drafty mountain hut

always at home, forever on the way

Virtual Sesshin Day 5 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 5  – May 16th, 2020

Beyond the Self

To bring it back to where we began, the orientation of this retreat was to engage with a body of practices for solitary practice. These practices, the practice of Silent Illumination and the Empty Awareness practices are practices that one can engage in fruitfully on ones own. In fact these are practices born of solitude, hermetic practices.  There is a straightforward path in these practices that build upon technique and experience. There are clear markers to bring oneself back to the path,  for self-assessment and most importantly there is no bounding to them. These are practices for a lifetime. 

Last February here at Tahoma I was in Dokusesshin, which is a solitary sesshin where you live in a primitive hermitage in the woods on the edge of the campus. You only engage with the teacher once per day, otherwise it is a self-structure and hermetic practice. During this time I every day engaged in the Empty Awareness practices, walking for an hour around the lake and through the woods.  I would walk, stop and absorb what was in front of me, until I was emptiness walking. Then I would sit on the deck of the hermitage for long stretches of zazen.  Sitting in Open Awareness, landscape samadhi throughout the day.

This time where we are in our domiciles, perhaps allowed to go out and walk, is an enforced hermitic situation for us all.  Taking full advantaged of what is an unfortunate circumstance we are able to engaged in the two activities of this practice: zazen and taking absence walks.  Most aren’t drawn toward the hermits life, but when circumstances put us there we can use it.

All of our practice deepens our ability to respond to the moment, to handle whatever life throws at us. In this time of increased suffering, these practices serve to root us in the essential, to be able to respond in the most appropriate way.  As an illustration of this I am going to read from this Poetic/Spiritual Biography of the great Chinese poet Tu Fu.  A Ch’an practitioner, whose poems are infused with Ch’an and Taoist elements, he lived the life of one who moves from their original nature. In The Awakened Cosmos,  David Hinton ties together all of the concepts we have gone through in the terms of a masterful Poet living from absence in times of great suffering. Both a continuation of the teachings of this week, this also is a pointer for living in these challenging times.

I read almost the entirety of Chapter 7 Emptiness Dragon from David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos (specifically p. 51-56).  As I note above this chapter really captures what we are trying to get at in this practice and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sheng Yen – Continuing practice outside of retreat.

BY NOW YOU ALL KNOW how to relax and practice just sitting. But do you know how to apply Silent Illumination to daily life? If you do not, perhaps the effectiveness of this method has not taken hold and coming to retreat has been of little use. So I want to talk about practice in daily life. It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.

Sheng Yen goes on with a thumbnail sketch of the canonical (if somewhat a-historic) account of the development of Chan and its emphasis on work practice.  Ch’an Master Baizhang’s admonition, ‘a day without work is a day without eating’ sums this orientation up.  Sheng Yen’s point here is that the work that lay practitioners undertake can be view and utilized as samu, work practice. This is explicitly laid out as he continues with his discourse.

I have a disciple who was an accountant before she became a nun. When we made her the Center’s accountant, she complained: “Shifu [Teacher], I left home and became a nun to do serious practice. And here I am counting money again.” I told her, “This is very different. Before you did it for yourself and your family; now you are doing it for the sangha, the Buddhist community. And because there is no self-interest, no profit, no benefit, and no harm in your doing this job, that is genuine practice. Your mental attitude is also very different now. Before you came to the Dharma, your mind was chaotic, wandering here and there during work. Now you can attune and refine your own mind in the midst of business. You are offering your abilities to the sangha. If that is not practice, what do you call it?”

The same is true for all of you. Before you encountered the Dharma, you had no practice and your daily lives were filled with stirred-up emotions and wandering thoughts. After coming across the Dharma and learning Silent Illumination, you will be different when you go back. Work will become your practice no matter what task you are engaged in. Wherever you are, you will be able to regulate, attune, and refine your mind. On the one hand, you are practicing, and on the other, you are interacting with others while maintaining a stable mind. Wherever you are, that will become your practice.

– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 42-44)

Our practice leads toward being able to operate in this world naturally, not pushed around by our thoughts, feelings and emotions.  The practice is a deliberate changing of our a brains a change that we can facilitate by practicing in every situation and practicing this naturalness. At work, in the home, out in the world practice flowing through the world, practice single-tasking, practice silent illumination.

SILENT ILLUMINATION AT WORK

When we eat we should just eat; when we sleep we should just sleep; when we sit we should just sit; and when we work we should just work. Saying this is one thing, doing it another. So I ask you, where is your mind when doing these things? Let’s consider how this applies to working. To practice Silent Illumination means putting body and mind to the task at hand. This also means applying the best method appropriate for the task. If you do it single-mindedly and with your best effort, you will complete the work with a very stable and relaxed mind. You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present. You should carry out the task with a very even and ordinary mind, without feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, or engaging in discursive thoughts. When you complete the task, reflect on whether changes are needed, whether the job was done well, and how you can do better in the future. This is how to practice Silent Illumination while working, but the principles are the same no matter what you are doing. Silence manifests when you do not generate vexations, attachments, and discriminations while carrying out the activity. Illumination manifests when you clearly understand the activity, focusing on carrying it to completion.

Sheng Yen clearly expresses this way of living in the world, of not being beholden to our small minds. As we practice this and as we engage in rigourous ch’an practice slowly this will become our way of life. At some point we can have that all-at-once insight into the reality of things and are able to then just continue with our practice in a natural and unaffected way.

