Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Buddha at the Apocalypse - Introduction

Awakening from a Culture of Destruction


With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the United States seemed to turn a page on a period of cynicism and decline. Sixty-three million Americans cast votes for the man who had written The Audacity of Hope, and many of them saw the election as a referendum on a brighter future. But America’s vision of the future has always been a complicated affair—a tapestry woven from many different strands.

Just two years before The Audacity of Hope, the publishing industry marveled at a very different phenomenon. The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins quickly joined the ranks of the all-time bestsellers. Told through the eyes of characters who could be your neighbors or friends—a journalist, an airline pilot, a financier, a Stanford undergrad—the series retraced the Biblical events leading up to the end of the world. As each of the volumes went to press, with sales pushing toward eighty million, many readers feared that Armageddon might arrive before LaHaye and Jenkins finished all twelve books.

According to a Time/CNN poll in 2002, 59% of Americans accept the literal truth of the Book of Revelation. It’s not surprising, then, that its teachings might shape how they behave as well as how they think. Left Behind author Tim LaHaye has played a key role in the religious right. Through the Committee to Restore American Values, he has funneled many millions of dollars to conservative activists. His Apocalyptic “End Times” theology led him to push for war against Saddam Hussein, whom he regarded as a forerunner of the Anti-Christ.

Another key purveyor of Apocalyptic thinking is John Hagee, pastor of a church in San Antonio with 19,000 members, and the founder of Christians United for Israel. CUI members are convinced that by rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, they can initiate a chain of events that will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. End Times theology has also taken hold of the U.S. military. Indeed, the Army’s current Chief of Chaplains has declared that the war in Iraq was the first of the disasters that will lead to Armageddon.

Apocalyptic thinking has influenced another area of our lives as well. In a famous speech deriding efforts to curb global warming, the Evangelist Jerry Falwell had this to say: “How long will the earth remain? It will remain until the new heavens and the new earth come…. The earth will go up in dissolution from severe heat. The environmentalists will be really shook up then, because God is going to blow it all away.”

Ever since Falwell delivered his remarks, a growing number of evangelicals have distanced themselves from his view. But virtually all of them would agree that this earth is neither our true home nor our ultimate destination. If ideas play any role in human affairs, these ideas must exert a powerful influence. These kinds of ideas matter.

They matter because their reach extends far beyond the millions of fundamentalists who cheered and wept at Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. A growing number of secular thinkers—noted scientists and social critics— have begun to speak about an approaching cataclysm. Jared Diamond, a geographer and physiologist by training, made headlines with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Among the failed societies he explores, Diamond seems especially intrigued by the Maya of Central America, and he suggests that an implosion like the one they faced might be on the way for us. Other observers, such as Michael T. Klare in Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, foresee a nightmarish struggle over access to water, land, and raw materials. Just this morning an Amazon search turned up the following books among dozens of others: The Collapse of Globalism, The Collapse of Complex Societies, The Coming Economic Collapse, The Collapse of the Common Good, The Coming Collapse of China, The Collapse of America: A Ruined State. In the tapestry of Western culture, the audacity of hope is often interwoven with premonitions of total catastrophe.

 There are, of course, good reasons to be concerned. A slight shift in the earth’s mean temperature could disrupt food production on every continent. Not long ago a Pentagon study foresaw a worst-case scenario in which the lives of 400 million people would be placed at risk by climate change. Combined with a global economic collapse, instability on this scale would surely lead to wars—at a moment when thermonuclear weapons have become more widely available than ever.

Meanwhile, the natural environment is approaching some kind of tipping point. The next hundred years will probably see the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. If current trends continue, the polar bear, elephant, rhinoceros, and tiger will all be gone from the wild. Children born fifty years from now may doubt that such animals ever roamed the earth. The long-term consequences of the species loss are anybody’s guess.

No one can dismiss the problems we now face—too many outcomes would be truly horrible. And the popularity of Apocalyptic thinking could prove to be just as dangerous as our real-world threats. If we expect collapse, then collapse may come. If we’re convinced that God has preordained the End, why try to set things right?

