Episode 50: Ten Questions for Dr. Robert Thurman (Part 1)

Doctor Robert Thurman, Professor of Tibetan Studies casual closeup portrait headshot

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The New York times calls Dr. Robert Thurman “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” Professor Thurman is an intimate student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And he was one of the first Westerners to become an ordained Tibetan monk in India in 1962, before returning to the United States to relinquish his monk’s robes and become the Buddhist scholar and author that he’s known as today.

Dr. Thurman is an ardent supporter of the Tibetan cause, having founded Tibet house in New York City dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan civilization. Dr. Thurman is also a prolific author of dozens of books, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was my own personal introduction to Buddhism, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Inner Revolution, and most recently, coauthored with Sharon Salzberg, Love your Enemies.

In our conversation. Dr. Thurman answered 10 questions for me, touching on some of his most profound points: from the nature of time, to what is enlightenment, to why there’s no evidence for “nothing.” He talked about what a psychonaut is and the importance of skepticism in Buddhism and in science. Please enjoy this wonderful conversation with one of the world’s greatest minds.

Scott Snibbe: Dr. Thurman, it’s an honor to have a chance to speak to you today. I first learned about Tibetan Buddhism through The Tibetan Book of the Dead when I was grappling with the death of somebody close to me. So first of all, thank you for starting me on the Buddhist path back then. And second of all, thank you for your time today.

Robert Thurman: Most welcome. My pleasure.

Scott Snibbe: So we have 10 questions for you today, and I really hope we have time for them all. I’m going to get started talking a little bit about our audience. Our audience for the podcast is primarily modern skeptics who are curious about the benefits of Buddhist meditation. I’m wondering if you can share the role skepticism has played in your life as you explored Buddhism first as a monk and later as an academic scholar and a teacher of Buddhism?

Robert Thurman: Well, I was always skeptical. I never believed in God. Although I went to a Presbyterian church intermittently. My parents were not terribly churchgoing, but they weren’t radical atheists either; sort of atheists. My mother thought Shakespeare was God. My father, he liked mystics like Francis of Assisi and things like that.

So, anyway, I liked Jesus, but I didn’t like God. I thought he was too grumpy and I thought he gave Jesus a raw deal. And actually Buddhism taught me to really like Christianity actually, which I felt I was rebelling against early on. So skepticism, I’m all a hundred percent for it.

One reason I really liked Buddhism when I encountered it, was the teachings of Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna was a professional skeptic. And in fact, a better skeptic than almost anyone you can think of. And I really, really liked his writings and his teachings. And he teaches you to train in skepticism.

In other words, what’s called critical or analytic meditation, which is the original meaning of vipassana or “vipashana.” Vipassana is not just sitting quietly, vipassana is using your mind critically to penetrate appearances and discover their falsity and so forth. And so it is cultivating a meditation of skepticism, in fact precisely.

Also, you said the audience is primarily skeptic. So I would say, philosopher-scientist type Westerners who are not skeptical enough, nearly about their dogmatic materialism from our point of view. But anyway, we welcomed them for skeptical meditation. Some kinds of meditation, like simply one-pointed types which are useful and important, but they are not the primary one in Buddhism.

And they are also like tranquilizing meditations. One-pointed meditations have side effects also, and you have to be cautious about them. One of their main side effects is a kind of palliative thing where a kind of restless anxiety that makes you want to dig deeper and know reality can be palliated, but not cured, by just suppressing your thinking through one-pointedness.

With one-pointedness, you can learn to suppress your own thinking and worrying and so on. And that in a way can be good: blood pressure, you know, mindfulness-based stress reduction, all that sort of thing is really good. But for scientific or philosophical penetrating the surface misconceived appearances of reality to discover the deeper nature of reality, that tranquilizing will dull your edge in being able to do that and make it seem too tiresome to analyze something and too tiresome to even use language, because knowing that it’s dualistic, why bother to use it?

But actually the Buddhist trick is, you have to use the dualistic language to go beyond it. You can’t just discard it because the underlying structure of dualistic perceptual habits remain in your mind whether you suppress the manifestation or not. So that’s a really important thing. And therefore we welcome the skeptical thinkers.