As practitioners we should clearly understand our own abilities and limitations. We should understand our roles in society, what we are capable of, and what is beyond our ability to do. Since everyone is born with certain aptitudes and limitations, knowing our own boundaries is also practice. Some people may be very skillful with their hands while others are less dexterous; some people are good at very detailed work while others are more suited to manual labor. We should learn to be content with our own limitations while working to the best of our ability. This is recognizing clearly where you are and what role you should play. Not knowing this can create vexations for yourself and for others.

Knowing where you should put yourself is silence; very clearly knowing this while engaged in work is illumination. Consider the ox in the fields. Although powerful and dynamic, the ox does its job without trampling on the crops. It responds according to our circumstances. Being like this ox will bring you happiness and joy wherever you are, at work or with friends. If there is peace and harmony where you are, this is practicing Silent Illumination. So please be an ox in your lives.

Practice is not limited to sitting meditation. It should not happen that as soon as you get off the cushion, life becomes stressful. Be very clear about your body’s presence and its sensations. When meaningless sensations arise, do not respond to them. That is silence. Always maintain this clear awareness of the total bodymind. That is illumination. Be very clear about the environment, without being influenced by it. That is totality. The sum of all the above is Silent Illumination. Now please practice Silent Illumination wholeheartedly.

– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 45-49).

This final section here from Sheng Yen is worth reading over and over again.  The absolute root of our practice is commitment; commitment to constantly return our attention to the practice; commitment to bringing our practice into the world; commitment to not increasing the suffering in the world; commitment to responding as the moment requires.  Engage in the practice in every activity, wherever your are, twenty-four hours a day. There are no ‘breaks’ from the practice, can you take a break from living your life?

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Virtual Sesshin Day 4 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 4  – May 15th, 2020

Emptiness

Today we are going to really consider the Empty aspect of Empty Awareness.  This is awareness empty of the self, unmediated through our thoughts, conditioning, feelings and views.  But it is also Absence, absence as the undifferentiated tissue of all things operating through us.  

Absence was often referred to as “emptiness” (空 or 虚), […], and described as the generative void from which the ten thousand things (Presence) are born and to which they return. Our language and intellectual assumptions have trained us to interpret such terms—Absence, emptiness, void—as a kind of nonmaterial metaphysical realm in contrast to the material realm of Presence. We interpret Absence and Presence as a dualistic pair, in which Presence is the physical universe and Absence is a kind of metaphysical womb from which the physical emerges. But No-Gate would not have recognized any metaphysical dimensions in this dualism, for like all artist-intellectuals in ancient China, he was a thoroughgoing empiricist. And in the empirical reality of the Cosmos there is no metaphysical womb, no pool of pregnant emptiness. Absence is emptiness only in the sense that it is empty of particular forms, only Absence in the sense that it is the absence of particular forms. In normal everyday use, Absence (無) means something like “(there is) not,” and Presence (有) means “(there) is.” So the concepts of Absence and Presence might almost be translated “formless” and “form,” for they are just two different ways of seeing the ever-generative tissue of reality.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxvi-xxvii).

This is an important point, to not see the separateness of Absence and Presence.  They can be seen as two different views of fundamental reality.  The view of absence is the seamless, undifferentiated generative tissue.  Presence is that reality manifesting in the myriad forms. When we reach the depth where we see Presence and Absence as a singular tissue we have broken through to the very depths. The Taoist tried to capture this understanding of seamless reality beyond both absence and presence with the term Dark Enigma.

Dark-enigma is a philosophical term that attempts the impossible task of naming Absence and Presence as a single existence-tissue, as it is in and of itself before any names, before Absence and Presence give birth to one another, and before all the other words and concepts and distinctions we use to approach the nature of reality. And the “gate of all mystery” is clearly the same gate that appears twice in the title No-Gate Gateway: first as the simple Gate, and second as the primary element in the Gateway ideogram.

When No-Gate speaks of ‘passing through this gate,’ he means understanding Absence and Presence together as a single generative tissue; and that transforms things completely, for the fundamental dichotomies structuring everything vanish. Absence and Presence, generative emptiness and the ten thousand things, become a single tissue. Word and silence become a single tissue, as does meaning and meaninglessness, self and Cosmos. Thought and empty-mind become a single tissue. The mirror-deep empty-mind that perceives and the ten thousand things filling perception become a single tissue. And there, suddenly there, we are wholly a part of that dark-enigma: not just in moments of empty-mind enlightenment, but also our thoughts and obsessions and memories as we move through our routine self-involved lives: Buddha-nature as ordinary mind, ordinary mind as Tao.

Concepts at this level blur. Absence is one half of the Presence/Absence dichotomy and, at the same time, the resolution of that dichotomy, for it is the undifferentiated tissue that includes all the differentiation of Presence: landscape’s ten thousand things, individual identity, words. And so, it is hard to distinguish Absence from dark-enigma or Tao. All of which is what No-Gate means when he says Absence is beyond even the most fundamental explanatory distinction: “Absence: don’t think it’s emptiness, and don’t think its Presence.” This understanding leads to a remarkable realization: if our original Buddha-nature is Absence, and Absence is the undifferentiated and generative tissue that includes all of Presence, landscape’s ten-thousand things; then our original-nature is itself all of those ten thousand things. Hence the desire among artist-intellectuals and Ch’an monks to inhabit rivers-and-mountains landscapes: for to face such a magisterial landscape is to make one’s own internal dimensions magisterial.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxix-xxx).

This is why we can engage in the practice anywhere, that any of the ten-thousand things can be a grateway. In the natural world where it is more clear, where the complexity is beyond human scale we can enter just as directly as when we reduce all the complexity down to the simplicity of zazen and the basic structure of sesshin.