Rejecting the End Times–mentality would seem to mean embracing its complete opposite—the belief that a brighter day lies ahead if we only dare to hope. The audacity of hope might be a beautiful idea, yet the truth is that our hopes helped to create the problems we’re trying to correct. Our grandparents had high hopes for automobiles. No one imagined that car exhaust would change the composition of the atmosphere. We bombed Hiroshima hoping for an end to a long and brutal war, perhaps an end to war altogether. No one understood what it would mean to kill eighty thousand non-combatants in a few seconds. Plastics were a modern miracle. No one knew the estrogens in plastic had the power to depress sperm counts and elevate levels of obesity and cancer.

To hope for a better world is still to believe the future holds the key to our ultimate well-being. But what if the destructiveness of our way of life, unequalled in all of human history, follows directly from our worship of the future? Some of us may dream of a utopia and some may be waiting for the trumpets of doom—but throughout this book I invite you to consider that both these illusions might do violence to the world as it is here and now.

Our basic way of thinking is historical, but perhaps not in the way we often use that word. As Westerners we’ve been subtly conditioned to view history in Apocalyptic terms. In Greek, the root of word apocalypse means “a lifting of the veil.” We’ve been raised to think of time itself in such a way—as a process of continuous revelation that will only end when the grand design behind all of time is fulfilled.

People in other cultures gathered information about the lives of their ancestors. They grasped the logic of cause and effect, and organized their stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Like us, they wrote historical chronicles, yet they didn’t think of time as leading to a moment of complete transcendence. To them and sometimes still to us, “history” was a synonym for “the past.” But the most important form of “history” in the West is all about the future. To believe in Apocalyptic history is to see events as moving forward in a preordained way, from a distinct beginning to an all-encompassing end.

Among the ancient peoples of the West, there was one group who broke decisively with the older, backward-looking notion of history. The people in question were the Jews. Their fate put them at the center of a collision of cultures, languages, and gods. The Bible depicts them as dissenters who turned their backs on one of the first experiments in urban living, the city of ancient Ur, when they followed Abraham into the desert hoping to regain the simplicity they’d lost. The simplicity, however, eluded them. Attacked over and over, enslaved and driven into exile only to return to their homeland again, the Jews embarked on an odyssey that continues to this day. How they survived when so many others disappeared is one of the Bible’s most important lessons. According to the authors of the Bible, the tribes of Israel persevered by learning to embrace change.

The Jews were perhaps the first to imagine change as leading somewhere totally new. We might say that they invented “the future,” at least for the Western world. Their stroke of genius was to convince themselves that in spite of the disasters they endured, events would eventually lead them to the better place promised by their tribal god, Yahweh. That place was not just the land of Israel, however. It was also a time to come when the Jews would be as numerous as the sands of the sea. No one can say that the ancient Jews were modern, yet they took the first step toward the modern world. Through their rituals and sacred texts, they looked backward to the days of Abraham and Moses, but through prophets like Isaiah and Daniel they looked far into the future.

Christianity began as a branch of Judaism but it profoundly reconceived the Jews’ invention of future thinking. The ancient Jewish vision of history stops with the restoration of Israel under the Messiah’s leadership. Then, in the prophet Isaiah’s words, “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” This vision of history culminates in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham—a time of peace on earth.

But the Christian idea of history culminates in the end of time itself. The earth as we know it will be totally destroyed. Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, who will rise from their graves as though from a sleep. A new earth will be made where the redeemed will live in ageless bodies for eternity under the dominion of Christ the King. We might say, on the one hand, that Christianity preserved the Jewish vision of temporal life as a series of revelations that would guide God’s chosen people to a better day. On the other hand, the Christians added something new: the future was leading beyond history and, with it, this flawed and fallen world.

The Christian Apocalypse is ambiguous. From one vantage point, it might be understood as a teaching of indestructible hope. Even if the worst outcome of all should take place—the total destruction of everything— the whole of creation will be made anew. Yet Christ himself is the one in Revelation who orchestrates the destruction. He destroys the world to save it from sin, sacrificing things as we know them now for the sake of what they shall someday be.

In this view, salvation and destruction are the same.

