Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra
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Translated by Tripitaka Master Hsuan Tsang of the Tang Dynasty
with Commentary by Grand Master T'an Hsu
Of the seven known translations of The Heart Sutra, the one by the Tripitaka Master Hsuan Tsang (600-664 C.E.) is the most popular. Tripitaka is a Sanskrit term designating the whole Buddhist canon, which consists of three sections: 1) the Sutras, which are the original texts of the Buddhadharma; 2) the Vinaya, or rules of discipline; and 3) the Sastras, or commentaries, related to theory and practice, as well as to the teachings in relation to non-Buddhist argument. Dharma Master Hsuan Tsang understood the Tripitaka thoroughly, and, therefore, thetitle of Tripitaka Master was bestowed upon him. He did not study canonical texts primarily for personal satisfaction; his purpose was to make them available to others, and he acted in compliance with a direct order from the emperor. Dharma Master Hsuan Tsang was a very famous sage in the T’ang Dynasty. The description of the arduous way by which he obtained the scriptures is known to every family and household, and there is no need to delve into it at this time.
The Prajna literature is very extensive; it covers approximately twenty years of the Buddha’s teaching career. The seven translations of the Sutra display minor differences, but the essential meaning was respected in each case. There is no major difference among them. According to Tripitaka Master Kumarajiva’s translation, this Sutra was spoken by the Buddha. Every translation of The Heart Sutra includes a commentary which consist of three parts: 1) The reason for the Sutra; 2) the method used to convey the meaning; 3) the Sutra’s history. The Heart Sutra was composed of excerpts from the Mahaprajna Paramita texts, and simple words were carefully employed to convey profound meanings. Although the Chinese version contains only two hundred sixty single characters, it nevertheless, embodies the entire Prajna literature in all its depth and subtlety. As to the reason for this Sutra, we only need to look at the method used to put the text together to realize that the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was chosen as a model for the rest of us and that the Sutra was spoken by the Buddha. To understand it thoroughly is to understand all of the Prajna literature. We are not going to address the Sutra’s history at this time.
When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
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The opening words introduce the one practicing Dharma. The Prajna teachings were spoken by the Buddha during the fourth stage, his purpose being to guide those practicing what later became the approach of the Theravadins toward the practice of Mahayana Dharma. Whoever practices according to the Lesser Vehicle practices virtuous conduct and Dharma primarily to benefit oneself. The Mahayana practice, on the other hand, is aimed to benefit both oneself and others. To liberate all sentient beings implies concern for the well-being of all people. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was chosen to demonstrate to the persons of the Lesser Vehicle mentality the full dimension of the Mahayana doctrines. The name Avalokitesvara lends itself to several interpretations. The Chinese translation--i.e., Guan Zi Zai,--means the attainment of the Bodhisattva stage and the causal-ground for practicing Dharma.
Why did we, the Chinese, choose to call the Bodhisattva Guan Zi Zai? Because he attained the fruition of the path. Visualizing and contemplating the name, we come to understand its meaning. Guan means to observe and to illuminate. The one who practices the Bodhisattva path not only illuminates his or her own mind but the world as well; and practicing in this manner, one can be sure of obtaining liberation. That is what Guan Zi Zai means.
What is the meaning of Zi Zai? The one who is able to halt the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions of the passions and delusions can be called Zi Zai. To observe one’s own self is to discover body and mind bound by the five skandhas and the six organs with their corresponding six kinds of data; we are not free and, therefore, not Zi Zai.
The name Avalokitesvara comes from the ground causes of the Bodhisattva’s Dharma practice while on an island, perceiving the sounds of the world, rooted in time as they are, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the ocean. From the sound of the tide rising and falling, the Bodhisattva attained Enlightenment, perfectly and completely comprehending the Dharma of birth and non-birth.
Someone asked how and why the Bodhisattva attained the Tao and became enlightened by observing the ebb tide? The Bodhisattva, while practicing by the sea, contemplated the sound as it increased, decreased and then came to a full stop, occurring simultaneously with the ebb tide. He pondered the root of all causes and finally attained Enlightenment by understanding that all existence is subject to birth and death and, therefore, is impermanent. However, the hearing itself is timeless; hence, it is beyond birth and death. Those without practice can hear, but they do not listen. While hearing the sounds, they only think of the outside; however, although the sound of tide has birth and death, the nature of hearing does not. And why not? Because even when the sound of tide stops, our capacity for, or nature of, hearing does not. We can still hear the wind in the branches of a tree, the songs of birds and the shrill sound of the cicadas. Had our capacity for hearing vanished with the sound, we should not be able to hear ever again. Even when all is quiet late at night, we are aware of silence, or non-sound, because of our capacity for hearing. In reality, there are two kinds of hearing: One comes and goes in response to stimulation; the other functions independently of it. Thus, we can safely say that although sounds have birth and death, the hearing capacity does not. It actually never vanishes. All existence, including dharmas, is impermanent and, therefore, subject to birth and death—just like magic, like bubbles or like shadows. The nature of hearing, on the other hand, can never be destroyed.
In this manner, we come to know the bright and accomplished nature of hearing. Our mind accords with whatever we observe: If we observe birth and death, there is birth and death; and if we observe non-birth and non-death, there is no birth and no death. All things are produced by the mind; they are completed through contemplation. Everyone has a mind and, consequently, a potential to formulate the world according to his or her own intentions, but without effort one will not succeed. Nature is the substance; mind, the function. The function never separates from substance, nor the substance from the function. Function and substance, though separate, are causally connected. Nature governs the mind, and the mind is nature’s function; they mesh. Although both retain their own character, they are inseparable. Dharma practice can start right at this point. One needs only to understand one’s mind, see one’s True Nature, and, following that, attain the Tao.
The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practice makes one listen to and be mindful of one’s own nature and, by means of listening, attain the wonderful function. Listening to one’s own nature has no boundaries, and it can accommodate all sentient beings while saving them. We worldlings only react to or become concerned about what we construe to be external, or outside, sound. Negligent of our True Nature, we hardly ever try to listen to it, and our hearing is partial as a result of it. However, when we listen to our own nature, our listening is not delimited by time. Perceiving one’s nature thus, one’s listening is complete and continual; and one’s joy and happiness are permanent.