Once this whole conceptual framework is established in No-Gate’s Foreword and first sangha-case, the purpose of all the following sangha-cases is to ‘cut off the mind-road’ and establish this identification with Absence as our original-nature, our Buddha-nature. For this is the answer to No-Gate’s first sangha-case: not some profound insight, but to inhabit Absence wholly, to make it the whole of consciousness, to become it, to enact it. A central concern in No-Gate Gateway, this identification with Absence is described repeatedly as a kindred intimacy,” and it explains the adoption of No-Gate as a spiritual name, for its deep meaning is of course Absence-Gate. This identification with Absence, this “kindred intimacy, entails a radical transformation in everyday life. One acts always as landscape/Cosmos in its most fundamental generative nature, as wu-wei (Absence-action) and wu-hsin (Absence-mind): movement through daily activity becomes the Cosmos living a life; sight becomes the Cosmos gazing into itself; thought becomes the Cosmos contemplating itself. And it also entails a transformation in death, for death becomes a return home to the generative Cosmos as our truest self, meaning that our most essential nature is therefore as boundless and enduring as the Cosmos itself. So No-Gate is being quite literal when he says: Once through this gateway, you wander all heaven and earth in a single stride.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxxi-xxxii).

This is what it means to be in Empty Awareness. For our ego self to be hollowed out of its conditioned responses so that we identify with Absence and we are seamless with the entirety of presence. We are fundamentally reality in motion.  

There is nothing that abides, unchanging, independent of the rest of the fabric of original nature. Everything is dependent on something else, when we sit still enough and are open to absence we can see this directly. Thought rise and fall. The seasons spin through their cycle. Things are born, live and die. Everything is in flux arise from the generative ground and returning to it.  

The essence of this path is to get to a place where we experience this directly. A direct experience and intimacy with Absence. This is where we will turn to Sheng Yen and his pragmatic take on this as theory and praxis.

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Virtual Sesshin Day 3 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 3  – May 14th, 2020

Moving through the world without obstruction

Everything that we are engaged in during this retreat is oriented around naturalness, around moving through the world without obstruction.  We are ‘just sitting’. We we are engaged in the outside practices we are ‘Just Walking’ and ‘Just Gazing’.  When we are doing samu, we are ‘Just Working’. Just doing whatever task we are engaged in.  When we chant we are ‘Just Chanting. All of these activities as well as all of the activities in our lives can be done directly  from our true nature. When we operate from the self, we are at least one step removed. This artificial construct of memories, feelings, conditioning takes in our surroundings and circumstances and processes it through this conditioning. The signals and hints that our true nature sends up to us — the feeling that we are in sync with circumstances — is treated as another input. An input that is so often overridden by our small concerns, our conditioned responses.  But when the self recedes and is revealed as inherently empty, when our identity is that of True Nature then are responding directly, naturally to circumstance and the environment. 

Wu Wei in Chuang Tzu. It is the title of Chapter 1, and section 11 of Chapter 6 includes this description of two sages: 

On loan from everything else, they’ll soon be entrusted back to the one body. Forgetting liver and gallbladder, abandoning ears and eyes, they’ll continue on again, tumbling and twirling through a blur of endings and beginnings. They roam at ease beyond the tawdry dust of this world, nothing’s own doing [wu-wei] wandering boundless and free through the selfless unfolding of things.

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270).

The practice of Wu Wei, Non-Doing or Effortless effort, is the heart of this retreat.  All of these practices are are oriented around slipping past the self, to pure awareness. When we see the conditioned self as empty, we then operate from Empty Awareness and move through the world without obstruction. It’s not that there are not obstacles in our path, but that we flow around them like water flowing past a rock. We are not pushed around but the thoughts, feelings and emotions. They arise from circumstance but the Still Pool can absorb it all without a ripple. 

Wu Wei

Wu has a double meaning that creates a profound literary/philosophical resonance here in these names, and in the book’s celebrated first sangha-case. In addition to meaning “Absence,” that fundamental cosmological/ontological principle, wu is a simple grammatical function word meaning “not.” So on the surface, Wu-men means simply “no-gate,” investing the title with the enigmatic and, as will become clear, profound concept of a “no-gate gateway,” a kind of distilled sangha-case. But wu must also be read as that generative Absence, transforming “no-gate” into “Absence-gate.” This adds a whole new dimension to the title—Wu-men Kuan—for it now means “Absence-gate gateway,” or perhaps “Absence’s gateway.” And that Absence-gate also appears in the first couplet of the four-line gatha that ends the book’s Foreword, where Tao (Way) also appears, together with Presence, the other fundamental element of Taoist ontology/cosmology: The great Way is a single Absence-gate here on a thousand roads of Presence. Once through this gateway, you wander all heaven and earth in a single stride.

This double meaning of wu had long been exploited in the philosophical tradition, complicating terms such as wu-wei and wu-sheng. Wu-wei (無為) dates to the earliest levels of Taoist thought and means literally “not/Absence” (wu) + “acting” (wei). It was a spiritual practice among ancient artist-intellectuals, and it was further cultivated in Ch’an practice. Wu-wei means “not acting” in the sense of acting without the metaphysics of self, or of being absent when you act. This selfless action is the movement of tzu-jan (Tao unfurling as the ten thousand individuated things), so wu-wei means acting as an integral part of tzu-jan’s spontaneous process of Absence burgeoning forth into Presence, and Presence dying back into Absence. This opens to the deepest level of wu-wei’s philosophical complex, where the term’s alternate sense of “Absence” + “acting” means wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as, the ontological source. As Ch’an masters dramatized in their wild antics, behavior that likens them to Chuang Tzu’s zany Taoist sages, to practice wu-wei is to move with the wild energy of the Cosmos itself, energy ancient artist-intellectuals recognized most dramatically in rivers-and-mountains landscapes.