The Encounter with a Complex Universe

For two millennia people in the West have been able to explain all events by relying on Apocalyptic history. Everything was seen as moving toward an escape from the conditions of earthly life. Even with the rise of science, this idea only grew in power and potency. It’s true that early scientists challenged all kinds of dogmas and folk beliefs, but most of them still held firmly to the view that history was following God’s master plan. Indeed, they thought of science as uncovering the methods God employed to accomplish his goals.

For them, the universe was totally predictable, and each unique event was no less predetermined than the ones that the scriptures had foretold. Thanks to these assumptions, early scientists could study with precision a ball in flight and the force of water moving through a pipe. But what made the thinking of such men Apocalyptic wasn’t just their faith in the total regularity of the material universe. The larger program of science was also aimed at a certain kind of Apocalypse. The goal was to transcend the physical world and lift humans to a higher spiritual plane.

Today, the universe no longer seems so precisely predictable. Instead of unfolding in one straight line, we are starting to see complex events as places where different vectors of causality intersect in ways that make it harder to predict what is going to happen next. In fact, no single outcome can ever be guaranteed.

How, for example, do we calculate the shifting of a pile of sand? To predict what the whole pile will do when its mass shifts under pressure of some kind, we can’t simply calculate the motion of one grain and multiply by millions. The same dilemma arises when we try to calculate the nonlinear motion of a lightning bolt, involving as it does many different combustions going off in a series that unfolds at an irregular pace. A heap of sand, a bolt of lightning, the turbulent motion of water as it moves down the bed of a rocky stream—these are everyday examples of complex, multivariant interactions that require new analytical tools. Such new tools are necessary because probabilities have replaced certainties. The one-in-a-million chance can change everything. Far from waiting for us in a preordained form, the future has become open-ended—in a word, complex.

 Over the last twenty years “complexity” has been used to define a special branch of science that deals with systems of such sophistication they defy the view of time as a simple, linear story. Instead of involving a single link between one cause and one effect, such systems bring together multiple events interacting with each other to produce “emergent properties.” Complex systems may do things, in other words, that no one could predict just by watching them at the start of their interaction.

For people raised with Apocalyptic history, all of this might appear troubling. Apocalyptic history teaches us that nothing can ever happen unpredictably, as a product of sheer chance. Everything is preordained, if not divinely then by nature’s laws or, perhaps, by the market’s hidden hand. To start with total randomness but then to end with order looks like an outrageous contradiction. When we observe the coherence we see everywhere— from the activity of a colony of ants to the operation of the human brain—it seems impossible that such fine-tuning could have come about by accident.

Anthills and human brains in particular are good illustrations of complexity. Within complex systems, individual parts—whether they are ants or neural cells—demonstrate what is known as “self-organization.” There’s no Central Office issuing directives. Instead, the parts coordinate themselves, interacting with a collective intelligence even when the single units aren’t very smart—or even sentient. Each ant’s brain, for example, contains only several hundred thousand cells compared to our 100 billion. Yet a group of ants acting together can do what creatures with far larger brains need a lot of thought to accomplish. They build nurseries for their young, storage chambers for their food, and cemeteries for their dead.

Homo sapiens have assets ants completely lack (of course)—ego consciousness and language in particular—but our own mental lives would also appear to result from self-organizing processes. In much the same way as anthills grow, neural connections get forged by repetition without our prior planning or choice. No one willingly decides to have an itch, or to find a sound annoying or experience pleasure from the smell of a rose. Even the most accomplished meditators can’t stop thoughts voluntarily. Our consciousness allows us to think about thinking, but consciousness itself takes form unconsciously through a process of self-organization.

 Because consciousness is a complex system, it follows that the societies we’ve made by using it must be complex systems too. For most of human history, our cities have arisen and evolved in much the same random way as ant colonies. And just as no single intelligence planned out London, Paris, or Los Angeles, so no single mind devised our laws, our traditions of art, our cuisines, or our religions.

And now some of us have become acutely aware of complexity itself. The importance of this development can hardly be overemphasized. Indeed, our awareness of complexity may have arrived in the nick of time because our survival could depend on it.

Our encounter with complexity could produce a less destructive form of life that is also more intelligent and happier. But when we factor in our culture’s legacy of Apocalyptic thinking, the odds may be stacked against it. Because of that legacy, many of us feel absolutely overwhelmed. In the case of religious fundamentalists, this might explain the tidal wave of new interest in Revelation.

