Tantric Retreats: Tips and Rambles

2018/04/01

For the fourth time today I pull aside the curtain and enter my retreat cell. Since it is the fourth, and final session of the day it is the longest and the most intense, more deities are called into my space, more offerings are left out, and many more mantras are chanted. I light my incenses. I wrap my ngakpa shawl (ངག་པ་གཟན ngag’pa gzan) around my chest and shoulder. I place rice, barley, sesame seeds, dried meat, and mini M&Ms on the plates with my tormas (གཏོར་མ gtor’ma), my offering cakes. Finally I settle down and begin the ritual.

 

I’m currently in week ten of what will be a fourteen week long Yamantaka retreat. It’s a foolish thing, but I do it anyways. Tantric retreats are one of the elements of Vajrayana Buddhism that haven’t seemed to translate into the West properly, and yet they’re of the highest importance in the tradition. To really work with a deity, to truly enter their mandala, there are (simplified) four main steps: the wang (དབང་ dbang) or empowerment, the lung (ལུང་ lung – distinct word from རླུང་ rlung) or transmission often called reading, aural, oral, or textual transmission, the tri (I’ve never seen this written in Tibetan or Wylie so not sure on the spelling) or teaching, and finally a retreat which can take many forms. Mostly people only receive the wang, the empowerment, and think that’s it. There are a lot of reasons for it, but a lot of Lamas don’t follow up with the transmission or proper teaching.

 

If I were to make a poor analogy I would say the empowerment is merely an introduction at a party. “Mae, I would like you to meet Sabesh, Sabesh this is Mae.” The transmission is more like having a conversation, small talk, you’re connecting with them, but it’s still kind of surface level. The teaching is the conversations you have after a few hours, when you really start to learn about each other. The retreat is establishing a relationship with them.

 

Depending on what class of tantra (as there are four classes of increasing complexity/difficulty) and how strict your teacher is, there are a lot of rituals, even basic ones, that you’re not able to perform without completing a retreat. Even if you’re more relaxed in that regard there are many reasons still to do retreats: establishing a deep connection that is often said to transcend incarnations, to embody the deity, exploring reality, to massively purify your karma (it’s said for instance that once you have completed a tantric retreat your astrological chart is useless for predictions because you’ve changed your karma so much), and many more.

 

The protocols and rituals for a retreat are very complicated, and wildly different between classes of tantra and what deity the retreat is with. There is no way I could tell you how to do a specific retreat, nor would it be my place. That said, having done several retreats I do have some advice, hints and tricks I’ve picked up over the years that will be helpful to people. (Including myself, as I often forget some of them until I hit the wall) As said, the protocols are complicated and varied, so if you are doing a retreat, check with your lama if my advice is allowed, depending on retreat and strictness it might not be permissible. A lot of this advice may seem basic or obvious, but I assure you a lot of the basic solutions don’t cross people’s minds. Some advice is more about the woo, some advice is more mundane. It might seem common sense, but I know from conversations that a lot of people honestly just don’t think of some of these things, myself included for a few retreats.

 

 

I would say first and foremost the best piece of advice I can give is to start a retreat on a Friday evening, or before you have a few days off from work and obligations. This is both for practical   reasons, and magickal reasons. Practically you’re adding in a few hours of activity into your schedule that isn’t usually there, so trying to do a session before work, then going to work, coming home to do another session, it’s a lot to adapt to, and can be very hard and might even cause you to have to stop the retreat realizing you bite off more than you could chew. You also don’t know how much time your retreat sessions will take, so it will be hard to know what you can fit in before work, how much earlier you’ll have to wake up, etc. Think of it like any lifestyle change, Monday is not the best day to start going to the gym for a morning swim, after work for weightlifting, and then jogging when you get home, that’s a lot at once. Starting when you have a day or two off gives you some time to ease into it.

 

On an energetic level retreats are intense, and while most of that intensity builds over the weeks, one thing that’s fairly common is what’s jokingly called “Retreat Illness” or less dignified “Retreat Runs.” Retreats are hugely purifying rituals, and a lot of people, sadly myself included, get very sick the first day or few. Essentially your physical body decides to purify itself, and that means getting rid of everything. To be blunt, a lot of people get diarrhea the first day, it’s just a thing. If you start before a few days off, you can get that out of your system (literally) before you’re back to work.

 

Some retreats need to be started during specific astrological conditions, so this might not be feasible. It is possible in some cases to do what is essentially a dedication to the retreat on the proper day, to essentially tell whatever Buddha or Bodhisattva that you’re going to work with them soon, and then to perform that deities rituals as normal daily until you can start the retreat. That’s what I did this time, my retreat was technically supposed to start Monday night, so I went to temple and did the first session with my teacher as a dedication, and then “kept the engine running” by performing Yamantaka rituals until Friday.