When phonetically transliterated into Chinese, the Sanskrit word Bodhisattva produces two characters: Pu Sa or Bo Sa. Bodhi (Pu or Bo in Chinese) means the perfect knowledge or wisdom by which a person becomes a Buddha. Sattva (Sa To in Chinese) stands for an enlightened and enlightening being, which is to say that a person has already enlightened his or her own nature by freeing himself or herself from birth and death and helps other sentient beings to do likewise. Worldlings, however, hold on to feelings and disregard or oppose the Doctrine. Confusion and frustration take them through the samsaric suffering of the cycle of existence. To perceive one’s Self-Nature by listening is the Bodhisattva’s way out of the round of birth-and-death.
The first line of the Sutra, then, informs us that Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is the appointed practice leader of the Prajna Assembly. He is going to teach us how to follow his Dharma practice and establish the mindfulness of listening to our Self Nature.
Was Coursing in the deep Prajna Paramita,
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This line specifies the Dharma of the Bodhisattva practice. Coursing and deep relate to its quality. At one time, one thousand two hundred fifty-five bhiksus attained the four fruits of the Arhat; they practiced the Dharma of the Lesser Vehicle, which leads to the end of their birth-and-death allotment. What is the birth-and-death allotment? It means that every sentient being’s body is merely a portion, or a part; whether short, long, or of middle length, the life of a sentient being must end. One round of birth and death is referred to as an allotment. Whoever practices the Dharma of the Lesser Vehicle will have the conversion into birth and death even after he or she has come to the end of the individual allotment of birth and death. What is the conversion into birth and death? Our distorted thought is at the root of our failure to escape from the cycle of birth and death. One of the recognized features of thought is to vibrate, quiver and to move on; and the pattern and its movement normally neither change nor become suspended as long as there is consciousness. Every thought has its beginning, its duration and its end. Due to feeling, conception, volition and consciousness, every thought has its conversion into birth and death. The activity is never suspended, and, thus, the conversion into birth and death takes place, generated by feeling, conception, volition and consciousness. Every rise and fall of delusive thought marks this conversion into birth and death. If our Dharma practice does not take us back to truth, we are not going be able to end the conversion into birth and death; and that would hinder us from discerning the Buddha’s point of view. To practice Dharma correctly, one should endeavor to liberate one’s thought from delusion; the attainment and practice of truth are the means to the attainment of Prajna. Without these, how can we say we are coursing in the deep Prajna Paramita? To end the samsaric cycle but not the conversion of thoughts into birth and death is a wisdom that is shallow. The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara attained Truth, thereby bringing the two kinds of birth and death to a complete halt. This, then, is the real, deep Prajna, the awe-inspiring Wisdom: It is and has to be beyond discriminating knowledge, since discrimination is one of the manifestations of duality, or birth and death. Paramita is a Sanskrit term meaning virtue perfected to the level of transcendence. In the context of Buddhist practice, it means to traverse the sea of Samsara, or the sea of birth and death, and reach Nirvana. The words “was coursing in the deep Prajna Paramita” attest to the Bodhisattva practice of all three kinds of wisdom—i.e., listening, thinking and practice; thus, he attained the Radiant Wisdom, or the Ultimate. This clause, then, offers a description of correct Dharma practice, and its purpose is to provide guidance for the Assembly, including those who have attained partial understanding and insight.
He perceived that all five skandhas are empty.
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During his practice of contemplation and illumination, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara attained the truth. By means of his minutely subtle Dharma practice, he penetrated the five skandhas, perceiving them as empty. The five skandhas—namely, form, feeling, conception, volition and consciousness—continually provide five occasions for craving and clinging. Two types of craving and clinging characterize the human mind: craving and clinging to form and craving and clinging to mind. Clinging to form is the domain of the form skandha. The remaining four skandhas constitute the domain of the mind, and the clinging to mind is generated in those four realms. All our grasping, manifested in our attachments and aversions, is generated and developed due to the activity of these four skandhas. Craving and clinging emerge at birth, and the Buddhadharma aims to sever them. The initial clinging is ego bound. Ego is the anchor of our volition to grasp and to possess, the root of our attachments and aversions and, via these, the very root of our suffering. Clinging to the body as the true self begins to manifest in early childhood. Normally, the six organs produce the six types of data, six kinds of consciousness and the four mind skandhas along with them; jointly these constitute the delusory ego. Craving and clinging are spontaneous at birth, for, at that time, the ego arises simultaneously with the form skandha. The rest of our existence is built up by our countless ego-affi rming acts involving all the skandhas, but most prominently the skandha of feeling; its domain contains pleasant, unpleasant, neutral or indifferent types of feelings. The body depends on the mind to be provided with pleasant occasions and to be protected from discomfort. There must be thinking—i.e., conception—followed by action, and action means volition. They, in turn, require established bases of knowledge, and that is the role of the consciousness skandha. Children are sent to school to learn and to acquire knowledge that prepares them for the future. When there is sufficient knowledge, there is action, which is invariably preceded by some kind of thinking such as planning, imagining, remembering, etc. The body then receives the support it needs. Thereupon, ego-grasping begins, and confusion is generated by the five skandhas as the ego-notion imposes itself on the process of experience.
Once it has become clear beyond any doubt that this present body is not really the self--that one can merely say mine or my body--all delusion regarding the five skandhas is then broken off, and ignorance along with it. What a pity that worldlings get so deeply confused and completely fail to understand this brilliant doctrine! Grasping the skandhas and the ego-notion, they twist the data to fit their own picture of how reality should be. Actually, however, the body is not the self. Rather, it is like a house that I might call mine all right, but to consider it to be myself would be a ridiculous error. In the same way, I can’t correctly say, “This body is myself;” but I can accurately say, “This body is mine.”
What, then, is the Real Self? Our Original Nature is our Real Self. It depends on the body only temporarily; and the body is no different from a house. A house is completed and then gradually deteriorates; similarly, the body has birth and death and the period between them. Our True Nature (Real Self), on the other hand, has neither birth nor death. It is enduring and unchanging. The teaching of Real Self and of illusory ego is basic to all Buddhadharma. When it is understood, clinging is easily broken off.
