Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Discussion of Samatha bhavana and Jhana bhavana.

Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jul 13, 2011 3:49 pm

This is a bit of an Interview with Leigh Brasington. It was scanned, but I cannot guarantee that I caught all the bugs.


Richard Shankman: You seem to teach a form of jhana that is much more
readily accessed than that taught by many other teachers.

Leigh Brasington: We don't really know for certain what the Buddha was teaching as jhanas, although I strongly suspect that the Buddha was teaching deeper concentration than I do. Over time I have learned that there are a number of different methods. The methods generally have two things you can optimize -- but only one at a time. The first is the ease of accessibility and the other is the depth of concentration. So if the question is, why am I teaching what 1 am teaching as the jhanas, I would say that the level at which I teach them seems to be the level at which laypeople can 'learn them and use them effectively. In other words, I'm giving up some of the depth of concentration for case of learning. Given that lay people are going on ten-day, two-week, maybe month-long retreats, what
can be taught in that period of time that can enhance students' practice
by enhancing their concentration?

RS: It sounds as though you are saying that there can be a range of depth
of samadhi associated with any given jhana state. That what constitutes
jhana is only partially the strength of concentration, but more the other
associated factors.

LB: That's right. Although it would be good If' students were learning the jhanas at a deeper level, I'm not going to say, "Well, since you can’t do it at value 100, we’re going to dismiss anything you do at value 50 or 25.”

It turns out that any amount of concentration as a warm-up to insight is helpful. And given that students are stumbling into states that have the jhana factors and that they are generally stumbling in at approximately the level of concentration at which I'm teaching, it seems like it's a natural level to teach to laypeople. If someone wants to learn the jhanas at a deeper level, then they are going to need to dedicate more time to working with the jhanas, such as finding a long-term intensive retreat environment.

My hunch is that the level of concentration that the Buddha was teaching cannot be achieved on a retreat of less than a month and, furthermore, cannot be achieved in forty-five-minute sitting periods: My own experience has shown me depths of concentration that do more closely match the experiences described in the suttas, but these can only be attained with long sitting periods of three or four hours, and on a long retreat of a month or more.

RS: Why do you think there's so much disagreement about what the jhanas are and how they are taught?

LB: Partially, it's because there are three major sources of jhana material, all of which are incomplete. There are the suttas in which the descriptions of the jhanas are very simple. There is no-how-to in the suttas, thus leaving them open for quite a broad range of interpretation. Since Pali is not even a currently spoken language, many questions cannot be definitively answered. For example, what does "vitakka" really mean in the context of the jhanas? This leads to people interpreting this sparse material in different, yet internally consistent ways.

A second source is the Abhidhamma, which interprets the jhanas differently from what you find in the suttas. There you find a scheme of five Jhanas covering the same territory as covered by four jhanas in the suttas. Finally, you have the Visuddhimagga, which gives quite a different interpretation from what you find in the suttas; a much deeper level of concentration is being taught.

So we have different schemes in the literature, and it depends to some extent on where someone is learning the jhanas, whom they're learning them from, and what literature is being used in that tradition. This material has been preserved for up to 2,500 years, with people making little tweaks along the way and not necessarily communicating with one another, and that has also led to different interpretations.

RS: Could you outline basically how you understand what those differences are?

LB: In the suttas, the jhanas are described most of the time using a standard formula. The standard formula for the first jhana has four factors one-pointedness is not mentioned. There are just the four factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, and sukha.

The formula for the second jhana indicates that the vitakka and vicara fall away, and they're replaced with inner tranquility and oneness of mind; so now the concentration comes in and the piti and sukha continue. Thus the suttas describe four factors for the second jhana as well.

The third jhana says one remains imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware. Imperturbability, mindfulness, and clear awareness have come into play, although what is not specifically mentioned is when they arrived. They're just there. The formula indicates that the piti goes away and the sukha remains; there is no specific mention of the tranquility or the oneness of mind, so since they aren't said to go away, one assumes that they remain, So you actually have many mare factors for the third jhana.