If the Book of Revelation turns out to be right—or the Left Behind series anyway—the Apocalypse is indeed drawing near. Following the Rapture, those still here on earth may behold a pale horse whose rider is Death, and Hell may follow after him but at least we’ll finally have closure. At least we’ll know how the whole story ends. After centuries of twists and turns, one event will prove for all of time who was right and who was wrong. Apocalyptic history will be vindicated.

Like any first-rate story, the Book of Revelation is a dense, complicated network of plots and counterplots, metaphors and symbols that keep teasing us to make a last judgment about what it all must mean. But last judgments are just a fantasy. We can wander around in this labyrinth of words from now until the end of time. Perhaps that’s what Revelation was meant to teach, but it doesn’t seem to be a lesson learned by most believing readers. They’re really waiting for the end to come.

But even the most secular among us aren’t immune to the powerful allure of Apocalyptic thinking. Many progressives still believe that continued economic growth is the road out of global poverty. Or they’re still convinced that new technology holds the key to our welfare and happiness, once and forever after. Even as the missteps and disasters mount up, their faith in the future remains as strong as ever.

Somehow, solutions will always appear, or so the thinking goes—and history will never give us problems we can’t solve.

Learning to Live in a Complex Universe: The Zen of Uncertainty

Problems like the ones we face today—climate change, environmental decline, political and economic instability—aren’t as vexing as they seem to be simply because they pose a mortal threat. No, the Black Death, Genghis Khan, and Hernan Cortes destroyed entire civilizations. There’s nothing so new about that. What makes our problems now unique is their relation to awareness itself. All of them are, in a sense, artificial. They’ve all been produced by the way we think. And only a change in the way we think can prevent disaster.

If our problems start with the mind itself, then the mind could lead us back from the brink. Perhaps for this reason we shouldn’t be surprised that just as people in the West have started to feel utterly overwhelmed by an endless string of complicated problems, a small but growing number of them have become intrigued by traditions like Zen. Zen might be one thing our culture urgently needs.

Zen is actually all about retraining the mind to deal with life in a complex universe. Consider the ways that the worldview of Zen differs from the one created by the tradition of Apocalyptic history:

The Worldview of Apocalyptic History

The Worldview of Zen



the future and the past

the present


single cause/single effect

complex interactions





divine predestination



personal independence






ends justify means

means are the ends


Complexity is hard to get our minds around because we keep thinking in a linear way. We reason that either something is the case, or it simply isn’t. Either something will be, or it just won’t. Beginning with our present circumstances, we extrapolate by imagining them as the initial point of a single line stretching out predictably forever. But this habit of extrapolation is unreliable and flawed.

With personal matters like the state of our health, or big issues like the environment, our tendency to extrapolate sets us up for all kinds of unpleasant shocks. And when it comes to profound unhappiness, waiting for the future to make our dreams come true is one of the few sure bets. In a universe where possibility rules, no one can control how events will shake out; no one can even say with certainty where they will be six months from now. And the reason is worth attending to. It’s not because the future can be seen from the spot we occupy today. It’s because a single future doesn’t yet exist, only many possible trajectories.

Once we begin to think this way, Zen makes a great deal of sense. Rather than evading the openness of things, Zen meditation could be understood as a way of embracing it. There’s a famous story about exactly that:

Priest Kyogen said, “Zen is like a monk hanging on the branch of a tree by his teeth while perched over a steep precipice. He cannot use his hands to grasp another branch, and there’s no limb to rest his feet on. Then suddenly below him another man appears and asks with the greatest urgency, “What’s the use in my continuing to live?” If the monk doesn’t answer the man might kill himself—and then the monk would have broken his Great Vow to help other humans in need. But if he opens his mouth to speak, he will break another vow by taking a life—in this case, his own. Now tell me, what should he do?

Unlike the Great Story that has guided the West, the one that ends with the Apocalypse, this vignette doesn’t have a clear-cut resolution. No trumpets on high, no angels, no purifying fire, and no happily (or unhappily) ever after. This story concludes, well, inconclusively.