 

Have support if needed. Retreats can bring up a lot of unexpected things, strong emotions, forgotten memories, and other things that aren’t always pleasant. Try to have someone in your life you can talk to about this if you need to, and let them know before you start the retreat so you don’t just end up dumping childhood grief at their feet suddenly. Preferably someone with magick experience or very non-judgmental, because there is a level of weird and intense that might not be appropriate to discuss with people.

 

This piece of advice, probably more than any other I’ll give, is one that you definitely need to talk to your teacher about first. There are two common mental-energetic reactions in retreats, usually more near the beginning. One is a disoriented confused sensation with light drifting sensations, everything is relaxed. (It’s not too different from being slightly drunk or high) The other is a strong stabbing headache. They’re caused by having your energy too “thin” in the case of the disoriented sensation, or by having your energy too “thick” with the headache. When the energy is thin it flows through your system quicker, like your energetic pulse is racing. This can make it hard to focus, but a very simple cure is to have a piece of meat or cheese. Meat in particular is said to slow or thicken up your energy. When your energy is too thick it presses against your system, slowly moving and blocking your flow. This pressure causes stabbing headaches, but a simple fix is a shot of strong alcohol. Alcohol thins out your energy (which is supposedly why they feel similar) allowing your energy to flow properly again without obstruction.

 

Now this isn’t appropriate with all deities, general guideline would be it’s not acceptable for Peaceful deities or Kriya Tantra retreats, but it is acceptable for Wrathful deities or Annuttarayoga Tantra retreats. Ask your teacher. If it’s acceptable find out if it’s acceptable /during/ a session. Not all teachers allow food or drink in the retreat session, but if they do it makes dealing with these two disruptions easier. If not you can always partake when you’re done to help level out from the session, or before if you know it happens frequently.

 

Along the same line of “ask your teacher if this is allowed in the session with you” there are a few other staples that can be useful, but often overlooked. Have lip balm with you, if you’re not used to muttering for two hours straight your lips might dry out, it’s uncomfortable and slows you down. Take some in with you and apply as needed. Water, similar reason, muttering for two hours can wear on your voice, have water with you in case you need to refresh your through. Tissue paper, you wouldn’t think of it before hand, but the first time you’re looking around the meditation cell to find the “safest” direction to sneeze you’ll realize having tissue on hand is a good idea. Also take in a thick towel. If you’re not used to sitting on a mediation cushion for two hours your body will not be happy with the retreat. Having a thick towel gives you something you fold and layout as needed as a pillow for under your joints or wherever hurts. Lastly have some form of counter, you can keep track in your head, but for longer sessions it gets harder to remember where you are. Counters aren’t prone to confusion. I prefer barley seeds. If I’m doing a certain amount I take out that many seeds, when I’m done one round of mantras I toss a seed onto the torma plate until I run out. If I’m just reciting until I feel done I just have a pile and I put one aside each time and use that to keep track.

 

My final piece of advice is pace yourself by syllable, not by mantras (I see people make this mistake often). During a retreat you have to collect certain amounts of different mantras. In my current retreat for instance I have to do 10,000 Manjushri mantras, 10,000 Yamantaka Root mantras, 100,000 Yamantaka Action mantras, 10,000 Yamantaka Essence mantra, and 10,000 Yamantaka Wisdom Shower mantras. That’s 140,000 mantras, and I know several people who pace themselves by mantra. So say they want to finish in four weeks, that’s 140,000 mantras over twenty eight days, that’s five thousand mantras a day. The problem is the mantras are different lengths, one only has seven syllables while another has forty. If you go by mantra count that varies between 35,000 syllables to 200,000 that’s a huge jump in time. You’d notice quickly enough when you’re suddenly taking a lot longer, and you can change it, but the problem is if you paced out your retreat for a specific end date you have already spent a lot of your time doing very little work and will have to really push to catch up. Starting off with a good schedule helps. You don’t have to make it as precise as me, but you’ll see how I figure it out.

 

Of the mantras I have to recite ten thousand times they have seven syllables, forty syllables, seven syllables, and sixteen syllables. Then the mantra I have to say one hundred thousand times has ten syllables.

 

7+40+7+16=70

70 x 10,000=70,000

 

10 x 100,000=1,000,000

 

70,000+1,000,000=1,700,000

 

So I’m saying 1,700,000 syllables. Now let’s assume that’s over 60 days.