The Dalai Lama himself, in fact, he considers skeptical humanistic secularism to be like a world religion with one and a half billion followers, about one fifth of the world’s population, pretty much the elite of the population. And so one of the primary goals of the way he tries to wield Buddhist philosophical critical philosophy, Buddhist analytic meditation, the more important kind is to engage with those people to try to get them to be a bit more skeptical on their materialism, which he considers too dogmatic.

And they need to really be more questioning about things like, Oh yeah, we got the world! Oh ,our standard model is so cool! Well, of course, 97% is dark matter and energy. We’re onto it, but we haven’t seen it yet.

“The Dalai Lama considers skeptical humanistic secularism to be like a world religion with one and a half billion followers, about one fifth of the world’s population.

One of the primary goals of the way he tries to wield Buddhist critical philosophy and analytic meditation is to engage with those people to try to get them to be a bit more skeptical on their materialism, which he considers too dogmatic.”

—Dr. Robert Thurman

Whatever, you know, the whole resistance to the Copenhagen declaration that you can’t pin it down at the super micro level, because your observation interferes with it. And therefore there’s no such thing as absolute objectivity. And so therefore you have to really cope subjectively with your subjectivity, and critically with your subjectivity.

That’s what you wield as a scientist and as a human being. So denying that there’s any such thing or just putting an arbitrary label on it that it’s an illusion made as an epiphenomenon of the brain, is really too simplistic for critical high-tech, super-smart, scientific thinkers. And they really need to get over it and start using their analysis going both ways. Of course, keep analyzing and using materialistic reductionism to get a finer and finer apprehension of material processes, and energy processes.

But then if you shift back to energy, to awareness, then you equally go do mentalist reductionism in some contexts, and you’ll be more flexible in your modeling rather than dogmatic if you want to be truly empirical scientists, we feel. So therefore we couch this in terms of Buddhist science and philosophy. We count this in terms of the meeting of what the Indians called, not just the Buddhists, but all of the Indian thinkers and scientists called “inner science” as connected with outer science, so that they all work together rather than just canceling inner science and trying to consider even the inner as if it were material.

Scott Snibbe: That’s wonderful. So, analytical meditation in this Nalanda tradition, promotes this skeptical approach.

Robert Thurman: Not just the Nalanda tradition, in the Pali tradition as well. Because that’s what vipassana means, passana means to see, seeing, it’s a gerund; and vi means analytically or dividingly you know, the vi prefix. So it’s vi-passana, it’s not just seeing one pointedly, it’s seeing critically, dividing the real from the unreal.

Scott Snibbe: In that first book I read of yours, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the introduction used this term, psychonaut that really blew my mind when I first read it. Could you explain what a psychonaut is?

Robert Thurman: It’s like the equivalent of an astronaut. And actually I have to say, because I’m always into honest attribution, that I thought I coined it actually. And I think I did because I hadn’t read his work. But simultaneously or parallel a man named Stan Grof also used the term and I’m sure he didn’t read my work. I might’ve heard him say it or some time. I met him once or twice, but I don’t remember that. And then I thought I coined it. So I wouldn’t argue with him over if he claimed it, but I also claimed it.

And so naut means a sailor, a navigator, as everyone knows. And an astronaut then is a navigator of the stars. In a way, the astronaut, in material science, is the ultimate scientific adventurer who is trained in the disciplines of astrophysics and what have you; but then also undergoes a kind of physical yoga, spun around in G-Force machines, and doing all kinds of things to be able to go into space and to do space walking and live in zero gravity and things like that. So, in a way, they’re the far frontiersmen and women of material science.

And so, of mental science or inner science, the Indians call it, the voyager internally is a navigator of the psyche, that means psychonaut. And if you read The Book of the Dead, then you note that I make the claim there on behalf of the Buddhist scientists, that the reason they have that Book of the Dead is not because of having religious faith whatsoever. But it’s because they believe; some of them actually developed, the ability of lucid dreaming.

You can learn to be aware of yourself in a dream as dreaming, without leaving the dream, and train yourself to do that. And some people naturally can do it. Some people train themselves to do it. It’s a little difficult, but not that difficult.