After hearing such a tale we might just walk away, shaking our heads about this strange thing called Zen, which responds to our uncertainty by adding even more. But on the other hand, if we sit calmly for a while, the story might begin to resonate. The whole scenario seems ridiculous. After all, how often have we found ourselves hanging from our teeth over a chasm? And yet, we’ve all felt something like this helplessness. Swamped by debts but stuck in a job we dream of quitting. Made so sick by chemotherapy we wish we could die, but still desperate to hold on to the threads of precious life. Disgusted by the orgy of consumer greed, yet frightened that a smaller salary will take away our only shot at the American Dream.

It wasn’t a Zen master, though it surely could have been, but F. Scott Fitzgerald who gave brilliant advice when he wrote that the test of a firstrate mind is its ability to entertain two contradictory ideas at once. Fitzgerald believed the novelist could show the complexity of real life in a way unavailable to philosophers, scientists, and theologians. After all, their educations had trained them to make contradictions disappear. Showing how to live with contradictions—that was a far more difficult job.

The secret of Fitzgerald’s writing happens to be the secret of Zen as well: when we stay with our uncertainty long enough, we stop counting on a better tomorrow. What we gain is a chance to inhabit this “now” in a profoundly different way—in a way less rigid and self-deceiving, and also more alive and compassionate.

Zen as an Ecology of Mind
Zen helps us meet the moment as it is by loosening the stranglehold of our preconceptions, the habits and ideas that have kept us from dealing with things as they really are. And when we meet the moment in this way, we find it’s inescapably open to chance, inescapably complex.

The open-endedness of the real world requires open-mindedness from us. The term “open-mindedness” may sound trivial, and we might assume that all it takes is a little furrowing (or unfurrowing) of our brows. But observation quickly shows that open-mindedness comes to human beings with the greatest difficulty. Apocalyptic history has such enormous power because it gives the reassurance everybody craves—even when it’s based on utter self-deceit. In a world where chance plays an enormous role, we try to create a collective dream of total predictability. And it’s a dream that often seems to work. In fact, we can often make it work far too well. Most adults have a finely honed ability to screen out anything that even hints of chance. Yet if history teaches nothing else, it teaches that the past never does repeat itself. The next calamity we have to face will always be the one we couldn’t foresee because it didn’t fit our expectations.

The Zen response to this dilemma is to tap into the part of our minds that exists outside the collective dream we mistake for real. The Western term for that part of the mind is “the unconscious.” Regrettably, thinkers in the West have often discounted the unconscious because they perceived it as a haven for illusions, dreams, and even insanity. By contrast, consciousness is regarded as an undistorted mirror of the world.

Yet the unconscious mind is the origin of much that humans value the most. You might be able to give reasons for falling in love, but most people don’t reason themselves into it. Love springs up from some deeper place. The same holds true for happiness, sympathy, excitement, amusement, and the perception of beauty. These expressions of our basic human nature often assume different forms in different cultures. But their underlying universality shows that human nature is natural at its core, and also primarily unconscious. As humans we share an unconscious legacy that goes deeper than our customs and beliefs. It was there before our civilizations. It may even have been there in the course of evolution before we were fully human. For these reasons Zen uses the nature in ourselves to break free from the illusions and fears that keep us from dealing creatively with change.

Apocalyptic history teaches us that our best response to the unknown is to count on the future to behave predictably. The smart strategy is holding tight to our beliefs while pushing anomalies away. Instead of asking how new evidence fits in, this kind of thinking tries to screen it out.

When we look for examples of such thinking we can find them everywhere: in our talk shows, our politics, and our business culture. If we want to find examples of the opposite—of thinking and living in a complex way—Zen and the traditions of East Asia have a great deal to offer. But the West on its own has managed to produce at least one great example of truly complex thinking: the discipline of ecology.

Ecologists teach us to think inclusively about the systems that emerge from complex interactions. For this reason they picture time as a tree with branching limbs of increasing variation, rather than a single “is or isn’t” line. Apocalyptic history chronicles events until they come to one conclusion. But ecology shows that life never stops—it never stops changing and branching off and interweaving once again.