The teaching related to the five skandhas is referred to as the Dharma of Assemblage. Skandha is a Sanskrit term used by the Buddha in reference to the five components of the so-called human entity. A skandha is a constituent of personality; and it also means accumulation in the sense that we constantly accumulate good and bad in our minds. The Dharma of the Five Skandhas is comparable to five kinds of material, or elements. The mountains, the rivers and the entire universe, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the three periods, even the six realms of existence and the Four Worthies—all are produced solely by the five skandhas.
Who are the Four Worthies? They are as follows: 1) the Arhat of Theravada, 2) the Pratyekabuddha of the Middle Vehicle, 3) the Bodhisattva of Mahayana, and 4) the Buddha, the ultimate fruit of the Path. What are the six realms of existence? Three are good and three are evil. Devas, human beings, and asuras inhabit the three good realms; animals, hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers belong to the three evil realms. It does not make any difference—mundane or supramundane—they are all produced and completed by the five skandhas. However, by taking the right path (the ultimate Path), one may become an Arhat, a Pratyekabuddha, a Bodhisattva or a Buddha.
A good action can be good in three different ways; likewise, an evil action can be evil in three ways. Worldlings, confused because not knowing or knowing wrongly, get carried away and lose control over their actions; then evil in the world increases, giving rise to the five turbidities. There is the turbidity of a kalpa in decay, the turbidity of view, the turbidity of the passions, the turbidity of living beings and the turbidity of life (the result of the turbidity of living beings). Turbidity means turmoil. The turmoil of a kalpa in decay is the product of the form skandha, whereby sentient beings in the Saha World grasp form or material (the body) and misconstrue this as the True Self, not realizing that all dharmas are produced by the mind and give rise to the skandha of feeling. The egocentric bias goes hand in hand with the craving for gratification of the senses or the body, and the result is the turbidity of view. The turbidity of the passions is generated by the feeling skandha. Seeking gratification of the senses brings greed in its wake, manifesting as the desire for wealth and personal gain and the subsequent strife that accompanies it. Sooner or later, sound ethics are abandoned, and the volition to grasp and to possess is given free rein. At this point, worldlings become totally engulfed in self-delusion, generating an unspeakable number of defilements.
The turbidity of the passions comprises family defilements, societal defilements, national defilements and world defilements. Also, while they are alive, human beings are the victims of turbidity in the realm of volition because the egocentric bias engenders the cyclic pattern of existence, perpetuating itself until the end of time. However, time is moving on, and no matter how much of it we might have, we shall die in the end.
The confusion of worldlings regarding the Real Self, or True Self, is the turbidity of living beings. This turbidity of life is caused by the consciousness skandha. The turbidity of living beings will eventually produce a decrease in the life span as well as the size of each individual body. The Agamas speak of a certain stage in the history of mankind when the life span was eighty-four thousand years and the average individual’s height was one hundred sixty feet. However, there came about a gradual decrease in both the life span and the height. Presently, to live seventy or eighty years is considered long life, and the average height of people is five to six feet. Somewhere in the very distant future, claims the ancient text, the life span of human beings will last ten years, and the average height will be close to three feet. That will be the time of upheavals and disasters of all kinds.
Actions considered sound today may be viewed as unskillful, even unethical, tomorrow as a result of the ego inserting itself into the field of perception. Countless defilements develop when skillful or beneficial actions are re-evaluated and come to be viewed as lacking in expediency and when the Buddhadharma is dismissed as irrelevant. Confusion resulting from ignorance is conducive to a lifestyle that has a detrimental effect on both the life span and the condition of the body. Turbidity first corrupts, then, sooner or later, takes over. Thus, worldlings need to generate compassion for this declining world, resolve to uphold at least the basic code of ethics and, perhaps, to study the Buddhadharma; furthermore, they should refrain from taking the life of any living being and be mindful of their actions, which should be skillful and cause no harm to others. If that is accomplished, there may still be time to save this world. To say it in a few words, the five turbidities are completely within the realm of the five skandhas. The skandhas combined constitute the basis of all dharmas, of all sentient beings in the ten directions, and of all worlds in all universes. The skandhas are, furthermore, the substance of the incandescent True Existence and, at the same time, the transcendental Void, or Emptiness. (The relation of True Existence to transcendental Emptiness will be discussed later). Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, relying on his luminous wisdom, “perceived that all five skandhas are empty.” In other words, the Bodhisattva deeply practiced the Prajna Paramita—i.e., the root of Ultimate Reality—and attained the supreme Tao, realizing that the skandhas are empty of self. To arrive at that stage is Enlightenment, the state completely clear of any turbidity whatsoever. From then on, all dharmas are understood as being identical with one’s True Nature. When that level is attained, the mind comprehends the universe as the Self and the Self as the universe. The grand view is boundless!
In short, Voidness, or Emptiness, means the absence of duality, the end of accepting and rejecting. There are five categories of voidness: the obstinate void; the annihilation void; the void of analysis; the void of global comprehension; the Void of True Supramundane Existence. What is the obstinate void? It is just clinging to the space in front of us. What is the annihilation void? It is the kind grasped by those on the heterodox, or outer, path. It embraces the views that historically abounded in India as well as those assorted philosophical positions, based on cognitive patterns, which neglect the Buddhist axiom stating that all is generated by the mind. Such beliefs claim, in effect, that there is existence beyond one’s cognitive realm and that is where the dharmas are. Heading full speed into large scale confusion, the supporters of such views erroneously choose to grasp that void, positing it as the prevalent characteristic of existence.
The remaining three kinds of voidness are introspectively oriented Buddhadharma and constitute the Dharma of Voidness, or Emptiness, as the True Nature of the mind, in contrast with the teaching of the Lesser Vehicle, that focuses on the form skandha. The supramundane path of the Lesser Vehicle (Theravada) and that of sravakas and Bodhisattvas of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) are rooted in the aforementioned last three kinds of voidness. They are neither the obstinate void of worldlings nor the annihilating voidness of the outer, or heterodox, path. The concept, or doctrine, of voidness is sometimes called either the nature of voidness or the theory of nature. The meaning is the same.