 

1,700,000 / 60 = 28,333

 

That’s 28,333 syllables a day. Now you just apply that backwards with your mantras. The Manjushri mantra has seven syllables and I have to say it ten thousand times. You count 100 mantras per round on the mala, so that’s 700 syllables. 28,333 syllables divided by 700 (one mala) would be 40.48. Round up, and that becomes 41, on the first day you say 41 Manjushri mantras. 41 the second day. On the third day you only need 18 malas to reach ten thousand, but 18 malas is only 12,600 mantras, you still have 15,733 to make your daily goal. The second mantra has forty syllables, so that’s 4000 syllables per mala. 15,733 divided by 4000 is 3.9, round up to 4. On day three you say 18 malas of Manjushri’s mantra and then 4 malas of the Root mantra. Then the next day all 28,333 go to the Root mantra, so 28,333 / 4000 = 7.1 rounded to eight. So day four is eight malas, and that continues for almost two weeks before shifting into the next mantra.

 

Yes, that might seem like a lot of needless work. But I have seen people have to stop retreats because by the time they hit the long mantras and realized how much longer it would take to do, they didn’t have the time to actually complete the retreat. A job well begun is half done.

 

There are dozens of tips and tricks that you’ll learn, this is no way meant as a complete tip guide, just some advice passed on the most common or problematic issues I’ve experienced or discussed with sangha members. As stated several times though, check with your teacher if you’re unsure. I am not your teacher, I don’t set the protocols for your retreat.

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Wednesday Webshare: Smashing the Wall of Jericho, History, and Buddhist Humour

2016/04/27

We have found a large underground city, perhaps the largest ever recovered. I love hearing about these discoveries for multiple reasons, and a big part is it helps unsettle our historical narrative. Also I’m of the camp that believes our estimates for these cities are far too conservative. I might sound a bit like dear Gordon (but I’m in good company if I do) but our history is more complex than we realize, and when you look at the mythologies of this area, the idea of ancient people living underground opens up some fascinating possibilities.

Humanity was more advanced in a lot of our early received history than most people realize. Just recently it came to light that Babylonian astronomers had developed a pre-cursor to calculus. Their spiritual pursuit of their gods led them to understand the sky and chart the world in ways most modern historians don’t realize. Part out of a notion of prestige and lineage, we like to trace great accomplishments to people “like us” so the Western view of world history often ignores how often our great ideas and accomplishments were done somewhere else first. Another part of it is it’s comforting to assume we’re much more advanced than those who came before us, but in reality we don’t want to see where we came from.

There is also a huge Judeo-Christinizing influence on history. I’ve seen it colourfully referred to as the Wall of Jericho. (I should pause here to remind readers, or inform newer readers, that I’m not just a person babbling about history, I have an Honours Bachelor degree in history from one of the best history departments in North America, and part of my early degree focused on Ancient Near East History. So I’m a slightly qualified person babbling about history) Basically there is a lot of pushback against historically dating things outside of the Biblical time line. Even though most people think Creationism is a joke, it’s hard academically to get consensus that something involving human civilization happened before the year 4000 BCE. Slowly we’re pushing that line, but each time we do, the Biblical timeline shifts too. Most notably our dating of the walls of Jericho. Despite the fact that we can disprove essentially every part of the history in the Bible before King David, not that we lack proof, we have proof its wrong.

That’s part of a bigger rant, but it’s why I love Gobekli Tepe, it’s undeniably the oldest monument we’ve discovered, and due to evidence around it, it’s impossible to shortchange its 12,000 year history. We’re still studying, but we’re restoring it too. I sincerely hope as we study it we’ll really break the Wall of Jericho and realize humanity’s history is longer and more interesting that people generally think.

Another step in uncovering our histories is the discovery of a large body of text written in the Etruscan language. As we work through it we may begin to learn more about this surprisingly powerful culture that we actually know little about, and since the inscription is from a temple we might learn more about their gods.

In more recent times regarding recovering lost history, the occult books of Heinrich Himmler have been found. Apparently 13,000 books. While I’m sure many of them are run of the mill, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nazis found some more unique books in their rampage, and I can’t wait to hear more about what was uncovered.

Switching gears:

There is a new blog, that I cannot recommend enough, but I suggest folks head over to The Perfumed Skull. It’s a blog on anthropology, esotericism, and a large dose of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not a casual read, the entries are long, dense, and academic, but if you’re looking for a more critical historical/anthropological take, this is definitely worth following.