Well the psychonautic people, yogis, they believe that they trained themselves to remain aware during the dying process. And then the after-death mental continuum process, where, although there is a phase in that process where you go completely unconscious like falling asleep, and then the subsequent stages are like being in a dream. But the difference of that dream is that you’re no longer associated with the old physical body. You’re doing it outside of that physical body. Even in a dream, you have a subtle or virtual physical body. There’s a way in which your imagination controls the environment in the dream, which is what makes the dream so interesting to be lucid about.

Because you’re building the Eiffel Tower that you go in, in a dream, out of your imagination from your knowledge previously of having seen the Eiffel tower, or a picture of it. And so similarly, in the between stage you rebuild a different environment based on your past experiences in your previous life, but in a way you build it.

So they lucidly died in other words. And they lucidly went through the between state. Which the Tibetans call the Bardo. 

They then knows who the process of finding a womb, if they’re going to be human, or whatever it is they’re going to do. Or actually, if they have really developed themselves as yogins—yoga means yoking your own body and experience to your theory. So it means like a scientist actually, where you yoke yourself, like yoking an ox, it’s the same word, an Indo-European word. You yoke your being to what you believe. And you experiment and investigate it by becoming it. That’s what yogi really means. So you try to yoke yourself finally to reality itself. You try to yoke yourself to that experientially. So in that sense also, anybody who’s a real yogi this way, they are their own lab all the time.

So, that’s a psychonaut anyway. And therefore they claim that these are the reports of those who have chronicled those dimensions.

A huge difference between them and the Freudians is that they believed that a purpose of a psychonaut was to investigate their own unconscious and make it more conscious.

And that the goal was to have no unconscious drives, actually, to be able to be aware of the mechanisms that drive you and create impulse and create instinct even, and habit, and then really learn to control yourself in your relative experience. That’s sort of the goal of their psychology. Because they felt you take your unconscious with you at death.

And therefore you don’t want to be steered into future existences by unconscious impulses that would lead you into a negative rebirth of some kind, where you would be massively unhappy and maybe massively lesser able to analyze and investigate your own wiring and your own structures than you can as a human.

And that would be a massive disaster, an evolutionary disaster. Because they believe they have discovered that we all are evolving as individuals, not just as a mindless gene-carrying members of a species.

So those are all scientific claims, in other words. They don’t have to be blindly and dogmatically accepted. They should be skeptically listened to and investigated and evidence looked at, et cetera. And then people might be surprised if they took them seriously in that way.

Like modern, secular humanists disagreed with the idea that there was an omnipotent, absolute creator controlling the whole thing. But that didn’t mean there aren’t some kind of powerful beings of other types, even demonic ones, angelic types, or even what you might call deities.

This meeting of inner and outer scientist is looking back into this area that secular humanists considered just the area of religious belief, dogmatic blind faith, belief in superstition. But looking back at it as if it were making some potentially verifiable and explorable claims, that’s a key thing. That’s a way they want to be looked at.

Scott Snibbe: This meditation on the death process, His Holiness says he practices this six times a day, as do many other practitioners. Could you talk about why that’s important, and also how you became convinced that this isn’t just an exercise, but a depiction of what actually happens to us when we die?

Robert Thurman: Well, when His Holiness says meditate on the death process, what he’s talking about there is meditating on the dissolution process up to losing consciousness. And and that’s the eight stages that you saw if you read the Book of the Dead; dissolving out of the coarse body and the coarse senses, and even the coarse mentality that coordinates and unifies the inputs of the four senses, it’s sort of dealing with the brain. That’s what he’s meditating on.

He doesn’t claim that he does that six times a day, but I think he may also do that. Although I don’t really know, because I’m not that advanced. But meditating on the death process would also mean doing what they call between-state yoga or dream yoga.

And these are where you have to develop lucid dreaming. And then use the lucid dreaming to learn more about your own mind and how it reacts to different things and the unconscious content of your mind. And then between state is more advanced than that, where you visualize almost as if you were dying and leaving your body and then how you relate to it and then actually merging back into your body.

That’s a very advanced kind of thing. And they say that when yogis can do that, their normal respiration ceases for a period of time. They go into what I believe we call cataleptic trance, where they have no coarse respiration. But somehow they are getting oxygen. And I guess the heart is still beating.