The shift to the fourth jhana is to a place beyond pleasure and pain, beyond gladness and sadness; so one arrives at a neutral mind-state. The sukha is obviously gone, since the pleasure has gone away.

When you look at this description, it's not really a factor-based description. The whole idea of a factor-based description probably comes from the Abhidhamma, where they started breaking things into pieces and analyzing them in a great deal of detail.

Now, there are a few suttas, perhaps three, where you can find five factors for the first jhana, where one-pointedness is introduced as a fifth factor, But these are in the minority, for sure, and tend to be what is referred to as "later suttas." On the whole, the jhanas are described quite differently in the suttas than in the later literature.

The word jhana means "to meditate," so when the Buddha tells his monks, "There are empty huts, roots of trees, go meditate," he's saying "go jhana.” Everybody was doing jhana. If you look at the Visuddhimagga, the description of the states has reached a point of extreme concentration. In fact, it gives the odds that only one in one hundred million, at best, can reach absorption. But in the suttas, you find large numbers of people becoming absorbed.

What's being talked about in the Visuddhimagga are very deep states of concentration. The definition of what constitutes a jhana has, in a thousand year period, progressed to a much deeper state.

We might ask how this happened. Think about who was preserving the Buddha's teaching during these thousand years. It's a bunch of guys hanging out in the woods -- no TV, no women. They've got just their minds to work with. And so they start working on the jhanas, And if somebody can take it a little bit deeper, obviously he's doing it "better." The natural human tendency is, "Well, if! can do it better than you are doing it, I'm doing it the right way, and I'll teach you to do it my way."

So I would guess that over time jhana evolved from pretty serious states of concentration to the extreme states that we find preserved in the Visuddhimagga. The Abhidhamma seems to be somewhere in between, but obviously getting very, very deep during that period, since people were able to see their mind-moments and so forth.
THE EXPERIENCE ID SAMADHI by Richard Shankman, 2008, pgs 156-9.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Modus.Ponens » Wed Jul 13, 2011 5:12 pm

Thanks Tilt.
And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby 2600htz » Wed Jul 13, 2011 5:37 pm

Hello:

I dont undertand when he said he teaches a less deeper concentration that the one teached by the buddha.
What i mean is that according to his instructions, to enter the first jhana one has to first go to access concentration, and when one is so concentrated that the "breath dissappears", one shifts attention to a pleasant feeling exploits.. what is deeper than that?, anyone knows?...its the absense of nimmita?

With metta.
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jul 13, 2011 9:16 pm

2600htz wrote:Hello:

I dont undertand when he said he teaches a less deeper concentration that the one teached by the buddha.
What i mean is that according to his instructions, to enter the first jhana one has to first go to access concentration, and when one is so concentrated that the "breath dissappears", one shifts attention to a pleasant feeling exploits.. what is deeper than that?, anyone knows?...its the absense of nimmita?

With metta.
You can check his website. Likely he'll supply answer to your question there.


http://www.leighb.com/
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby IanAnd » Wed Jul 13, 2011 10:14 pm

That's a pretty fair (meaning good and balanced) characterization of the issues surrounding what many question about various descriptions and interpretations of jhana.

I used Leigh's descriptions of the jhana process (as it was then presented on the Internet) as a means of practice way back in 2001 when I was first beginning my effort to understand this process and what it entailed. Intuitively, his descriptions made the most sense to me of all the descriptions I was reading about at that time.

From the looks of this interview, it appears that Leigh has taken the opportunity to clarify this issue even further, and in general and overall, I would agree with the explanation he has provided as it is expressed in terms of the various influences surrounding jhana and its characterization.

I particularly agree with the following section from the interview:

Leigh Brasington wrote:So we have different schemes in the literature, and it depends to some extent on where someone is learning the jhanas, [from] whom they're learning them, and what literature is being used in that tradition. This material has been preserved for up to 2,500 years, with people making little tweaks along the way and not necessarily communicating with one another, and that has also led to different interpretations.

It has been my experience that as one's discernment becomes heightened and more clarified (in part through the use of jhana in one's practice), one is able, with more personal conviction and confidence, to break down this process in a way that more carefully explains it in terms of one's individual direct experience of it. Sometimes this jives with how others have described it, and sometimes it does not.