-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (pp. xvi-xviii).

Acting from our True Nature

This naturalness, this Wu Wei is nothing less than our true nature acting through us.  When we move through the world from our true nature than there is nothing that can obstruct us. Barrier arise and are flowed around, circumstances do not overtake us.  When the small self is running the show, endlessly commenting on everything, we are removed, distanced from our surroundings. This adds a hesitancy, a self-conscious remove from responding to the moment. Those who hesitate are lost!

Wu-wei:  Nothing’s own doing, etc.

Impossible to translate the same way in every instance, wu-wei means acting as a spontaneous part of tzu-jan (things occurring of themselves) rather than with the self-conscious intention that seems to separate us from tzu-jan’s selfless process. Different contexts emphasize different aspects of this rich philosophical concept as writers exploit the term’s grammatical ambiguity. Literally meaning “not/nothing (wu) doing (wei),” wu-wei’s most straightforward translation is simply “doing nothing” in the sense of not interfering with the flawless and self-sufficient unfolding of tzu-jan. But this must always be conceived together with its mirror translation: “nothing doing” or “nothing’s own doing,” in the sense of being no one separate from tzu-jan when acting. 

As wu-wei is the movement of tzu-jan, when we act according to wu-wei we act as the generative source. This opens to the deepest level of this philosophical complex, for wu-wei can also be read quite literally as “non-being (wu) doing.” Here, wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as the ontological source: nonbeing burgeoning forth into being. This in turn invests the more straightforward translation (“doing nothing”) with its fullest dimensions, for “doing nothing” always carries the sense of “enacting nothing/nonbeing.”

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270)

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Virtual Sesshin Day 2 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 2  – May 13th, 2020

Cultivating the Still Pool

We began yesterday with what I call ‘relaxing into awareness’. Relaxing into awareness can lead us right down into our true nature. You relax the body until you have no sense of it, you relax your placing of attention until there is only awareness, you relax your thinking until there is only silence. This is cultivating the still pool.

Becoming like a perfectly still pool, reflecting everything and nothing. This is the basis of all of our practices. There are several paths here, following the breath, relaxing into awareness and just sitting are the routes that we are going to take.  The Ch’an approach is one of naturalness, which is something we will constantly encounter and explore.  

The question of effort is a vital one.  Whenever there is effort, the self is involved.  But we can use effort to establish a practice, toward naturalness.  This is captured simply and directly in this mondo between Chou Chou (Joshu) and Nanyue (Nansen)

Ordinary Mind is the Way

Chou Chou (Visitation-Land) asked Nanyue (Wellspring-South Mountain):
“What is Way?”
“Ordinary mind is Way,” answered Master Nanyue.
“Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
“To set out is to be distant from.”
“But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?”
“Way isn’t something you can understand, and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness.
“If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe, all generative emptiness you can see through into boundless clarity
“Now, how can you force that into coherence with the logic of yes-this no-that?”
Hearing these words, Chaou chou was suddenly awakened.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway  (p. 46).

We are going to move from relaxing into awareness into ‘Just Sitting’.  When we relax into awareness, especially if you can take that final step of relaxing your attention, you are almost there to Just Sitting.  In its purest form Just Siting, is simply sitting in empty awareness.  There is no concerns of the self, no agenda, no technique.  It is what Sheng Yen calls the ‘Method of No-Method.’  Just like with effort we can employ, very basic techniques such as the relaxing method, to reach a place where we let go of method. That place is the Still Pool. The Still Pool is bottomless, all the way down to the ground of being, fundamental reality.  We can sink down into the Still Pool until we are fully plunged into our true nature. We can drop questions in and see what emerges. And at times we can just dive right in and break through to our depths.

Ch’an Mediation

As noted yesterday, along with these direct practices to engage in, we are also examining their grounded in the classical Ch’an, which has quite a different orientation than Zen. Yesterday we considered the Taoist elements that form the heart of Ch’an practice, based in the fundamental concept of reality as a generative tissue from which the ten thousand things arise and fall back into. Ch’an meditation is a process for directly encountering this cosmological tissue, to dropping the illusory separateness that we have.

We will return to David Hinton’s discussion of this in his introduction to his translation of the Wu-men Kuan. In this excerpt he is describing cultivating the Still Pool toward Empty Awareness.

With experience, the movement of thought during meditation slows enough that we notice each thought emerging from a kind of emptiness, evolving through its transformations, and finally disappearing back into that emptiness. This leads to the realization that the cosmology of Absence and Presence defines consciousness too, thoughts being Presence emerging from and vanishing back into Absence. That is, consciousness is part of the same cosmological tissue as the empirical world, with thoughts emerging from a generative emptiness exactly as the ten thousand things do.

Eventually the stream of thought falls silent, and we inhabit empty consciousness, free of that center of identity. That is, we inhabit the most fundamental nature of consciousness, and that fundamental nature is nothing other than Absence. Here consciousness inhabits the primal Cosmos in the most complete and immediate way, dwelling as integral to the very source of the Cosmos’s generative unfolding, for this Absence is not simply the tranquil silence we encounter in meditation, but something much deeper: a dark vastness beyond word and thought, the tumultuous source of life and death.

