into compost. The compost will grow rich crops, and people eat those crops, which supply blood and flesh as the sources of their energy for actions and life.28

From the perspective of environmental concern, Sot'aesan's Eun, understood as a cyclical process of mutual benefit, suggests the economy of foliage itself:

Every autumn trees shed their foliage, which is gradually absorbed by the soil and is degraded by nutrient-extracting microbes. In the Spring these nutrients are returned to the tree and form fresh foliage.29

This waste-free "foliage economy" or Eun is a cyclical process of mutual benefit that sets a pattern which human beings ought to emulate.

Sot'aesan's Eun is not be understood merely as a theoretical foundation for environmental ethics. Won Buddhism also proposes the practical suggestion of a world common market as an environmentally sound mechanism for the distribution of the Eun of material civilization equally among the peoples of the human race. Such a proposal for a world common market30 was addressed as one of the three proposals31 for world peace by Taesan (1914-), the former Prime Master. Master Taesan's vision of a world common market brings to the level of economic policy the goal of sustainability called for by ecologists "an approach to production based on ecological concerns [that] would enable us to build a rational, well-organized world wide economy."32

The mentality of capitalism, which focuses economics on competition, that is, each nation's short term interest, results in the waste of natural resources without considering the reproductive possibilities of nature, e.g., living lands turning into desert. Won Buddhism favors, instead, that each country--which already participates in a world wide economy either through its needs for natural resources, human power, or high technology--needs to share its profits to the benefit of the whole and over a longer time perspective. In order to prevent the destruction or polution of nature, a world wide economy could encourage the "internationalization of nature,"33 taking seriously the ecological balance. Then, all nations could share the responsibility of preserving natural resources, e.g., tropical forests.

Though Taesan's proposal--let's share the Eun of material civilization equally with all races and eliminate poverty, ignorance, and disease on the earth--sounds too idealistic to accomplish, the destructive consequences of capitalism suggest that the human race does not have any alternative to some form of mutual cooperation. Such a spirit of cooperation should characterize local, small-scale decisions, as well as global ones. For example, in the Won Buddhist Community each spouse of a Won Buddhist priest would participate in a common market differently. Namely, each would participate by contributing financial power or labor, technical skill or the talent for management and administration. Each different way of participation in the common market would seek the common prosperity of a Won Buddhist clerical family. The common market of the Won Buddhist community can in this way function as a model which could show by its survival how cooperation can triumph even in the intensively competitive economical world. Although such proposals for a common market within even the Won Buddhist community are still in the experimental stage, their success would bring the possibility of responsible prosperity to all its participants.34

Likewise, a world common market would also establish "an economy and technology based on ecological factors."35 Then, consumers' excessive material desires and producers' overproduction would be moderated, so that the expenditures would not exceed the reproductive possibilities of nature.36

Despite the interpretive problems when the notion of Buddha Nature is applied to environmental ethics, Sot'aesan's Eun can function productively in the context of our own impending environmental crisis, with Won Buddhism's proposal of world common market promoting economic and environmental cooperation. Sot'aesan's teaching of Eun is a significant suggestion for delivering our endangered humanity from the ravages of the unbridled effects of the scientific revolution and material civilization. Sot'aesan's Eun can provide a theoretical basis, as well as practical guidance, for the construction of an adequate environmental ethics.

11. Won Buddhism, a reformed Buddhism in Korea, began its teaching in 1916. After his awakening in 1916, Sot'aesan, the founder of Won Buddhism, undertook a critical analysis of the Buddhist tradition. Sot'aesan drew a clear line between the traditional Buddhism of the institutionalized Buddhist order and the future Buddhism he planned to establish. Sot'aesan intended to restore the original teaching of Siddharta Gotama, known as the Buddha and to create a reformed Buddhism based on the true spirit of Buddhism. The Buddha's enlightened teaching--pratityasamupada, all beings are dependently originated--was reformulated in Sot'aesan's teaching of Eun--all beings are mutually indebted, and thus benefit each other.

22. Rolf Edbery and Alexei Yablokov, Tomorrow will be too late. Trans. Sergei Chulaki. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991), p. 175.

33. Jay B. McDaniel, Earth, Sky, Gods & Mortals (Mystic, Conn: Twenty-third Publishing Co., 1990), p. 24.

Ecological thinking was elaborated as relational in comparison with mechanistic thinking as atomistic--which has a deterministic world view, a devitalized world view, a utilitarian world view, and dualistic world view.

44. Tomorrow will be too late, p.60.

55.Lambert Schmithausen, "Buddhism and Nature," Proceedings of an International Symposium "Buddhism and Nature," (Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991), p.31.

66. Ibid., p. 28.

77. Ibid., p. 43.

88. Ibid., p. 43.

99. Joseph R. Desjardins, Environmental Ethics (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1992), p. 150.

1010. Buddhism and Nature, p. 33.

1111. Ibid., p. 33.

1212. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, tran. Pal-khn Chon (Iksan, Korea: Won Buddhism Publishing Co., 1988), p. 65-66.

1313. Tomorrow will be too late, p. 60.

1414. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, pp. 379-380.

115. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, p. 81. Sot’aesan said “All beings are of one Reality and all things and principles originate from one source, where the Truth of No Birth and No Death and the Principle of Cause and Effect operate as a perfect organ on an interrelated basis.”

116. Refer to Confucian Analects, tr. by James Legge (New York: Dover Publishing Inc., 1971), p. 234.

The following episode in the Analects shows that Confucius has more concern about the human race than about animals:

The stable being burned down, when he was at court, on his return he said, "Has any man been hurt?" He did not ask about the horses.

117. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, pp. 8-20.

118. Tomorrow will be too late, p. 175.

119. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, p. 26.

220. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, p. 37.

221. Earth, Sky, Gods & Mortals, p. 28.

222. Buddhism and Nature, p. 34.

223. Environmental Ethics, p. 150.

24. Ibid., p. 160.

225. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, p. 214.

226. If sentience in plants is considered, even vegetarianism is problematic. That is, the question of creating conflicting karma with plants as well as with animals arises.

227. The Scripture of Won Buddhism, pp. 66-67.

228. Ibid., p. 286.

229. Tomorrow will be too late, p. 61.

330. Taesan's proposal for a world common market seems to agree with Thomas Berry's elaboration of economics as a religious issue. Berry, in his book, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), talks about a special concern and responsibilities as follows:

. . . special concern that the well-being of the society be shared by all, especially that basic life necessities be available to the less privileged . . . our social and political responsibilities to ensure that the weak and less gifted are not exploited by the strong and the competent

331. Taesan's the three proposals for world peace are

1. The moral discipline for cultivating our mind

Let us all cultivate and train our forgotten Mind-Field so the Sun of Truth will arise establishing new nations and a new world characterized by peoples who use their minds broadly, brightly, and compassionately.

2. The opening of a World Common Market

Let us all open a new road to take us beyond the boundaries of nations and ideologies to a place where we can all coexist and co-prosper rather than compete and fight.

3. The establishment of United Religions (U.R.)

Let all religious people unite and cooperate to establish a United Religions on par with the United Nations with the mission to eliminate poverty, disease and ignorance.

332. Ibid., p. 60.

333. Ibid., p. 189.

334. Won Buddhist Newsletter, Vol. 2 No. 1, p. 5.

335. Tomorrow will be too late, p. 61.

336. Ibid., p. 59.

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