At one point in the interview, Leigh states that: "The word jhana means 'to meditate,' so when the Buddha tells his monks, 'There are empty huts, roots of trees, go meditate,' he's saying 'go jhana.' Everybody was doing jhana."

While I agree in general in what he is stating, he is stating this within a certain context: that of teaching new practitioners about jhana. And that's perfectly fine. However, within the context of a more mature practice wherein the practitioners had been practicing jhana for some time, I personally would take this a few steps deeper and provide a slightly modified concept or definition for the word "jhana." Earlier this year I began to work on a piece that would more precisely express my view about this issue, but have not been able to return to it to finish it. Perhaps this brief excerpt from it may provide some valuable food for thought for others.

It has often been said that during the time in which Gotama lived that, at least among a certain group of people, the practice of dhyana was commonly known and understood, and that there was therefore no reason to explain its practice in any great detail. Whether or not this was true is not the point, as the discourses themselves seem to be quite limited in their ability to describe the practice in ways that people unfamiliar with it might more easily understand it. Whatever the reason for this lack of detail in the discourses, the fact remains that beyond certain stock references in the suttas, little is mentioned there about the practice of dhyana.

That the practice of dhyana seems to be taken in the suttas to be commonly understood seems tacitly implied, given that the discourses are based on an oral tradition which was only centuries later written down. In an oral tradition, it might be taken for granted that any missing detail would be filled in by the person teaching the practice to another, and therefore may have seemed superfluous or even too complex to include in the process of oral memorization of the talks. Whatever the reason for this, we are left with little to go on from the discourses themselves in order to satisfy our curiosity of the meaning of this term dhyana.

Since there seems to be no correlation between dhyana and any kind of similar practice that we in the West might be readily able to relate to, we are left with attempting to figure out this practice for ourselves — with the help, of course, of those more experienced in the practice than ourselves. One problem which might arise in this circumstance is the problem of translation of the terminology used and the concepts employed to describe such terminology. Translation from one language to another can often be fraught with misunderstanding or mischaracterization of subtle detail. Then again, language itself can sometimes be a limiting factor in communication as it can tend to solidify or limit the impression given of a concept where in reality no such solidity or limitation exists or may have been intended.

One of the first words in meditation technology we are presented with to translate is the word samadhi. To the uninitiated, such a word can seem quite exotic and mysterious on first contact. Moreover, often popular characterizations can creep into the connotation of our conception of such a word, especially if one is being influenced by the more mysterious characterizations from Vedanta, Hindu, or Taoist sources. Thankfully, most translators of this word into English in its Buddhist context agree that samadhi can be fairly accurately rendered by the terms "concentration" or "meditation."

It is important to have an accurate definition of this term in a Buddhist context since it is so often used in the suttas. Even the eighth step on the Noble Eightfold Path employs this word in the compound term, samma-samadhi, to denote "right meditation" or "right concentration." For our purposes here, and in the context of the word's usage in the discourses, the term "concentration" will do to accurately characterize its employment. It is important to be clear about this definition as it will be useful for our understanding of the term dhyana. The development of samadhi therefore involves the development of abilities of mental concentration. Nothing more nor nothing less.

Turning our attention elsewhere, the Sanskrit word dhyana contains the root dhi, which means to "reflect, conceive and ponder over." In light of the context in which Gotama was likely speaking when he talked of dhyana, that context having to do primarily with the dispelling of ignorance, it is highly probable that this meaning of the word and the intent in which it was used took a great deal of its gravity from this connotation or interpretation. In other words, when he used the word jhana in the discourses, his intent was to communicate the degree of concentrated awareness necessary (the "reflective, pondering over" aspect of the mind) in order to dispel ignorance and thus foster mental awakening and recognition of "things as they are."