I don’t know, because I didn’t attain it. And I wasn’t sitting around holding the pulse of anybody who did while they were doing it. There are very structured descriptions of the practices that enables one to learn this, although it’s extremely advanced and because they’re also dangerous. Because you could not be able to get back into your body.

Actually they say, if you get to where you could actually consciously remove your consciousness from the body temporarily in a meditative way, and then practice between-stage rehearsals, let’s say, the only reason you wouldn’t get back in the body is because you would be much happier out of it.

So, that can be taken as the most extravagant blind faith superstitious nonsense. Or, if people are willing to try to think a little bit in a new way, it would be very provocative to think that people might be like that.

So he doesn’t do that six times a day because he’s too busy. He himself is the first to say he has so many bureaucratic duties and he’s trying to help speak up for the Tibetan people. And he’s trying to do his four aims of life. And so he hasn’t had time to do those advanced things. Or he might even say he was not able to, at this point in his life. He’s very simple, humble, non-pretentious.

He has tremendous identity resilience, which is a great goal where you don’t always have to act like you’re the high psychopomp. You can just be a normal ordinary person. And then sometimes you can be very special.

 Scott Snibbe: I think one of the fears I had and some people have with Buddhism is that somehow you lose your personality the more you get into it. And I remember hearing you once say that the Dalai Lama proves you can have no ego but still a big personality.

Robert Thurman: Not only that, you don’t lose your personality anyway. But what would you do is you lose being stuck in a fixated identity personality where you think you only have this and that kind of personality. You begin to take responsibility for shaping your personality and actually improving it a little bit all the time.

And then there at the psychonaut level, they have the extreme amazing modalities—that’s what tantra is, you know—they have modalities of reshaping, a sort of self-structuring. Because a personality is a relational thing.

You develop it because of relating to your parents and your education and your language and your culture and blah, blah, blah. And then when you move to different sectors of your own age or your own professions or your own circumstances, it changes.

And as you become more conscious of that, you decide what input to take and what input not to take. And you don’t watch too many horror movies and Rambo movies, so you won’t go out and get in bar fights, which will shape your personality. That’s a shaping right then people’s behavior, you know, to me, that’s so powerful in doing so.

And we can see what Fox News has been doing the last four years. I should say 40 years.

Scott Snibbe: Even at a very conventional level, whatever we put into our mind shapes its evolution.

Robert Thurman: Exactly. So, the Buddhist thing is a very sophisticated, psychology learning how, as the more you loosen the rigidity of your sense of identity and the more resilient you become in different contexts and circumstances; the more creative you can be about cultivating your behavior and awareness and being conscious of your body language, of your subliminal prejudices and so forth.

It’s a mastery. You know, the whole anti-racist thing; the techniques of the Buddhist habit, identity formation, and reformation is unparalleled useful. Eventually I’m sure it will be integrated in modern psychology and become very useful.

Scott Snibbe: How do you see that specifically those teachings as applied to our current challenges with Black Lives Matter and racial justice and so on.

Robert Thurman: Well, they’re important, you know. But not just necessarily meditating. I’m not a person who markets meditation as a panacea. Bbut if you take it as being more self-aware, making it a part of education, not in any kind of religious context whatsoever, but in the context of a skill of being more introspective and being aware of how your reactions occur and the mechanisms underlying those reactions, the human being has every capability of messing with their own wiring.

From the Buddhist biological point of view, the virtue of being a human is that we’re not that hard-wired at all. And as you know, the perfectly nice guy who behaves when grandma scold him can be trained at Paris Island to become a vicious killer. And when one of his buddies gets shot in a village in Afghanistan, he’ll mow down a whole village full of grandmothers by being then unfeeling and unresponsive to what they’re looking at, you know?

And so we know that people can be rewired to be vicious. And we’re very weak on the idea of rewiring oneself to being gentle and being friendly and being open-minded. But in fact, that’s what we do. And the best of our modern, liberating humanistic education, which is being sadly neglected for STEM education because of this idea that everybody has to get a job and be productive all the time; meanwhile we’re totally over productive all of us.