Now I shall discuss the four subdivisions of the Buddhadharma according to T’ien T’ai and the three kinds of voidness relevant to Buddhadharma as they are understood and applied in each of the four subdivisions, to wit: 1) Tsang Jiao (Theravada teachings based on the Tripitaka); 2) Tung Jiao (Theravada and Mahayana interrelated); 3) Bie Jiao (particular or distinctive Mahayana, characterized as the Bodhisattva path); 4) Yuan Jiao (original, or complete, Mahayana).
The mundane path of Theravada does not accommodate the radiant Truth at its fullest, although in some cases a Mahayana teaching may be perceived as Theravadin by a practitioner of the Lesser Vehicle. The mundane path is grounded in the minute analysis of form dharma (rupa) and mind dharma (nama) and how their interaction contributes to the illusion of a separate ego. The term dharma may be interpreted as meaning things, methods, formulas or standards; form is distinguished through shape and color, mind through its function of knowing. Our body is composed of four elements--i.e., earth, water, fire and air--which, respectively, have the character of solidity, viscosity, temperature and vibration.
The body is merely a mass of matter that does not possess the faculty of knowing an object; also, matter changes under physical conditions, and because of this feature it is called form. The element of earth is like the body, complete with skin, flesh, tendons and bones, which all have weight as well as softness and hardness. The element of water includes all bodily liquids as well as all that relates to fluidity and viscosity. The element of fire covers temperature in terms of heat in varying degrees of intensity from the highest down to the absence of heat. The element of air manifests as vibration in terms of movement. The body also manifests the three characteristics of existence--i.e., impermanence, unsatisfactory conditions and the absence of selfhood. Illness and death are caused by an imbalance of the elements or their scarcity or absence according to the Theravada teaching. Birth and death are the natural results of the body’s being compounded from these four elements.
What is mind? Mind is knowing without form. What is form? Form is shape without the capacity of knowing. Uninstructed worldlings view the physical body (form), actually a collection of elements, as the self or ego and, therefore, cannot leave the ocean of birth and death. Deeply confused about truth, they feel oppressed because of wrong views. The only correct way to put it is to say, “This body is just my body; the mind is my real self.” The knowing consciousness is the master; the body is only a slave. Let us consider, for example, someone who, though interested in attending this lecture, initially did not want to make the effort because of feeling tired. Then the following thought arose: “Hearing the commentary on that sutra will increase my wisdom and reduce my defilement; I must go and listen to the Dharma.” Having persuaded oneself, he or she got on the bus and came here to hear this Dharma. Where did the initiative originate? Clearly, it originated in the mind. Again, the mind is the master, and the body is the slave.
Unfortunately, a person of mundane concerns is very confused, mistaking the slave for the master, and, consequently, there is birth and death. To perceive the brilliant Dharma is to enlighten the mind to itself, and originally the mind has neither birth nor death. Although the body dies and vanishes, the mind is imperishable and indestructible: Understanding this experientially marks the end of the cyclic pattern of existence, the exit from the ocean of suffering.
Mind is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing. The six natures, or capacities, of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing are the nature of the mind. The Buddha spoke Dharma on numberless occasions for forty-nine years. All of his teachings were expedient means, and all his explanations and discourses were delivered for the purpose of helping sentient beings to be freed from attachment and delusion and to return to the Truth. He dealt predominantly with two dharmas: form and mind. According to the teaching later formulated as the Lesser Vehicle, form and mind are two. The practitioner should know the mind while not abandoning the form (body). Where does the mind dwell? According to physiology, the heart is also the mind’s organ, but efforts to prove it have been inconclusive so far.
According to some religions, the mind resides in the brain; however, all attempts to find adequate proof to support such a theory have proved, again, negative. Whenever people have tried to fi nd the very source in order to pinpoint the exact site where the mind is, the results were nil in each and every case. Since mind is neither form nor name, in the context of Buddhadharma it is expediently termed Emptiness, or Voidness (Sunyata in Sanskrit).
On a particular day, represented for us by the eighth of December, while he was absorbed in deep samadhi, Sakyamuni attained complete Enlightenment. Noticing the bright morning star in the eastern sky, he observed that the nature of seeing can be a kind of connecting. He realized that his own nature of seeing was boundless, and his first statement following his enlightenment was as follows: “Wonderful, wonderful! All sentient beings have the same wisdom and virtue as the Tathagata; but because of the obstacles of illusion and grasping, they cannot attain.”
The expression sentient beings means produced by and composed of many, not being just a separate one. The human body, for example, appears to be of one piece, yet it is composed of many concealed parts, such as the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs, the pores, and even some parasites. This means that a person, seemingly an individual entity, is also composed of many sentient beings. To reiterate, the Buddha’s view was that all sentient beings have the same virtue and the same wisdom as the Tathagata—the pure, luminous virtue of the Dharmadhatu. However, sentient beings are confused, do not return to their Original Nature and do not purify themselves to attain the Dharmakaya; and, therefore, they are called sentient beings to designate their difference from the Buddhas.
Sakyamuni, glimpsing a star in the endless reaches of the eastern sky, realized the infinite nature of Mind and achieved Enlightenment instantaneously; and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced the three kinds of wisdom of the instructed ones, meditated on sound and attained the stage of Bodhi. When all conditions are generated by one’s own mind, that is the Original Mind. The ordinary person of mundane concerns looks at an object and considers that seeing, and from that moment on adheres to the view that a table is a table, a person is a person; taking the object as the evidence of seeing, he or she fails to realize its subject. This view prevents one from being able to abandon both subject and object (dualism); so how can one ever understand or experience original seeing? One twists the process of experience to fi t his or her own concept of reality, intensifying the delusion. To perceive one’s Original Nature as shapeless and formless is to perceive the true Void. People’s potentials are dissimilar. Whoever can understand his or her Original Nature is clear-eyed, while anyone who focuses on the object of seeing and grasps its form is caught in turbidity.