I first “met” the author when he linked to my post on tulpas in his great piece (on another site) analyzing the role and change of the tulpa idea in Western thought. And was polite enough to call my tone merely exasperated.

Following Buddhism in an irreverent way, facebook memories reminded me of my Buddha Name Shindan Maker I made a few years back, thanks to Polyphanes pushing me. At the time I was reading the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is not a Buddhist text I suggest anyone read unless it’s a really important part of your path. Part of the book is essentially a catalogue of all the Buddhas across different “world oceans.” They all have fantastic and bizarre names, that follow a simple pattern, so I put in the common words, and let this program spit out names that are hilariously close to the original. I, in case you were wondering, will be the Buddha Adamantine Light of Razorlike Compassion. As someone who repeatedly says “I will shank you with loving-kindness” razorlike compassion is very suiting.

Speaking of irreverent Buddhism, spirit houses are a common fixture in Thai Buddhist cultures. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) many cats assume any boxlike structure is for them. So here is an adorable collection of cats cramming themselves in spirit houses

Lastly, after the big Japanese tsunami lots of taxi drivers reported giving rides to ghosts. While it’s hard to trace the validity of these stories, it’s interesting to me that it happened en masse. If it was just a single driver, it would be easy to say it’s made up or imagined, but a bit harder with several reporting similar events.


Nine Purifying Breaths: Physical Forms

2016/04/09

I mentioned in my last post why I was doing the Nine Purifying Breaths, but I didn’t make it too clear on the other reasons people should practice it. As much as I hate the panacea tone behind it, it really is one of those exercises that is pretty much good for all occasions. In general though it is great for clearing out the mind before another practice that requires focus and clarity, like meditation or skrying. It is also good before doing a lot of energy work, as it gets the channels cleaned out and primed. If your mind or energy seems to be out of balance, and you’re not sure why it can help bring your system either back into balance, or redistribute the energy so it will balance itself out soon enough. I also recommend it as a daily or weekly practice (despite the fact I let it drop recently) as a way of keeping things moving and in shape, mental and energetic preventative maintenance. Also as I get into more complicated forms of the practice you can see more specific uses.

In talking about the physical side of this practice there are a few assumptions readers will have to work with. First there are energy channels in the body, secondly the carry different types of energy, one of those types of energy is the type you’re breathing in, it’s connected more to the breath than anything, and these subtle energetic channels can be affected by physical posture and pressure, especially the ones connected to the breath energy.

“All lamas have their own rituals” as discussed last time, so the descriptions of the physical actions that go along with this practice are varied, though many of them share the same logic or symbolic purpose, just expressed different. Before I discuss the version I favour there is a variant I want to share.

Previously I mentioned physically blocking the nostril to direct the breath and energy into the appropriate channel. I have read instead of lifting the corresponding arm up. So for instance if you’re drawing energy/breath into the right channel, instead of blocking left nostril, you would reach your right arm out to the side at the height of your shoulders. This raised right arm opens the right channel, makes it dominant. It doesn’t prevent energy/breath from entering the left channel, but it makes more enter the right. For exhaling though you would still block the nostril to force the energy out the other channel, but if that isn’t an option you can raise the opposite arm to open the corresponding channel. I mention this alternative form, because while I don’t prefer it or find it as effective, if you do this practice regularly there are times when inhaling through one nostril will be impossible/uncomfortable; cold, allergies, sinus infections, deviated septum flaring up. This way you can breathe normally if you can’t do single nostril breathing.

Every method I’ve read or been taught that mentions the position of the fingers in the hands says the same thing, thumb pressed against the ring finger. Oddly though I cannot find a reason why this is done, while the fingers represent different elements, those meanings shift from teaching to teaching, and no combination really seems that impressive.

For actually bringing up your hand to your nose I’ve learnt three methods (or two plus one). The first is the plus one, in that case, it’s simply just put your finger on your nose, don’t be fancy. The other two methods are fairly different in posture and purpose. I would practice the basic form without worrying about doing anything fancy with the hands. Once you understand the practice you can experiment.

The first method raise the arm out to the side on the same side as the channel you are going to clear right arm for right channel, left arm for left channel. Then bending the elbow and twisting the wrist bring the hand in to block the nostril on the same side of the body. As you bring your hand in you draw a loop in the air. Imagine you’re drawing this symbol þ in the air, but rotated so the straight line is on the top, you’re drawing a loop hanging from a line. As you make this spinning motion you’re gathering in a cloud of radiant light to inhale, pulling this cloud in front of your face. Then you simple move the finger to the other nostril to block it for the exhale.