In other words, we’re touching on that, but we haven’t taken it to the point where we really teach people to, for example, develop better one-pointed concentration as part of their BA or a High School degree and develop better critical analytic way of looking at things and more introspective things about themselves emotionally and culturally. We abdicate that responsibility as educators because of our fear of religion. Because of the fact that materialism, natural science, has become the religion of our education system. And they are like the high priests and they babble some mathematics and pretend they know everything.

And they don’t actually. And maybe simplistic in some special ways, especially about denying that they have a consciousness. This is especially simplistic. We’ll come back to it though. I’m sure it just takes time.

And in a way, materialism was a wonderful thing from the 17th century to get us away from the horrible thought-conformity of the inquisition and the church and the terror about hell and blah, blah, blah. But nevertheless, making nothing the ultimate destination for everybody to not be scared is way too simplistic and irrational.

“The idea that nothing is something is simply irrational. Nothing is a word that has no reference. It’s just a negation. It means something that isn’t there.

There’s no way to come from it and there’s no way to go into it. Scientists realize this easily with their thermodynamic law: there’s a certain energy that’s never destroyed and only transforms. It can be diffused by entropy, but it never becomes nothing.

Beginninglessness becomes more and more mandatory once we get past the naïveté of thinking there was just one Big Bang that Big Banged out of nothing.”

—Robert Thurman

Scott Snibbe: Okay. I want to ask you about nothingness because I’ve heard you frequently refute this modern view that we came from nothing. And then we die. We go back to nothing. Could you talk a little bit about your view on the modern world’s relationship to nothing?

Robert Thurman: It’s simply irrational. It’s ridiculous. It shows that someone who says something like that has no notion of what they’re saying. Every physicist or psychologist or biologists should absolutely as a pre-science—at least undergraduate, if not earlier—should be trained in logic and philosophy to learn about paradigms and how they establish their theories and hypotheses, and then look for evidence in how they interpret what they experience.

They really should. The idea that they’re just going into measure some stuff. It’s ridiculous. Rather, it’s interesting in that they do measure a lot of interesting stuff. But it limits them from really inventing and creating and see more deeply something new, like breakthrough types of discoveries. Because they’re just locked into the dogma that it’s just a matter of objective measurement and that’s naive. It’s kind of naive realism from a critical philosophical point of view.

And so the idea that nothing is something is simply irrational. In order to be a source of something. It has to be something. And nothing is a word that has no reference in a sense. It’s just a negation. And it doesn’t reach any referent because it means something that isn’t there.

There’s no there there. So there’s no way to come from it and there’s no way to go into it, actually. And note that they will realize that easily with their thermodynamic law; there’s a certain energy and it’s never destroyed and it only transforms. It can be diffused by entropy, but it never becomes nothing.

And they can sort of see the reasoning behind the understanding that once there’s energy, what was the energy in different forms? Beginninglessness becomes more and more mandatory once they get past the naïveté of, there was just one Big Bang where it Big Banged out of nothing. 

You know, the idea of a black hole that’s the ultimate density is still not nothing. And it can’t ever be nothing, which is why then some people theorize maybe a pulsar comes exploding out of it at some point, which would be logical, actually.

So to hold in your mind, the very powerful image that materialists, philosophical materialists, have; that a dark space awaits them when the brain stops functioning and they lose consciousness. And then whatever continuity was in them before becomes nothing. And that fits very much with their daily experience of falling asleep and becoming unconscious in a dark room.

And so they think that’s the ultimate thing, that that will happen to them. But the point is, when you fall asleep you don’t become nothing. You’re just unconscious. And you’re still there. And actually strangely you feel rested in the morning. And you didn’t get that new energy, that renewed your cells in some way and made your mitochondria or whatever it does from nothing, because nothing has nothing to give you.

So there must be an underlying plane of energy, a field of energy. So it’s not nothing. And therefore some idea of a final nothing is simply an irrational idea.

On the other hand, be a skeptic and try to prove the existence of nothing. Go for it. Why not? But it’d be no fun. It’s a really hard sell if people are thinking rationally.

Meanwhile, to many people it’s like heaven. Then the other thing they do, dogmatic materialists, is that they will convince themselves that they’re having so much fun running around in their Chevrolets or Teslas or whatever it is; and with their girlfriends or spouses or boyfriends or whatever it might be, that they’re really brave, just think of never waking up.