Practitioners of the method promulgated by the Lesser Vehicle perceive mind as mind, form as form, and conceive of them as distinct and different. This method focuses on observing the observer. The connection with one’s own nature is apparently not taken into consideration. This method asserts the following: Seeing is the nature of the eye organ; hearing is the nature of the ear organ; smelling is the nature of the nose organ; tasting is the nature of the tongue organ; touching is the nature of the body; and knowing is the nature of the mind. If the practice is based on this point of view, only partial Void can be attained, but it can also be termed enlightenment according to Buddhist understanding. Furthermore, followers of Theravada hold that clothing, nourishment and lodging are deemed to result from conditioning causes and, thus, are not the concern of full-time practitioners, who supposedly have surpassed worldlings and, therefore, are viewed as holy by the devotees sharing this tradition.
The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara attained Enlightenment by perceiving his Original Nature; that is, he abandoned the duality inherent in subject and object, whereupon he attained the Middle Way perfectly and completely. Such is the pure, radiant Dharmakaya, which is quite different from the accomplishments in the tradition of the Lesser Vehicle. At one point in history, one thousand two hundred fifty-five disciples of the Buddha became Arhats. Nonetheless, their attainment was not exhaustive regarding the Ultimate Truth, but merely the end of the birth-and-death allotment. The study and practice of the Bodhisattva path was their opportunity for expanding their practice by following the example of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
Comprehension of the immaterial substance of Reality marks the intermediate level of the Bodhisattva’s career, and it is sometimes referred to as the first gate of Mahayana and of the Middle Vehicle. It is considered to be a higher doctrinal accomplishment than that of the Lesser Vehicle. At the intermediate level, the void of the five skandhas is attained and, accordingly, obstinate view is abandoned.
Thus, the immaterial substance of Reality is perceived, but perception of the five skandhas as the superb existence is still lacking. Also, we should note, it is not actually necessary to abandon the body after the attainment of the Void. Everyone has form (body) and knowing; having attained the Void does not mean one has to endeavor to abandon the body. Voidness means simply the absence of grasping.
True Existence is Emptiness not of this world. The complete, perfect meaning of True Existence is the Supramundane Void; containing neither partial existence nor partial void, it is the Middle Way, also known as the Ultimate Reality. In short, a mind that does not discriminate by means of craving and clinging is the mind that understands the meaning of not of this world; though non-existent, it is the True Existence. There is no void, yet it is the supramundane, recondite Emptiness. The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, in his great wisdom, does not allow his mind to discriminate: Seeing is seeing, hearing is hearing, smelling is smelling, tasting is tasting, knowing is knowing, understanding is understanding; the six organs do not dwell on the six types of data. Enlightened by means of perceiving the sound of the tide, he comprehended the nature of hearing as non-abiding; and mind freed of grasping attains the wonderful Dharma of the Inconceivable. This, then, is the True Existence of the Supramundane Void.
Thus he overcame all ills and suffering.
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He perceived that all five skandhas are void, thereby transcending all suffering. Of suffering, there are two kinds: the suffering of the birth-and-death allotment; the suffering of the birth-and-death realm’s mortal changes. All ills and defilements mean suffering. According to the usual interpretation of the teachings, when it is fully understood that all five skandhas are empty, then the five fundamental conditions creating passion and delusion are severed, and two kinds of birth and death are finished. What are the five fundamental conditions creating passion and delusion? They are as follows: 1) wrong view, which is very common in the Triloka (Three Realms); 2) clinging, or attachment, in the realm of desire; 3) clinging, or attachment, in the realm of form; 4) clinging, or attachment, in the formless realm; 5) the state of non-enlightenment, or ignorance, in the Triloka, held to be the source of all the distress-generating delusions. The five fundamental conditions creating passion and delusion depend on the five skandhas for their existence, and when the skandhas are found to be empty, the five fundamental conditions characterizing passion and delusion vanish. Everyone is equipped with the five skandhas, but those uninstructed in Buddhadharma cannot eradicate the five fundamental conditions giving rise to passion and delusion because they are unaware that they are originated by and dwell in the mind. Such being the case, sentient beings have no other choice but to endure suffering in the present and turn endlessly in the cyclic pattern of existence until they recognize the cause of their suffering and enter the path to Enlightenment.
What are the wrong views common in the Triloka that give rise to defilement? To see the object, to be confused by the object, and to give rise to greed as the result of that confusion are the root of defilement. Let us suppose that someone meets a wealthy, influential, high-ranking official and thereafter becomes consumed with envy, greed and jealousy. However, being useless, these emotions do not help one attain what one wants. Greed becomes entrenched in the mind and, as such, is very difficult to extirpate. Defilements of this kind are quite common. However, we should understand that those unexpectedly promoted or becoming prosperous, those finding themselves in humble circumstances or destitute, those who enjoy a long life or those who die young, and even the smart or the dull ones are all in that situation due to the law of cause and effect. Good causes in previous lives will produce good effects in the present. Good causes in the present will produce favorable effects in the future. The law of cause and effect is all-pervasive, excluding nothing and no one. The practice of this Dharma and the understanding of obstinate void sever eighty-eight wrong views in the Three Realms (Triloka) and lead to the attainment of the fruit of the first stage—i.e., Stream-enterer.
What is meant by attachment in the Realm of Desire? To recognize greed as objectionable and to relinquish it is expedient and noble: Not to see the object, not to give rise to clinging and not to be moved by outside things leads to the Great Liberation. Poverty, wealth, success and failure can all be endured. The next rebirth will be in the heavenly realm of desire; and when one’s blessings run out in that realm, one will be reborn as a human being. That cycle will be repeated four times, and then the fruit of the second stage will be attained, that of Once-returner. One more rebirth is required to attain the fruit of the third stage, that of Non-returner, which means the end of all delusion in the realm of desire. With the cessation of all desire at all the levels in all Three Realms, the fourth stage and its fruit are attained, that of the Arhat, or Saint. In the Realm of Desire, six planes of existence are generated by worldlings giving in to the attractions of the senses.