We could say that Zen is like ecology, but that wouldn’t go quite far enough. In fact, Zen is an ecology, but an ecology of a special kind. To the Western version of ecology Zen adds on one additional ingredient. Zen regards the mind as part of the world, and it regards the world as part of mind. Zen is an “ecology of mind,” to borrow Gregory Bateson’s famous phrase.

Mind is world, or world is mind—whichever we way we choose to go, the truth is the same. The point was made quite effectively by a twentieth-century Zen master named Soko Morinaga, who received his first lesson in complexity many years before he eventually became the abbot of Myoshinji temple in Japan.

During the first phase of his monastic life, Morinaga had been a conventional unsui, a “cloud and water person,” an apprentice monk. And like all unsui he’d been assigned the mundane, unglamorous task of cleaning up. But as chance would have it, Morinaga had to do his cleaning beneath the critical eye of the master himself, the old Zuigan.

One day Morinaga had gone out with Master Zuigan to work in the temple garden, and his first thought was to make a good impression by zealously sweeping up the fallen maples leaves. “Where should I throw this trash?” the boy asked the old man, innocently enough.

“There is no such thing as trash,” his teacher bellowed.

Zuigan then told Morinaga to fetch a sack, and after sifting all the leaves free from the small stones and random twigs, he stuffed them inside and trampled them down into tinder for the temple bath later on. But then to Morinaga’s amazement, Zuigan picked up the individual pebbles and instructed the novice to add them to the ones in the trenches made to catch the rain falling off the roof. Finally the old man took whatever remained— scraps of moss, bark, and twigs—and used it to fill uneven places on the garden floor.

At times, anyone who’s gone through Zen training has probably found the whole experience absurd—maddening if not slightly mad as well. In a world with real problems to address, who really cares if someone overlooks a few pebbles or leaves here and there? No one will ever notice anyway, except perhaps some grouchy, antiquated monk. But then, an odd change can come over you when you’re fussing with the scraps of moss or the twigs. More and more the world around you starts to seem strangely, unexpectedly intimate. It’s not just that you begin to care about the work: you find yourself feeling uncannily attached, as though it were your job somehow to protect these things that only hours earlier had seemed lifeless and irrelevant.

On this occasion, Zuigan taught his unsui a lesson in much more than gardening. Like most people in the modern world, whether they live in Japan or the U.S., the young Morinaga still implicitly believed that he lived in a linear universe. The way to deal with chips and pebbles that he didn’t want was to assume a future he could foresee. If it’s OK now, it will be OK later on—that’s the beauty of extrapolation. This is the same mode of thinking we employ when we dump our raw sewage into the sea or store our nuclear waste away in steel barrels even though plutonium is toxic for 24,000 years. The whole idea of “disposability” rests on this linear habit of mind: we assume there’s no chance the details that we neglect will come back to bite us later on.

Powerful forces continue to promote the mind-set of disposability. Free market economics, technology gone wild, and religious fundamentalism— all three keep our eyes fixed hypnotically on the future as we imagine it. But this habit could prove to be our fatal flaw. Counting on the future reassures because it lets us disconnect from a world of change that will always be unpredictable. Yet disconnection makes us less safe in the long run, blinding us to dangers we most need to see—dangers that a different awareness might reveal.

 One purpose of Zen is to let us reconnect with events in spite of their contingency. As generations of Buddhists have learned, Zen can help us come to terms with everything our fears tell us. Once our awareness has become large enough—large enough, for instance, to take in the moss and twigs—the feelings of connection and care can outweigh the fear that makes security more important than seeing things as they are.

To understand what Zen practice really means, we have to be willing to think differently about both this world and our place in it. And when we do, we may see that it’s just possible we’ve gotten many, many things terribly wrong. It took centuries of confusion to produce human beings who prefer narcissism to community, shopping malls to forests, and a virtual existence to the life off the screen.

So it’s going to take us a little time to understand exactly how we got where we are now.

I think the best way to start will be with our culture’s fear of complexity. I’m starting there because I’ve become convinced that the West’s relationship with complexity is a deeply troubled one, so troubled that it needs some outside help. And the “help” part will be covered in Part II, where the subject will be Zen and its strategies for life in a complex universe.

But the troubled relationship will have to come first.


How to cite this document:
© Kurt Spellmeyer, Buddha at the Apocalypse (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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