And yet that’s a mature belief and they’re not being superstitious and they’re being modern and go for broke and, Okay, on I’ve agreed to be nothing and pretend that’s a bravery. But meanwhile, the slightest dentist drill on one tooth, make them want to be unconscious. Or 16 hours of hard work makes them pass out.

So where they they really welcome being unconscious, actually doesn’t take courage. It’s a joy to be unconscious when you’re worn out or in pain. So they trick themselves into acting like it’s an act of bravery to be nothing. Meanwhile, we’re nothing every night, as far as being unconscious goes. And every time we go under anesthesia in any kind of professional setting. 

So the point is, the default is, that there’s continuity in everything in nature. So we can point to a zillion examples of continuity. And even entropy must end up being trapped by a black hole; one little tiny fragmentary piece of energy will be trapped somewhere and then it’ll explode. So it will be concentrated again in other words.

Also by the way, the Bardo and Book of the Dead in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist science. It doesn’t mean that that’s the final description of the death and rebirth process.

They say that once there is no ultimate description of relative realities. and once all relative realities are empty of any ultimate fixed essence in any one of the parts of the relativity, then all theories about, or descriptions of relative realities are just that: only relative. And they may be valid and useful contextually in context, but in other contexts they won’t be so useful.

So they’re always awaiting further revision, experiential revision, in navigating through life. And therefore there’s no such thing as a fixed dogma, except that which is a negation that there’s no such thing as a fixed dogma; which should be Karl Popper’s scientific principle as well. All theories are hypothetical, awaiting falsification by further experience. If you take an experiment to mean the results of experience, which I do.

So that’s the thing, you know. It took me a long time to realize because what you do when you meet your natural science friend, and they hear you’re a little Buddhist scholar, a weird thing over in the religion department on a campus, which really, it shouldn’t even be there, but they sort of are.

And so then they say, Well, what evidence do you have about that former, future life stuff. And then you say, Well, there’s a lot of people who remember previous lives and they start in and they’re saying, Well blah and poof! and it all gets dismissed.

And it took me 40 years to decide, to say, Excuse me, before even we discuss that matter, what evidence do you have that something can become nothing? Give me some evidence of that.

And then I like to tease them, Who got a Nobel prize for discovering nothing?

Scott Snibbe: Right.

Robert Thurman: Which guy? You know, and then they get irritated.

Scott Snibbe: Yes, it’s such a convincing argument you make that we only have evidence for something. We’re surrounded by something. We have no nothing detector yet. There’s no way—

Robert Thurman: So imagine to make one of the most important predictions of an individual’s life, which is What should I prepare for and expect after death? Based on something that has no evidence and never will in principle. And in a way you could say it’s the most blind form of blind faith you can ask for.

Because even if Moses sees a bush burning that tells him I’m some sort of a big shot, go talk to Pharaoh. Well, at least he’s talking to a bush. Maybe he misinterpreted: I was thinking it’s omnipotent, and he has to do what it says and he can’t talk back; which the rabbis don’t do, actually, they talk back plenty, I noticed I studied that.

But the point is, at least they have something to refer to. But once you say nothing is ultimate reality, you’re saying the ultimate reality of everything is nothing. And then they think it’s its modernity to say, There’s no purpose to life. It’s meaningless. It’s an accident. But here we are, a random mutation. Who knows. It’s just completely irresponsible. It leads to great irresponsibility in my view.

“I really like egotism. You know, smart egotism is good. One of the things that Buddhists do say is that it takes a very strong ego to decide, I’m going to get control of myself. I’m going to understand myself. I’m going to understand the world.”

—Robert Thurman

Scott Snibbe: So nihilism is one huge delusion. The other is egotism and self-centeredness and—

Robert Thurman: I really like egotism. You know, smart egotism is good. One of the things that Buddhists do say is that it takes a very strong ego to decide, I’m going to get control of myself. I’m going to understand myself. I’m going to understand the world.

Next week. We’ll continue our riveting conversation with Professor Thurman and you’ll get to find out what is a healthy kind of ego, how you can be a Buddhist without belief and Dr. Thurman’s powerful vision of what enlightenment and Nirvana might feel like to someone like us.

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Have a wonderful rest of your day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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