What is meant by attachment in the Realm of Form? Those who have freed themselves from wrong views and clinging but still hold on to the analysis of the theory of Voidness will be reborn in the Realm of Form, which consists of the four meditation (dhyana) heavens, which are further subdivided into eighteen heavens according to the depth of absorption. Each dhyana dissolves nine kinds of illusory thought, which means that thirty-six illusory thoughts are brought to a halt by the four dhyanas. If the one reborn in the Realm of Form still has a form-body, it would not be that of a woman: Those reborn in that realm have the form-body of a man. It is also called the Brahma-sphere because the beings there have renounced sense desires and delight only in meditation and dhyanic bliss. For this reason we speak of attachment in the Realm of Form. The beings in that realm have all their necessities of existence attended to without any effort. The Realm of Form is beyond the reach of ordinary people of mundane concerns.
The nourishment in the Triple Realm is of four kinds: solid nourishment, especially of the palatable variety; fragrant nourishment; the nourishment of delight in dhyana; the nourishment of delight in the Dharma. The first kind, or solid nourishment, is the same as what is eaten every day in the manner of human beings, etc., on the six paths of the Realm of Desire. The second kind, fragrant nourishment, sustains devas (heaven-dwellers) in the Realm of Form. The nourishment of delight in dhyana and the Dharma is for those in the Realm of Formlessness.
What is attachment in the Realm of Formlessness? When wrong view with its concomitant grasping no longer contaminates the Realm of Desire and the Realm of Form, then rebirth in the Realm of Formlessness follows. That sphere is free from form (body); there is only the knowing consciousness and, therefore, we speak of clinging to the Realm of Formlessness. However, denizens of that realm are no longer preoccupied with matter or material. Only the dhyanas and the Dharma are their repast and their bliss.
The Realm of Formlessness is divided into the following: attainment in meditation on the void; attainment in meditation on consciousness; attainment in meditation on nothingness; and attainment leading to a state of neither perception nor non-perception. Consider for a moment the difference between a Dharma talk offered by an Arhat and that given by someone of lower attainment. In the latter case, the attachment to the Realm of Formlessness still manifests itself.
Vast differences are noticeable when the two traditions—namely, the Theravada and the Mahayana—are viewed in juxtaposition. Why? Because meditation, according to the Theravada, does not single out wisdom. However, the five fundamental conditions of passion and delusion require the practice of both action and principle and equate meditation with wisdom, according to the Mahayana, which is not comparable to the Realm of Form and the Realm of Formlessness. Even the third stage of liberation, according to the Theravada—i.e., that of the Non-returner—does not imply liberation from the Three Realms.
What characterizes the state of ignorance in the Triloka? Ignorance and delusory views still predominate, as countless as the atoms in the universe, although beings in that realm have relinquished some part of both. Their understanding of action and principle is far from clear; and, therefore, they cannot stop the conversion of their thoughts into the cycle of birth-and-death, even though they have been released from the four states, or conditions, found in mortality. The Arhat, who has completed the fourth and the highest stage—attaining the fruit and the Path—is, likewise, liberated from these four mortal conditions. Worldlings cannot escape the two kinds of birth and death no matter how long their earthly existence might last. Furthermore, even though reborn in the Realm of Formlessness, they, nevertheless still have birth and death, even after eighty-four thousand kalpas. That is, indeed, a very long time!
One particular sutra teaches that a very, very long time ago, people lived eighty-four thousand years; but the life span gradually decreased, shortened by greed, hatred and delusion, and the process continues at a steadily accelerated pace. Thoughts of the past or future tend to make people uneasy or jittery. According to the T’ien T’ai method of counting kalpas, the life span of eighty-four thousand years is taken as the basis; it is reduced by one year a century until the life span has reached ten years, at which point the counting is reversed and years are added, one at a time, up to eighty-four thousand. Such a full cycle is called a small kalpa. Twenty of these produce one middle kalpa and four middle kalpas are called a great kalpa. Several different systems of calculating a kalpa exist, depending on the cosmology used as the point of departure. The heavenly existence in the Realm of Form is eighty-four thousand great kalpas long, yet these beings, too, must die in the end if they do not understand the Buddha’s teaching and do not practice accordingly. They may be reborn in any circumstances and may suffer a great deal, depending on whether their causes were good or evil. It is absolutely inevitable!
The preceding explanation has dealt with the five fundamental conditions creating passion and delusion. We understand presently that neither heaven-dwellers nor worldlings can escape suffering on the Wheel of Birth-and-Death unless they terminate the five fundamental conditions creating passion and delusion. There is, however, more happiness in heaven than in the world. To end the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions giving rise to passion and delusion, one must make the Great Vow to attain Enlightenment; and to be able to do that one must study and practice the Buddhadharma.
The passage we are just concluding is related to the two kinds of birth and the five fundamental conditions giving rise to passion and delusion, which are dependent on the five skandhas—namely, form, feeling, conception, volition and consciousness. At the time of his attainment of the Radiant Wisdom, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara conquered all ills and suffering by apprehending beyond any doubt that all five skandhas are devoid of independent existence.
"O, Sariputra, form does not differ from voidness, and voidness does not differ from form. Form is voidness and voidness is form; the same is true for feeling, conception, volition and consciousness.
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In this part of The Heart Sutra, the Buddha expounds the luminous Dharma of the Middle Way, or “When coursing in the deep Prajna Paramita,” so that the saints of three kinds will have the occasion to relinquish their less-than-perfect views. This Sutra was translated by the Tripitaka Master Hsuan Tsang, who depended on the Buddha alone for its meaning, and, therefore, we should consider this teaching to be spoken by the Buddha.
The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, while practicing the deep Prajna Paramita, attained radiant wisdom through a full understanding of the ultimate Voidness of the five skandhas. The Dharma of the Skandhas is a teaching of existence rather than of emptiness, but due to the depth of his Prajna contemplation, the Bodhisattva acquired the full, complete understanding of True Reality. He ended simultaneously the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions giving rise to passion and delusion, and, thus, irreversibly overcame all suffering.
Turning to and addressing Sariputra, the Buddha reiterated the essential point for the benefi t of those not understanding clearly. Sariputra was the best of the best, the most advanced sravaka, or hearer, renowned for his sagacity. According to an established Indian custom regarding personal names, a person could decide to use either his or her mother’s or father’s name, or both. The word sariputra (chiu lu tzu in Chinese) literally means a certain species of waterfowl similar to an egret. Sariputra chose to use the name of his mother, who was said by those who knew her to have luminous eyes like that particular bird. She had the reputation of surpassing her brothers in wisdom and keen spirit. Sariputra’s mother was an adept of the heterodox path, and, as her name suggests, she was a person of the highest wisdom.