The second method focuses more on the channels and physical practice. Starting with both your hands pressed against your legs as described last post, put your hands into fists (still holding the thumb against your ring finger). From here draw your fists up your body, roughly inline with the inside of your shoulders, between the side of your torso and your nipples. (I’m going to describe the procedure for clearing out the right channel, because it’s easier to explain one way, and reverse it. So this would be inhaling through the left nostril, exhaling through the right.) Once your fists are more or less level with your shoulders shoot your fists out to your left. Your left arm should be stretched out completely, your right arm will be bent across your chest, and you want to push your fist just on the inside of where your left armpit is. There is a muscle there, it’s the part that “frames” the shape of your armpit when you raise your arms up. Press your fist into this muscle. Bend your left elbow and block your right nostril, so you are reaching across the body. Breathe in as described previously, and then move your finger to block your left nostril and breathe out. This posture does two main energetic functions, first what you’re doing with your right fist by the armpit is pressing down on the channel connected to that arm and the breath, this prevents you from drawing the energy into the arm and forces all of the energy into your channel. Also because the right arm is held up during this movement, it’s physically opening that channel a bit more to make the expulsion more efficient.

Last post I recommended the seven point posture, this is for two reasons. First sitting up straight, without supporting your back forces the channels to be upright and open, leaning against a chair can put pressure on the channels or muscles that close it a bit. Obviously if you need to use a chair, do so, but if you can sit upright without one for a while that is the better choice. Secondly sitting cross-legged forms a loop in the bottom of your energy system. While some energy can flow out the base of your spine, or out from the soles of your feet, most of it will flow down one leg, and then get reabsorbed back into the other leg. It’s not about avoiding energy loss in the sense of you only have so much or anything, but more about keeping the internal pressure constant. If you’re trying to force energy out a channel through your nostril you don’t want any “leaking” out your feet because that will mean there is less force pushing out from your system.

I also described pressing your wrists against your legs for the last three breaths. You want to push on the “highest” part of your femur, which if you’re looking down at your crossed leg tends to be around a third of way in from the outer edge, the part of leg facing more behind you. Like pressing on the armpit, this is pushing down on the physical analog of the main energy channel connected to breath and your legs. This is again to help “seal” the pressure when you exhale through the crown of your head. The reason you bend over is a similar purpose, as you breathe out you’re bending over at the waist to close that channel behind the outflowing energy, so none of the gunk can sink back down. My one teacher described it like the way you fold or roll up a tube of toothpaste to force everything out. The channel reopens completely when you sit up.

The physicality of the practice also went a bit long, so next post I’ll begin complicating the energetic/spiritual practice.


Nine Purifying Breaths: Basic Form

2016/04/05

I want to talk about one of my favourite Buddhist energy work techniques. Personally right now my system is a bit sluggish, and considering I’m doing a retreat and spending the next three weeks pretty much living in temple with my Rinpoche I need to be at my best, so I’m doing this a lot. Also a few weeks ago I was at a party and a friend asked about clearing out her system, and I wanted to do a write up for her and forgot.

The Nine Purifying Breaths (དགུ་རླུང་བསངས་ gulung sang) is a great technique, it’s simple, it’s effective, and it has the potential to be really complex and powerful, but doesn’t have to be. It’s also a fairly popular technique. Without even pausing to think I can come up with three books I’ve seen it in. The “trouble” is the way it’s written about differs, I’ve learnt it from four different lamas in four different forms. There is a Tibetan saying (according to my Rinpoche, google came up with nothing) “Every lama has his own rituals” which basically means everyone does things a little bit differently.

This post will be a little bit different from all the times I’ve been taught it, or read it, but I’m going to write it in a way, that will allow people to “scale up” as needed and able. What I mean is the practice, as is most traditionally taught relies on a fair amount of Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, but if you aren’t familiar with what red or blue or green symbolize, or what a snake or chicken symbolize the practice will be more bizarre than helpful. That said it’s a practice that I’ve effectively seen simplified by teachers to make it accessible, and those of us with more of a foundation in tantric practices can add in more as we go.

The Nine Purifying Breaths is pretty much what it sounds like, a set of nine breaths that purify your energy system. They do a lot more than that, especially in the complex forms, but at the basic level it’s a great way to get energy moving and cleared out. It’s practiced in all the schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, and as far as I can tell historically it predates them and comes from the Bön tradition. (I can find historical mentions of the practice, but never any mention of who came up with it, which suggests it came from Bön)

Before we can even begin you need to have a sense of the Energy System we’ll be working with. First disclaimer: If this doesn’t match the way you see your energy body that is fine, these things are our codification of abstract stuff beyond our understanding, so just practice it this way with these visuals and then you can go back to your own system, that does work. What is described here is a model, not ultimate reality.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don't worry about the colours or the other shapes.