Some observers have argued that because dhyana has been interpreted as "reflection," "conceiving," and "pondering" that it is closer in meaning to the word "meditation" than it is to what has become the traditional idea of the word being translated as "absorption." And while I can concur with this view, it may also be the case that "absorption" in an object is a valid secondary description of this process of dhyana to the degree necessary for the mind to be able to "ponder" and "reflect" clearly on an object. Indeed for other modern meditation masters to state that the concept of jhana is equivalent to their description of this state as being appana samadhi, or "fixed concentration," (the next step up from the commentarial concept of upacara samadhi, which means "neighborhood" or "access" concentration), it would be plausible to presume that the primary intent for employing the term jhana is to describe this "fixed" sense of the mind being focused exclusively on an object in order to "know it as it truly is" thus allowing the mind to dispel delusion or ignorance.

If this latter is the more compelling case (and I am positing that it is) for interpreting the word dhyana (and hence jhana) as the ability of the mind to remain in "fixed concentration" rather than the more glamorous and popular word "absorption" — with all the extra baggage that that word can carry with it in terms of "bliss," "joy," "a pleasant abiding," "a temporary shutting down of the senses," "a temporary formless superconsciousness" etcetera — then perhaps a major conceptual obstacle can be avoided before it becomes too set in the mind of the aspiring student of jhana.

One who views the process of developing dhyana as being akin to an increase in the level and power of concentration for the ultimate cultivation of mental clarity is less likely to confuse this state with states of dull mindedness or "blissful musing" or whatever other associated ideas may come to mind. At the height of its full maturity, jhana reveals itself as a clarity, an illumination of the mind with regard to whatever phenomenon it holds its attention on.

When this circumstance occurs, then, it becomes easy to confirm the idea that the use of the tool of jhana represents the pinnacle of mental cultivation of which Gotama spoke, which was so necessary for the development of wisdom and insight (clear seeing). The kind of wisdom and insight that had him making such statements as: "And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana. . . . but there is cessation of formations. Having understood 'There is this,' seeing the escape from that, the Tathagata has gone beyond that."
"The gift of truth exceeds all other gifts" — Dhammapada, v. 354 Craving XXIV
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Reductor » Thu Jul 14, 2011 6:43 am

That is an interesting interview, but I wonder how he asseses the level of concentration the buddha taught. Hopefully he discusses it somewhere on his site.

What is interesting is that he sees the degree of concentration as of secondary importance to the presence or absence of the four factors. Instead the presence of the factors denotes effective meditation rather than a sharp departure from normal consciousness.

Am I interpreting him right?
Michael

The thoughts I've expressed in the above post are carefully considered and offered in good faith.

And friendliness towards the world is happiness for him who is forbearing with living beings. -- Ud. 2:1
To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness. -- Dhp 72

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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 14, 2011 7:20 am

thereductor wrote:That is an interesting interview, but I wonder how he asseses the level of concentration the buddha taught. Hopefully he discusses it somewhere on his site.

What is interesting is that he sees the degree of concentration as of secondary importance to the presence or absence of the four factors. Instead the presence of the factors denotes effective meditation rather than a sharp departure from normal consciousness.

Am I interpreting him right?
It would seem that you are getting what he says correct.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Freawaru » Thu Jul 14, 2011 10:53 am

Thank you, Tilt, this quote clarified a lot :smile:
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Spiny O'Norman » Thu Jul 14, 2011 11:09 am

thereductor wrote:What is interesting is that he sees the degree of concentration as of secondary importance to the presence or absence of the four factors. Instead the presence of the factors denotes effective meditation rather than a sharp departure from normal consciousness.


Perhaps because the four factors can be present to varying degrees?

Spiny

PS Thanks Tilt, useful information.
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 14, 2011 2:28 pm

Spiny O'Norman wrote:Perhaps because the four factors can be present to varying degrees?
Yes. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

PS Thanks Tilt, useful information.
You are welcome. The book as a whole is worth a look at.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Reductor » Thu Jul 14, 2011 3:06 pm

tiltbillings wrote:It would seem that you are getting what he says correct.


It makes perfect sense to me.

Although the differing levels of concentration from one method to another does vary, it has seemed to me for a while that it is the direction of attention that lends jhana its uniqueness of experience.
Michael

The thoughts I've expressed in the above post are carefully considered and offered in good faith.