Thus, directly addressing Sariputra, the Buddha declared, “Form does not differ from the Void, and the Void does not differ from Form…; the same is true for feeling, conception, volition and consciousness.” This statement highlights and expands the foregoing sentence of the Sutra, leading toward a deeper, sharper understanding of its essential teaching. This Dharma might not be clearly understood, however, without at least some further explanation.
I have already, heretofore, introduced the fivefold interpretation of the meaning of Voidness, or Emptiness, as follows: the obstinate voidness of worldlings; the annihilation voidness of those travelling the outer, or heterodox, path; the voidness understood by means of analysis, as practiced on the path of the Two Vehicles; the Void perceived by Bodhisattvas as the true substance of the universe; the Supramundane Void of True Existence. Thus, “Form does not differ from the void”, is an observation of inconceivable wisdom rooted in the deep practice of Prajna Paramita.
The sense-organ group produces three types of experience: touching combined with seeing; the activity of one sense-organ door alone; activity of the mind alone. This point relates to the six kinds of data—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thought—and the corresponding six material sense-organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. All our experiences, physical and mental, are generated and accumulated by this group. During their interaction with their objects, the senses are affected, or contaminated, by earthly views. The result, then, is dust (attraction or aversion of the senses) which characterizes the sentient sphere, or Kamadhatu. Dust of this kind is one of
the major hindrances to Enlightenment.
Let us proceed with an analysis of these three types of experience. The first is, experience that comes about through contact with form, any form, by means of combining seeing and touching and includes mountains, rivers, houses, flowers, dogs, our bodies and all the other forms that have corporeality and can be touched as well as seen; and the result of that contact is the dust of form.
The second is the kind of experience produced separately by one of the four based on contact—hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Hearing is accomplished by the ear and produces sound-dust; smelling is accomplished by the nose and results in smell-dust; tasting is done with the tongue, generating taste-dust; and touch informs us of bodily states, thereby producing touch-dust.
The third kind of experience arises from mental activity alone. It engenders mind objects, thoughts or ideas and eludes both sight and touch. While each of the five sense organs has its own specialized field, the mind knows and receives all of them. A mind-object, or mental formation, is a shadow of the five kinds of dust; the mind knows all of them, but they do not know and cannot know one another.
The six kinds of dust generate these three kinds of experience; but where do the six kinds of dust come from? With our five physical sense organs, we experience the material world. When a sense-organ relays information obtained through contact to its corresponding consciousness, the dust is produced. The six kinds of dust involve the participation and combination of numerous forms in the process of generating the three types of experience. How, then, can form be considered the true existence of the Supramundane Emptiness? How, then, can we call void what our eyes can see and our hands can touch?
We may believe we see with our eyes, but, actually, it is our seeing nature that sees. A dead body, for example, though having eyes, cannot see, because its seeing nature is no longer there. The seeing nature, as substance, has no specific residence. It is neither the brain nor the mind. It is vast and boundless, signless, unattainable. Despite the fact that we can see whatever is in front of us, we cannot see our own seeing nature. Because our seeing nature cannot be traced and cannot be fathomed, we assign to it the term Emptiness, or Voidness.
We say, furthermore, that Emptiness is the substance of our nature. Speaking of the seeing nature and the number of colors seen, as well as their characteristics, is without relevance. To put it simply, form is nature, and nature is form. Thus, nature being void, form is also void. What does it mean when we say that form is nature? Because our six organs—namely, eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind—give rise to the six natures—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing—countless forms combine and manifest themselves as three kinds of experience and in the process generate six kinds of dust. However, form is not separate from nature, and nature cannot separate from form. When it is separated from form, nature is non-form; form separated from nature is non-nature.
We have another example in case some people are not completely clear regarding the Doctrine. Ask yourself which comes first, form or nature. If your answer is that the nature of seeing comes first, then consider how it can manifest itself in the absence of form. If, on the other hand, the answer is form, then ask yourself, how you can become aware of it without your seeing nature. There is really no difference between form and seeing; all of it is relative dharma. The seeing nature, or the seeing consciousness, is like this; and the hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing consciousnesses are also.
The just concluded study of form and nature according to T’ien T’ai has helped us to realize that they are inseparable, or nondual. Since the void is the substance of nature, it must be the substance of form as well. Accordingly, to perceive that “Form does not differ from the void, and the void does not differ from form” is to understand that they are inseparable. It is the Dharma of Nonduality.
Let me give you another example. A mirror is made to reflect whatever is in front of it. The whatever may be near or far, round or square, green, yellow, red or white, or all four. The mirror will reflect all with equal clarity. Facing clothes, the mirror will reflect clothes; facing a table, the mirror will reflect a table; and when made to face the sky, the mirror will reflect it. The mirror always reflects something, and, therefore, it is comparable to our Self Nature; the reflection itself can be compared to dust. A person of mundane concerns will misunderstand the situation, hold the reflection (dust) for the real thing, and struggle to grasp it. Who would believe that mountains, rivers, the earth, and even the entire universe are mere reflections, or dust; and, as such, they must all rise and vanish in the cycle of existence? What this means is that phenomena are the Dharma of Birth-and-Death. The mirror’s reflective capacity is like the True Nature of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching; and being True Suchness, it is unmovable, so cyclic existence cannot touch it. However, without a mirror, how can there be a reflection? Their relationship is immutable yet clearly defined in terms of sharp contrast. Similarly, form and mind-nature are one and the same. One can became enlightened and see one’s own True Nature by practicing this Dharma. The Surangama Sutra says: “When you see light, your seeing is not the light; and when you see darkness, your seeing is not the darkness. When you see the void, seeing it is not the void; and when you see a slab, the seeing is not the slab. When your Absolute Seeing perceives the essence of seeing, the former is not the latter; they still differ from one another. Therefore, how can your affected seeing reach that Absolute Seeing?” In the part of The Heart Sutra we are presently studying, seeing applies in the first instance to subject-seeing and in the second one to object-seeing. This point should be cogitated and comprehended intuitively. Without form there is no nature because form and nature are of the same substance and there is no inside or outside. This is the stupendous, wonderful Dharma of Suchness.