Ch’an calls this “empty-mind” (空心). 空 is essentially synonymous in the Ch’an literature with wu, and the double meaning of wu (“not/Absence”) is used to describe this empty-mind further as wu-hsin (無心): “no-mind,” meaning consciousness free of language and thought and memory, the mental apparatus of identity, or “Absence-mind,” consciousness in its original-nature as that generative cosmological tissue. But there’s more. Hsieh Ling-yün (385–433 C.E.), the great rivers-and-mountains poet, in the earliest surviving Ch’an text, calls this empty-mind “the tranquil mirror, all mystery and shadow,” and then continues: “one must become Absence and mirror the whole.” “Tranquil,” “mirror,” “mystery and shadow,” “Absence”—this description distills the conceptual world of the Tao Te Ching, and it shares Lao Tzu’s intent: to transform immediate experience so that we dwell as integral to landscape and Cosmos. Here, the act of perception becomes a spiritual act: empty-mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things free of all thought and explanation—utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. This is a perennial theme in No-Gate Gateway, and it is the heart of Ch’an as a landscape practice. In such mirror-deep perception, earth’s vast rivers-and-mountains landscapes replace thought and even identity itself, revealing the unity of consciousness and landscape/Cosmos that is the heart of sage-dwelling in ancient China.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxi)

Hinton here gets at how the Outdoor practices that we are engaging in function.  It is this notion of the “act of perception as a spiritual act” or as I’d put it as a practice.  It is letting this sensory data come in, without the endless commentary, of moving through the world in empty awareness. That we are practicing.  The Still Pool can be that place from which we always operate. 

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Virtual Sesshin Day 1 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 1  – May 12th, 2020

Practice in the time of physical distancing. 

Whenever we sit, we sit alone. And yet the motivation aspect of gathering together, sitting together, sharing space together, following a set form and schedule can’t be underestimated. There is a different energy in a room filled with people.  But in essence there is no difference sitting on our own and with others. When we open up to our Original Nature the illusory boundaries between self and other diminish. In the ground of being we are all seamless.

Over this week we are going to be looking at how Ch’an was practiced by the Chinese, which has diverged from its roots in Taoism as it migrated to Japan and the West. This will provide context for the body of techniques that we are going to be exploring in this.  My perspective is that of one in training, pointing toward the path for others. The practices and foundations that have born fruit are worth sharing.

These practices are oriented toward solitary practice, though of course can always be used in any context. But they specifically do not depend upon a teacher, though it is always worth taking advantage of a teacher when one can. We project a lot onto the teachers and they can easily become yet another barrier we have to get through. The true value in a teacher is to keep pushing you, to keep saying “not yet”, to keep hubris in check and to verify our understanding.  In leu of a teacher always know there is more to go, always keep pushing. There is no end to the path and thus you can always go deeper.

We are going to be doing practices both inside and outside that are oriented toward Empty Awareness. While one can of course use this time in whatever techniques you are engaged in, I encourage you to try out this program for this retreat. There is value in trying something different, something fresh. It can stimulate and engage your practice and when you return to your previous techniques you may find them more alive again.

Working with different practices

All practices are skillful means and there are a myriad of skillful means. This is so because every mind is different and responds to these different skillful means. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of the different upaya so that they can be employed where they are needed.  Zongmi, a contemporary of Huangbo (Obaku) wrote an extensive text rooting the teachings of the ten primary branches of the Ch’an in his time in the canonical teaching of the sutras.  In this quote he explains the value of such a treatise: 

“First, there are those who have not fully awakened, in spite of the fact that have been studying under a master, and also, those who are conducting an earnest search, but have not yet met a good friend. By enabling them to browse through this compilation, they will have before them the dead behind the words of the masters, and they will use these to penetrate their own minds and cut of any remaining thoughts,  Second there are those who are already awakened, but who desire ti go in and become masters. This compilation will enable them to broaden their learning, and increase their good skill in teaching derives in order to embrace sentient beings and answer questions during instruction .” 

“Each [of the lineages] has a purport; none of them is in conflict with the intention of the Buddha” (Jeffery Broughton, Zongmi on Chan, p. 107-8)

These two purports he puts in are the same as what I am following in these talks: to present practices that may appeal to different minds at different stages on the path. All teachings are provisional and will need to be abandoned. Do not get attached to the false notion of the “one true way.”

Empty Awareness

When we are rooted in our direct experience, our internal monologue falls away and we are just operating as Awareness. This is being in tune with our Original Nature, simply pure awareness expressing itself through our relative forms, our bodies.  When our sense of identity is rooted in our Original Nature this is Empty Awareness.  Normally our identity is rooted in our sense of self, which is an amalgam of memories, feelings, conditioning.  When we let go of our conditioning this sense of the small self is seen as fundamentally empty. Empty Awareness is what remains.

As the commentary falls away there is a sense of an immense silence. There is a great power in stillness and out of it seeps this great silence. Silence is the experience of empty awareness. When you begin to slip into this modality it almost seems like a roaring silence.  All of the practices of this retreat are devoted to silence, to pure, empty awareness.

The foundations of Ch’an practice,
Zongmi writhes that Ch’an is a uniquely Chinese Expression of Buddhism. He saw it’s pithy phrases, use of poetry, direct response to conditions as embodying the Chinese character and culture which is heavily oriented around poetry.  But its whole understanding of how the universe manifests itself and how we live within it underlies that. Without beginning from that perspective Ch’an loses much of its essence. We will examine the foundations of Ch’an primarily through the works of David Hinton and through Ch’an Master Sheng Yen we will see it put into practice.

Absence and Presence

“No-Gate Gateway’s native philosophical context extends back over two millennia prior to its composition. And yet it remains remarkably contemporary to us, for as we will see it is an empirically grounded spirituality that weaves human consciousness into landscape and Cosmos at profound levels. In its radical essence, Ch’an is a formalized philosophical practice cultivating a spiritual ecology that is an extension of Taoism, the empirically based spiritual philosophy that had shaped Chinese intellectual life for over a thousand years before Buddhism arrived in China. Ch’an originated in the fourth century through an amalgamation of these two traditions: Taoism and dhyāna (meaning “meditation,” and rendered in Chinese as Ch’an) Buddhism. It was widely considered by artist-intellectuals as a form of Taoist thought refined and reconfigured by Buddhist meditation practice.