Pay attention to the placement of the channels, don’t worry about the colours or the other shapes.

The practice will focus on the three main channels: The central channel which opens at the crown of your head runs through the spine (or just in front of it) and opens out the base of your spine, and the left and right channel which open at the nostril go up behind the eyes over the skull and down the side of the spine and then curl up into the central channel just above the base of the spine. There are traditional colours associated with the channels, but they differ occasionally, and aren’t important for the basic version of this practice. The central channel is about as thick as your thumb or index finger, the left and right channel are a bit thinner than your pinkie finger. Some other practices and systems have the left and right channel swirling around the central channel, or looping at certain points, in this case they just go straight down. Do not worry about your energy centres and how these channels do or don’t interact with them, it’s unimportant at this point.

Onto the actual practice: Sit in a proper meditation posture, if you can do the Seven Point Posture I recommend that. This is one of the few practices where I feel the need to stress sitting on the ground in some form of crossed legs. Getting it to work properly in a chair is a bit of extra work, though it might not seem like it, because how the subtle channels interact with the physical body it is important.

In both hands place you thumb firmly against the base of the ring finger and keep them there until the practice is done. Raise your right hand and with the ring finger press it against your right nostril to close it. Take in a slow deep breath through the left nostril. As you’re breathing in picture radiant clear light flowing in with the breath, into the left nostril, up the left channel behind the eye and over the skull, and down beside the spine, and then finally into the central channel. Don’t worry if you can’t “fill” the central channel, you’re not trying to, you’re just trying to put your breath into it. Pause holding the breath and move as much of this light into the central channel as possible. Move your right hand over, and using the ring finger block your left nostril. Breathe out your right nostril. As you breathe the light moves from the central channel into the right channel where they connect by the base of the spine, travels up the channel around the back of the head over the skull, behind the eye and out through the right nostril. As the light moves through this channel it clears out the obstructions, the negative/stagnant energy, the gunk and crap stuck in that channel, the breath that comes out isn’t the clear light that came in, but instead is a thick oily smoke. You can guide the smoke to either settle into the ground where it is absorbed by the earth and carried deep into the planet to be purified there, or it can spread out into space like smoke would and as the light and wind catch it it is scattered and purified into nothing. Repeat this two more times.

Now repeat the same process, but switch sides. Taking your left ring finger block your left nostril and breathe in clear vibrant light through the right nostril, up the right channel, down the channel, and finally into the centre. Move the left hand over and block the right nostril. Breathe out the left nostril, having the light drain from the central channel into the left channel through the connection by the base of the spine, up the channel, clearing out the gunk as before, then finally releasing the oily smoke through the left nostril. Repeat this two more times.

Place both your hands on your legs near your hips, palms up. Press down with your wrist putting a bit of pressure on your legs, your wrists should be over your femur. (I’m going light on the more technical/physical instructions, but I feel this is a good practice even in the simple form) Breathing in through both nostrils draw in that radiant clear light into both the left and right channel at once, up behind the eyes and over the skull, down the back and curling up into the central channel. Pause holding your breath for a moment to draw as much of the light into the central channel as possible. Now continuing to press down on your legs, slowly start to bend over from the waist as you breathe out. While the breath is physically leaving your nostrils, the light is actually going to travel up through the central channel, as before clearing and purifying as it goes, and out through the crown of your head as that oily smoke again. You don’t have to bend all the way over, but as far as you comfortably can. When you’ve finished breathing out the black smoke from your head sit up straight and repeat two more times.

This post is becoming longer than expected, so I’ll have to explain the more complicated/detailed elements in another post. For now practice it this way.

I will give some advice though. If it’s your first time doing it, or the first time in a long time, only do nine breaths. It might seem simple, and you might want to try again, don’t. Give you system time to adjust. After a day or two you can try doing the nine breaths twice in a row if you want. You should never do more than three sets of nine even if you’re used to it. That’s a general rule I see, and I find trying to do more will leave you more light-headed and open than is useful. You can wait a few hours and do another set, just avoid doing them too close together. Also I’ve been told you’re never to do more than three sets of three in a day, but I’ve never done that many, so I can’t say if that limit is symbolic or there for a purpose, but I can think of several reasons why it would be unwise.