Let’s return to the example of the bright mirror. The worldling, unlike a Saint, is interested solely in the reflection, never giving as much as a thought to the mirror’s reflectivity. Clinging to the reflection, the worldling grasps an incidental occurrence on the mirror’s surface and mistakes it for the original. The uninformed fail to understand that all that exists has its nature: earth has earth nature; fi re has fi re nature; water has water nature; wind has wind nature; and, consequently, the mirror has a mirror nature. Our True Nature is also like that, and yet most people are always confusing illusion with reality, being quite unaware of their True Nature. They grasp at and cling to reflections and dust. Thus, for them, the Tao of Bodhi is difficult to attain. The Buddha made use of many expedients while teaching the Dharma of Truth. He repeated them over and over again so those who listened could follow his example and attain Enlightenment. Reflections in the mirror are impermanent, but the mirror-nature is constant. Reflections come and go, but the reflectivity of the mirror remains.
The Enlightened practitioner of the Theravada tradition dualistically holds form and mind to be distinct and separate. However, a Bodhisattva of the Mahayana tradition, who has attained the intermediate level of practice, views the reflection as the characteristic of the mirror’s nature; and so the mirror’s capacity for reflection is not dualistically held to be separate from the reflection. There is a cohesive bond, meaning that form and mind are inseparable. It is the material entities that are unreal; this is what immateriality of substance means. Although it is true that a Bodhisattva is enlightened and the Mahayana doctrine more accomplished than that of the Theravada, there is still more that needs to be done. The only Complete Enlightenment is that of the Buddha, and it is attainable only by means of mindfulness, by being observant, and by awakening to the Ultimate Truth. Form is mind, and mind is form; they are neither two nor one. Such is the fundamental Buddhadharma. True existence is the supramundane Void, and the true Void inconceivably exists.
In the next part of our discussion, we shall direct our attention to a further analysis of “He perceived that all five skandhas are empty; thus, he overcame all ills and suffering.” The adherents of the Buddha need to understand clearly that the form-skandha is the first one of the five. Then the fundamental question arises: Why is form different from the Void, and why is the Void different from form? Form is one of the six dusts and the first of the five skandhas. To consider form as having an independent existence is one of the wrong views. Actually, form is not different from the Void.
Someone once asked why we talk only about the skandha of form; why not talk about all five? The answer is that form as shape is most confusing, particularly when applied to the materiality of the human body. Feeling, conception, volition and consciousness are the domain of mind. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental formations constitute the group of the six dusts, also referred to as the six forms (relating to the foregoing discussion of the three types of experience). The six dusts are generated by our five material sense-organs—eye, ear, nose, tongue and body—each of which possesses both shape and form, which is the first of the five skandhas. When we add the six dusts to the five skandhas, we arrive at eleven forms called collectively the dharma of form.
The remaining group of four skandhas is called the dharma of mind. The skandha of feeling and the skandha of conception jointly are amenable to fifty-one mental conditions; the skandha of volition has the form (or dharma) of twenty-four non-interrelated actions. The skandha of consciousness is made up of eight parts. The dharma of form and the dharma of mind jointly contain ninety-four dharmas. In addition, there are six inactive supramundane dharmas (asamskrtas), which bring the number of dharmas to one hundred, as referred to in the principal sastras (commentaries). The Buddha’s teachings originally contained eighty-four thousand of them, but Bodhisattva Maitreya, by condensing them, arrived at six hundred sixty dharmas. Then, Vasubandhu (c.320-400 C. E.), the Bodhisattva of non-attachment, and his older brother Asanga (c.310-390 C. E.) distilled their content further to obtain one hundred dharmas, simplifying it for future students.
The domain of mind is vast; it contains four skandhas out of the five, and its cultivation is the means to the attainment of the Path. Returning to the analogy of the bright mirror, we should understand that the reflection, or image, is composed of ninety-four form and mind dharmas, while the six inactive, supramundane dharmas (asamskrtas) constitute the mirrorness, or True Nature, of the mirror.
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced the deep Prajna Paramita and perceived that all five skandhas are empty. This radiant, all-encompassing wisdom is the Dharma of Reality as Non-action. In terms of our analogy, the mirror’s True Nature is the Ultimate Reality. It reveals the five skandhas as essentially void. However, without practice and study, how can we understand True Reality?
The skandha of form embodies eleven dharmas, all of which are not different from Emptiness; therefore, “Form does not differ from voidness, and voidness does not differ from form.” What is the True Void? The True Void is the luminous wisdom of enlightened Mind. Without wisdom, how could the Emptiness of the skandhas be disclosed? Also, for that matter, how could anyone overcome and end all ills and suffering without wisdom? In reality, to break off the eleven form dharmas is far from easy. Non-duality of form has the inconceivable, brilliant form of the Supramundane Void—the True Existence. Such is the meaning of “Form does not differ from voidness, and voidness does not differ from form.” The Buddha was aware that some of his disciples continued dualistically approaching form and Void as separate and distinct, as left and right for instance; and, therefore, he elaborated further, in more depth as follows: “Form voidness, and voidness is form.”
Form and voidness initially are nondual. All present form, empty of self, is the Supramundane Void of True Existence: It is the stupendous Dharma of Non-duality and Non-grasping. Just by one’s comprehending this concept, the five skandhas are already broken off. That is the meaning of “The same is true for feeling, conception, volition and consciousness.” Once the skandha of form was disclosed as void of separate, lasting self, the mind-skandhas, similarly, were found to be void. To break off one skandha is to break off all of them.
Furthermore, “The same is true for feeling, conception, volition and consciousness” means that feeling, conception, volition and consciousness are, likewise, recognized as void of selfhood. Rather, the Void is their essence. The Dharma of the Five Skandhas is the teaching of things in general--one is all, and all is one. Consequently, by understanding one skandha one understands all five.
Then, the Buddha continued to expand the scope of this teaching, addressing Arya Sariputra. First, the skandhas were revealed as void of self, and now Voidness is to be revealed as their true essence
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