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Virtual Sesshin May 2020: Overview and Sources

by tendo zenji

From May 12th-16th, 2020, we held a Virtual Sesshin, broadcast from Tahoma Zen Monastery. The theme of this retreat was Empty Awareness and presented a variety of Ch’an Theory and Technique around this theme. The retreat was oriented around practice and was primarily rounds of zazen. There was an emphasis on outdoor practice, with both outdoor zazen as well as specific outdoor Empty Awareness practices. These approaches complimented the seated meditation that made up the bulk of most days. Each day featured a Dharma Talk which will be posted over the forthcoming days.

wu

In this first post documenting this retreat we will examine the source material that was used throughout the retreat. The grounding of the retreat was in David Hinton’s Taoist understanding of Ch’an.

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No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
Translated by David Hinton
Shambhala, 2018
ISBN-10: 161180437X

David Hinton’s essential new translation of the Wu-men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan) was the core text for the grounding of this retreat into Ch’an thought. The introduction of this bought sketches out Chinese Ontology and its grounding in Taosism. This introduction illuminates how Chan practitioners approached the practice, integrated Buddhism and Taoism and worked with the Gong’an (Japanese: Koan) in this text. The translation of each case maintains the poetry, ontology grounding and elegance of the initial Chinese text.

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Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

Translated by David Hinton
New Directions, 2005
ASIN: B00O2R6G64

David Hinton’s selection and translations of poems from throughout the entire history of the Mountains and Rivers tradition. This again features an essential introduction that grounds the poetry and the movement in its Taoist and Ch’an roots. Absolutely essential text for understanding the degree to which the natural world is considered a part of the practice and filled with wonderful poems that capture our true nature in the wild.

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Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
David Hinton
Shambhala, 2019
ASIN: B07V8C265M

This absolutely unique book is part biography, part discourse on translation and part examination of the awakened life. A companion piece to Hinton’s newly revised and expanded Selected Poems of Tu Fu this book provides deep insight into translating Chinese poems. But most essentially it displays how a person who moves through the world without obstruction operates in this troubled world.

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The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2008
ASIN: B00C5KK72E

This was the core practice book that we used for this retreat. Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is unparalleled in presenting Just Sitting at both a practical level as well as its context within the Ch’an tradition. Featuring both a set of teisho from retreat directly on Silent Illumination it also includes several essays and translations from Chan Master Hongzhi the innovator of the technique. Absolutely essential reading for those who wish to continue on with this practice.

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Shattering the Great Doubt: the Chan Practice of Huatou
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2009
ASIN: B00C5KK738

This volume from Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is on the practice of Huatoa, a form of incessant inquiry. As an open and still mind is a prerequisite for this work (and any inquiry work) it presents the core method of Silent Illumination and related practices. Since both this book and the Method of No-Method are taking from teisho’s in retreat, this gives a somewhat different angle on those approaches. This also was the core text for the Rohatsu Observance that we held here at Tahoma in January of this year.

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Zongmi on Chan
Translation and commentary by Jeffery L. Broughton
Columbia University Press, 2009
ASIN: B0092WV78Q

This academic translation of Zongmi’s surviving original works provides deep insight into how to look at all of the various streams of Ch’an. While not heavily used during this retreat, it has influenced my thinking on working with skillful means and understanding the different schools of Ch’an and Zen.

The Hongzhou School: Baizhang

by tendo zenji

Linage

Dajian Huineng (Sixth Patriarch)
Nanyue Huairang
Mazu Daoyi
Baizhang Huaihai

Baizhang had numerous dharma heirs including Hunangbo, teacher of Linchi from when the dominate Linchi school formed.

Baizhang in the Record of the Transmission of the Lamp

 

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 85)

A FOREMOST DISCIPLE of Mazu, Baizhang Huaihai (720–814) was originally from the city of Changle in Fuzhou. He took his vows as a monk under the Vinaya master Fachao on Mt. Heng. Brilliant and learned as a young man, he traveled to study under the great teacher Mazu Daoyi. The Wudeng Huiyuan ranks him, along with Xitang Zhizang and Nanquan Puyuan, as one of the three most illustrious disciples of Mazu.

Baizhang represents how Bodhidharma’s Zen tradition put down roots and matured in China. From the perspective of spiritual practice, Baizhang’s teachings hewed to the tradition attributed to Bodhidharma of not relying on scripture but instead on “turning the light inward.” While this approach naturally led to a de-emphasis or outright rejection of religious symbolism and to iconoclastic tendencies, Baizhang kept Zen firmly grounded with his emphasis on ethical behavior and his “pure rules” for the monastery. This also reinforced the centrality of the home-leaving tradition. Here was a Zen teacher of clarity, who recognized that understanding the nature of the mind and observing the wheel of birth and death is not the final goal of Zen practice, but its source. He demonstrated that while the nature of consciousness is that it is not in the domain of the individual, the physical body is its vehicle—and he taught that overemphasis on “mind” while degrading the role of body leads to unethical behavior and nihilism. Here, Buddhism’s emphasis on the “middle way” takes complete form in a tradition too susceptible to philosophical idealism and metaphysics.


Practice in the Present.

 
Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 86-7)

Baizhang’s “practice in the present” is how Zen follows Bodhidharma’s instruction about “observing” mind. It is the observation that the present is the only context for life and practice, yet not imbuing that observation with ideas of existence, nonexistence, etc. The “nature” of which Bodhidharma taught and Baizhang spoke is not a metaphysical substrata of the observable world, but an undefinable quality of consciousness that, as Shitou said, lies outside the perspectives of “temporary” or “everlasting.” To Baizhang, all such views fall short of what can be directly observed.