The way I put it here has you do three breaths on one side, three on the other, and then three for the central channel. Another way to do it is to do one breathe on the right, one on the left, back and forth until you’ve done three each, and then do the central channel. I find that is less effective in the simple form if your system isn’t clean yet, you’re pushing some of that energy gunk back and forth, rather than slowly pushing it out of the system. If your system is in good shape though and you don’t have much to push through, then it’s fine. I find it’s less effective in general with the more complicated forms, probably because you’re doing more complex visualizations and energy work, and switching energy types and visuals back and forth is less productive than the repetition.

Since this is something I’ll have to revisit soon to explain more, ask questions and I’ll try to incorporate them into the following posts.


Buddhism 101: Karma Followup

2016/02/21

My entry on karma had some good comments I wanted to address.

Harry, from The Unlikely Mage, corrected me in my use of terms. That technically Karma is cause, and Vipaka is result, at least historically. I don’t find that supported in Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact despite the language I used about karma being the result, we frame it as both the cause, and the effect.

While it might be easy and convenient to split things up into cause and effect, there really isn’t a distinction. Every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, and even if we take a specific event, like the punching analogy from the first entry cause/effect blur into an infinite sequence.

We tend to think of it as I punch you, you get mad and dislike me. But really it’s I get mad (effect), I’m mad (cause) so I punch you (effect), I punch you (cause) you fall back (effect), you fall back (cause) and get angry (effect), you get angry (cause) and dislike me (effect). Even that sequence could be broken down thousands of times into smaller units of both thought and action. As is I started part way into the sequence with me getting mad…but what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? This plays into the Buddhist concept of interdependence that I want to talk about next post, but basically everything is infinitely connected and entwined. There is no way to separate anything, so we see karma as cause, and effect, because they’re not different really, just a different point on an infinite continuum.

While in some ways it could be less precise, I like it because it eliminates the illusion of concrete events of cause and effect, and reveals a continuous stream of them. We do use language like karmic seeds and karmic ripenings to differentiate between karma as cause, and karma as effect in specific cases, but it’s clear they’re both karma.
Uratriura also brought up a good point (one I might have wanted to elide) “Since karma seems to be resolved in the here and now and only specific sections taken to other lives the theory of having several souls forming a group of “learning” from each other (or resolving each others karma or being interwined in each others karma) seems to be obsolete. It simply seems to be a random gathering in random lives. But when and what is this rare case of meeting up again in other lives?”

So I mentioned that interpersonal karma essentially dies with the people, and meeting up again in other lives happens rarely. I misspoke in an attempt to simplify matters. Remember how at the end of my last post I stressed that everything that happens is karma? Same is true for meeting people. What I should have said is technically you probably have some karma with everyone you encounter, so much so that it becomes meaningless to fixate on. In Buddhist theory this is commonly expressed in the idea that every sentient being has been your mother at one point in time. While this might not be literally true, the idea is what matters.

Let’s take some simplified math with generalized numbers. Modern humanity has been around for 200,000, average lifespan for most of that time was about 35 years. So assuming you’ve been incarnating on Earth all that time (Buddhism says it could have been elsewhere), and that you’ve been human all that time (you could have been anything), and we’re not counting human species that came before us, just to make the math simple, you’ve had nearly 6,000 lives. So that’s 12,000 parents, assuming monogamy (which is just false historically) that’s 6,000 partners. Let’s assume, for not reason other than to make more numbers, that you had on average four kids per lifetime, that’s 24,000 children. So we’re up to 42,000 people who have been parents/lovers/children. We’re not even including siblings, extended family, or non-family relationships.

You can quickly see how many people you’re connected to. Add in two more siblings, and three close friends, and we’re up to 57,000 people. That’s just 200,000 years as humans, not including life on other planets, or dimensions, or whatever. So while I said it’s rare to meet someone from the past. I guess it’s more accurate to say it’s rare to meet someone from the past, and have it be relevant or important in any way.

So while you might meet someone again, and you might have karma to “work out” it’s not a significant thing…it’s probably the majority of your relationship. Also, it’s not about them. If you didn’t meet up with them ever again, you’d still eventually be able to work out that karma in other ways. Like people who hold great (possibly justified) anger at someone else. Sometimes they can confront the person and work it out, sometimes they can’t, but over time it’s dealt with. Meeting up and working through karma is convenient, not cosmically significant. Karma is also not a perfect one-for-one, which is why Western notions of it often fail. Imagine I have karma with someone whom I abused in a past life, my karma is around my hate/ignorance to that person, but realistically anyone I encounter who “triggers” that karma can let me work through it. It doesn’t have to be the original person, just someone who “reminds” me enough of them to bring out that same mental/emotional pattern.