And friendliness towards the world is happiness for him who is forbearing with living beings. -- Ud. 2:1
To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness. -- Dhp 72

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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Oct 17, 2012 4:47 am

Bump
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Sam Vara » Wed Oct 17, 2012 8:13 am

Can anyone help with this bit, please? LB says:

In the suttas, the jhanas are described most of the time using a standard formula. The standard formula for the first jhana has four factors one-pointedness is not mentioned. There are just the four factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, and sukha.

The formula for the second jhana indicates that the vitakka and vicar a fall away, and they're replaced with inner tranquility and oneness of mind; so now the concentration comes in and the piti and sukha continue. Thus the suttas describe four factors for the second jhana as well.

The third jhana says one remains imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware. Imperturbability, mindfulness, and clear awareness have come into play, although what is not specifically mentioned is when they arrived. They're just there. The formula indicates that the piti goes away and the sukha remains; there is no specific mention of the tranquility or the oneness of mind, so since they aren't said to go away, one assumes that they remain, So you actually have many mare factors for the third jhana.

The shift to the fourth jhana is to a place beyond pleasure and pain, beyond gladness and sadness; so one arrives at a neutral mind-state. The sukha is obviously gone, since the pleasure has gone away.

When you look at this description, it's not really a factor-based description.


He says that the description is not really a factor-based description. But most of this passage is talking about the presence or absence of the factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, and ekaggata at the different levels of jhana. Are these not the factors he is referring to? If the description is not based on "factors", then what is it based on?
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby daverupa » Wed Oct 17, 2012 11:20 am

Maybe the problem is seeing the description as one of listed factors, rather than as a softer description - better might be seeing the description as cmprised of hues, rather than discreet qualia.
Last edited by daverupa on Wed Oct 17, 2012 11:25 am, edited 1 time in total.
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    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Oct 17, 2012 11:23 am

daverupa wrote:Maybe the problem is seeing the description as one of listed factors, rather than as a softer description - better might be seeing the description as cmprised of hues, rather than discreet qualia.
I think that is to the point.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Sam Vara » Wed Oct 17, 2012 12:14 pm

daverupa wrote:Maybe the problem is seeing the description as one of listed factors, rather than as a softer description - better might be seeing the description as cmprised of hues, rather than discreet qualia.


Ah, thank you Dave, I think I see what he means now. (If only LB wrote as well as you...)

Thanks also to Tilt, especially for raising this topic in the first place.
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Re: Interview with Leigh Brasington (concerning jhana)

Postby Sylvester » Sun Oct 21, 2012 3:19 am

Sam Vara wrote:Can anyone help with this bit, please? LB says:

In the suttas, the jhanas are described most of the time using a standard formula. The standard formula for the first jhana has four factors one-pointedness is not mentioned. There are just the four factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, and sukha.

The formula for the second jhana indicates that the vitakka and vicar a fall away, and they're replaced with inner tranquility and oneness of mind; so now the concentration comes in and the piti and sukha continue. Thus the suttas describe four factors for the second jhana as well.

The third jhana says one remains imperturbable, mindful, and clearly aware. Imperturbability, mindfulness, and clear awareness have come into play, although what is not specifically mentioned is when they arrived. They're just there. The formula indicates that the piti goes away and the sukha remains; there is no specific mention of the tranquility or the oneness of mind, so since they aren't said to go away, one assumes that they remain, So you actually have many mare factors for the third jhana.

The shift to the fourth jhana is to a place beyond pleasure and pain, beyond gladness and sadness; so one arrives at a neutral mind-state. The sukha is obviously gone, since the pleasure has gone away.

When you look at this description, it's not really a factor-based description.


He says that the description is not really a factor-based description. But most of this passage is talking about the presence or absence of the factors of vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, and ekaggata at the different levels of jhana. Are these not the factors he is referring to? If the description is not based on "factors", then what is it based on?



Something on the intrusion of "one-pointedness" as a factor of the jhanas -

viewtopic.php?f=43&t=13526&p=204345#p204237

I'm of the view that given its function in Samma Sati, "one pointedness" was not a common hallmark in the jhana pericopes, lest it were mistaken that Samma Sati lacks "one pointedness".
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