The idea of “overcoming spurious doctrines” again reveals the contrast between Zen and the Buddhism of Emperor Wu. It draws a clear line between Zen and the parts of Mahayana Buddhism that idealized the faith and expounded it in grand metaphysical terms. This grounding of Zen in the present and in ordinary life characterized Bodhidharma’s Zen tradition from its early times to the present.

House Wind

 
Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 89)

Baizhang taught and resided as abbot and taught on Daxiong (“Great Hero”) Mountain, which was also known as Mt. Bai Zhang in what is now Fengxin County in Jiangxi Province. Besides being a Zen master of the first order, Baizhang established the monastic rules of Zen monasteries, partly on the model of the Fourth Ancestor, Dayi Daoxin. Prior to Baizhang’s times, many Zen monks lived in temples constructed by other branches of Buddhism. Influenced by Baizhang’s instructions, Zen temples evolved to be more self-supporting and independent

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 91)

In the everyday work of the monastery, Baizhang always was foremost among the assembly at undertaking the tasks of the day. The monks in charge of the work were concerned about the master. They hid his tools and asked him to rest. Baizhang said, “I’m unworthy. How can I allow others to work in my behalf?” He looked everywhere for his tools but was unable to find them. He even forgot to eat [while looking for his tools], and thus the phrase “a day without working is a day without eating” has become known everywhere.

 

Bibliography

I
Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings
Andy Ferguson.
Wisdom Publications. Expanded edition (February 22, 2011)
ISBN-10: 9780861716173

II
Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary
Thomas Cleary
Shambhala (April 12, 2005)
ISBN-10: 1590302184

III
The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth Through Tenth Century China
by Jinhua Jia
SUNY Press; Annotated edition edition (June 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0791468240

IV
Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism
by Mario Poceski
Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 13, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0195319966

Working with Contradiction

by tendo zenji

Pei Xiu asked, “What is Buddha?”

The master replied, “The mind is buddha. No-mind is the Way. If you neither arouse your mind nor allow yourself to think in terms of such mental conceptions as existence and nonexistence, long and short, self and others, and subject and object, then the mind is originally buddha and buddha is originally the mind.”
-Ch’an Master Huangbo, from A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, p. 127

Because all things arise from the generative emptiness that is fundamental reality, our experience is rife with contradictions. This and That are simultaneously Not-This and Not-That and bear no fundamental separation. ‘Mind is Buddha‘ and ‘No Mind, No Buddha‘ can both be a reflection of reality depending on circumstance.  We can be asked to examine something from one view as absolute reality and then examine its opposite as also simply another aspect of this reality.  For where can anything arise but from the generative ground of fundamental reality? All of the dualities, contradictory thoughts, paradoxical views, all are contained within true nature.

Working with contradiction is a way to get past our discriminating, conceptual mind. Deeply engaging with something, a word, a view, a fundamental question and following it down to its essential emptiness can lead to insight.  Then contemplating its opposite to the same place can open to a deeper insight. Working with contradictory statements can efficiently reveal this inherent emptiness, that ultimately there is no there, there.

Koan’s try to “cut off the mind road.” They try to tease mind outside of thought and explanation, and so, to return consciousness to silence and the more immediate experience possible to empty-mind. That empty-mind precludes the distancing of things as object. Like meditation, Koan’s establish mind in a relation of mirror-like immediacy, allowing an immediate experience of landscape’s ten thousand things in and of themselves, an elemental mystery. And that mirrorlike immediacy reveals that we are ourselves wholly a part of that elemental mystery.”
-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan,, p. xxi

Working with Gong’an (Jp. Koan) or Huatou (Jp. Wato) is a formalized practice of this type of work. But we can work with the contradiction of our lives, of the deep questions of ‘who am I, really?’ or ‘what is this?’  When dualities arise we push deeper into them, see both views as empty and ultimately seamless. For more on this topic please see the Dharma Talk below the fold.

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The Practice of Questioning

by tendo zenji

Dharma Talk from the April 25th, 2020 Day of Practice at Tahoma Zen Monastery

Meditative Self-Inquiry

The last few weeks in our talks we have been investigating the triune intertwined approach of : Being in the body, Being Outside and Being in Silence each with its many attendant practices. These practices are ones that we can do on our own with positive results.  We should always check any insights with a genuine teacher, but in these times when we have no choice but to practice more on our own, this approach has an even greater vitality.  

Once one is able to truly Be in Silence than this is the ground from which one can do inquiry, whether it be huatou (wato), Koan Study, or Self-Inquiry.  Of these practices only Self-Inquiry can be pursued on one’s own.  The core part of this sort of self-directed practice is to never be satisfied, always look again, always go deeper.

A Natural Practice

In an essay entitled The Seven Tongues of God Timothy Leary postulated that there are seven essential questions that define the religious experience: what is reality, what is life, who is man, what is awareness, who am I, what do our emotions mean and is there life after death .

“Religion is a social system which has evolved its roles, rules, rituals, values, language, space-time locations to further the pursuit for the same goals, to answer these questions subjectively through the revelatory experience. […] A religion which fails to provide direct experiential answers to these spiritual questions becomes secular, political, and tends to oppose the individual revelatory confrontation.”
– Timothy Leary, from The Seven Tongues of God in Politics of Ecstasy p. 13

Religions seem to always begin with the direct revelatory exploration of these questions and then over time codify into a set of prepackaged answers and intermediaries to that direct experience. The history of many religions seems to be one of constant schisms based on eliminating the intermediaries only to over time build them up again.  Leary on the other hand stated that not only could you discover the answer to these questions yourself but that it was our fundamental purpose do so.

Find out for yourself. Seeking. I codified this as looking into ‘What is really going on’. That is what is happening at an absolutely fundamental level.  In essence I was exploring one of the essential Self-Inqurey questions: What is this?

Many people develop these burning questions on their own and pursue them to awakening, even without any practice framework or understanding at all. But combined with a genuine practice it can be a lot more powerful.

Bassui

After I began formal Zen Practice I was listening to Dharma talks from numerous sources and from Roshi Bodhin of the Rochester Zen Center I heard a teisho from Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Bassui felt one had to see into ones true nature before one could engage in Koan Study or other practices. From his youth he was driven question ‘Who is the Master” and strove hard until he answered this and had it verified by a genuine Master. From Braverman’s Introduction to Mud and Water:

When Bassui asks, “Who is the master?” as he did of himself during his own training, and demands that his students pursue this enquiry to its core, not stopping even at realization, but rather, “…throwing out [realization], returning to the one who realizes…” (Kana hōgo), Bassui is pointing to the nature of the Self, which can be understood when one truly learns the nature of “he” who makes decisions, he who moves the arms and legs…. In the words of Rinzai, “…you must recognize the one who manipulates these reflections. He is the primal source of all the Buddhas and every place is home to which the follower of the Way returns.”

In bringing people back to the “master who hears, sees…” Bassui, like Rinzai, is steering students away from the feeling, “I know.”
– Arthur Braverman, from Mud and Water, (pp. 18-19).

In the below talk we delve deep into the core of Bassui’s inquiry based teaching and his rigor and fidelity to the practice.   Lin-Chi (Rinzai) throughout his talks would persistently ask of the assembly of ‘Who is listening to the dharma right now?  This question, ‘Who is listening, right now’, Bassui asked himself incessantly until he truly knew. Thought his teaching career he would bring students constantly back to seeing into their own minds, to answering for themselves “who is listening?”

The Practice of Self-Inquiry

 “To relax your body, first relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.”
– Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt:, p. 8

Settle into the body, placing ones attention on anything tense and exhale, until totally relaxed. From here turn your attention upon itself, or upon the totality of the body, or simply stop placing your attention anywhere. Abide in awareness. If thoughts arise, let them arise and fall. If sensations arise, let them rise and fall. If you follow them, notice then and then return simply being in awareness. If you get too distracted, return to the body scan and relax where is tense. Conclude this with resting your attention in the tanden for a few breaths.  Then place your awareness upon itself.  From here you can begin inquiry.

In Ch’an practices are three core forms of inquiry:

Huatou (wato) is an unceasing questioning of the mind leading to ‘Apprehension and Anxiety’ the “Great Ball of Doubt” which one shatters, revealing our true nature.

Koan study looks at things through numerous angles to get to a root question. While there are koans oriented around breakthrough there are numerous other aspects of practice that is being investigated.

Self-Inquiry is asking the question into the calm tranquility of the mind and listening for the response.  It can be more thought of setting the ground, the orientation for abiding in awareness.  

There are numerous question one can inquiry into What is This? Who Am I? are the most fundamental and virtually all others resolve into this.  They are of course two sides of the same coin. But other inquiries can be useful for cutting though our own specific conditioning for getting past attachments.  What is real? What is True? Who is listening? What am I? What is most essential? and so on.

Question the self to see what comes up. Then this must be questioned. Questioning must continue until there is only our true nature remains. This process is why this is such a fruitful practice to engage in in self-directed practice. There is no endpoint, we always can keep question, going deeper. When available, like Bassui, we verify any deep insight with a genuine teacher. But otherwise we continue the questioning, always finding more.

In the talk from this day all of this and more is explored in greater depth.

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Finding ourselves Outside

by tendo zenji

April 19th, 2020, Dharma Talk from Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery 

This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.
-David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

Continuing the discussion of the intertwined triune approach of Being in the Body, Being Outside and Being in Silence, in this talk we consider awakening in nature.

When out of doors one is natural in ones body but by being aware of our bodies, centering ourselves in the abdomen we can truly inhabit them. As we move through the natural environment with all of it’s continual change we can become increasingly aware of silence. Behind every sound, behind the incessant activity is a deep silence.  Twilight when birds come to rest and people are generally not out and about you can feel a hushed stillness. This points to the deeper silence.  Paying attention to these conditions  facilitates getting past the self. There are active practices such as empty awareness, or landscape samadhi of the Ch’an Practitioners. 

Within this underlying cosmology, Chia Tao’s poem begins to look quite different, and our reading begins to resemble that of its original readers. It is now recognizable as a poem about the experience of attending to the movements of this primal cosmology. The wild mountain realm embodies this cosmology of natural process in its most comprehensive and awesome manifestation. Its basic regions appear almost schematically in countless paintings from the Chinese rivers-and-mountains (also shan-shui, but universally translated “landscape”) tradition: the pregnant emptiness of nonbeing, in the form of mist and lakes and empty space; the landscape of being as it burgeons forth in a perpetual process of transformation; and then, nestled within this self-generating and harmonious Cosmos, the human. The silence and emptiness that suffuse Chia Tao’s landscape are nothing other than nonbeing itself, and the distilled clarity of his images renders the individuating occurrences of tzu-jan’s unfolding.
-David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

As an example of awakening out of doors, consider Chapter 2 from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (pp. 8-15). In this story Douglas is outside with his father an little brother and his true nature sneaks up on him. Hear the whole story in the recording from this talk embedded below the fold.

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