Now I’m getting more speculative, because it’s talked about less in these terms. When it is important, it’s probably due to something really intense. Here is where I shit on soul mates. I’m sure we all know at least one elderly couple who still seem to be very much in love, and have been so for decades. When people say they’re meeting up with a love again, because they’re soul mates and love each other so intensely, it again ignores the 11,999 other lovers they had (assuming the historically false monogamy), unless they claim to be really monogamous, over 9000 times. So when I say intense, I mean something more than love. In fact I’d argue you’re more likely to be connected to someone through hate or fear in the case of being murdered. Traumatic deaths stick with you more reincarnating because they’re an intense emotion at the moment of death which is imprinted in the mind, and part of that imprint is the person. When you’re murdered that fear/anger is the last thought and it fills you completely. But if you love someone, while it can be intense it’s not this flooding/pulsing emotion after all those years, so it’s not as prominent if you die slowly and naturally.

I find in interesting that all the people who claim they’re meeting up with old lovers or people to learn from again because of “karma” are people from cultures/religious upbringings that don’t have karma. I never hear my Hindu or Buddhist friends (who were born/raised that way) talk about it like that in any way. Perhaps it goes back to my last post as well about the idea that it’s said we really don’t know what’s going on with karma, that only highly-realized beings can really have that insight, so there is an arrogance to assuming that something is A) Karmically/Cosmically important, and B) that you can tell, you’re just that advanced.

Theoretically there are also karmic vows which are imprinted in the mind. While strictly a Buddhist thing (Mahayana and Vajrayana) I don’t see why it has to be limited to them. Vows often include mentions of future lives, and if you take that seriously, it becomes part of your mind. So when you reincarnate it, or at least the seed, is there, and if someone else has similar, you can be connected. Maybe not some cosmic bungee cord drawing you together, but just practicality. You’re both born in a time and place that gives you access to what you need to fulfill you vow, maybe born in a major city with a Buddhist population. You both are drawn to Buddhism, eventually through trial and error find a temple/teacher that clicks, and meet. It’s not karma drawing you two together to complete the past, but who you are leads you to make similar life choices and that leads to you meeting up. It’s similar to having friends who you always run into in public, because you have the same taste in movies, music, and food. You’re not cosmically tied, it’s just you have similar ways of thinking and only so many options.

The next question they brought up is about karma’s “storage.” As mentioned there is no universal track-record of karma, but wouldn’t there still need to be a place where karma is stored or recorded? After all if it’s action and reaction, you can’t react to something in a future life without an action. Is this higher self? If the universe doesn’t care, what brings it up again. If insignificant karma more or less dies with the body, who decides it’s insignificant?

A great and complicated question. I believe it is in Theravada Buddhism but I know during some of my initial training around anapana and vipassana the body itself was called the Storehouse of Karma. Our karma is recorded in our very being. Here is where it gets abstract. Our bodies “remember” everything that isn’t resolved, or that is significant. When you meditate, as in anapana or vipassana styles, you will eventually get distracted by physical sensations. In fact what you don’t realize is that right now, everywhere, your entire body is filled with sensations, but you ignore it, you block it out, and your attention isn’t clear enough to notice it. Your body feels the slightly draft of air that subtle shifts a hair on your arm. Every square centimeter of your body has dozens of sensations happening right now, it’s aware of heat and cold, even if you think about it, and can’t perceive it, there are probably itches and stabbing and shifting feelings everywhere. It might sound hard to believe, I didn’t initially until I did a retreat. After two days of nothing but meditating on the breath, you can see sensations everywhere. You could focus on any part of your body, and feel what is happening, temperature, pressure, pulses, itches. We have to ignore all this or we’d be overwhelmed.

Theoretically these unnoticed and random feelings are the karma playing out in our body, or representations of it, and when we ignore it (all the time) nothing happens, if we give in (get angry at that itch and scratch it) we reinforce it, and if we observe it but don’t react the karma is weakened, and eventually goes away. Less abstract think about a fight you had with your mother, think about it, hard. Now, do you feel that somewhere in your body? Maybe a pressure in your head, racing pulse, a sinking stomach. That’s your body record of the karma involved in the fight.

Now, you’re more than just your body. This is also stored in the mind. Like every time the topic of that fight comes up, you might feel guilty for what you said, or angry because it’s unresolved, or proud because you stood up to your mother, whatever. That’s a mental imprint of the karma.

So who decides if karma is insignificant? Believe it or not, you do. The person that holds onto karma, and makes you accountable to it in future lives? It’s you. Those imprints are in your body, and if they’re strong and unresolved they’re imprints in the mind which carries over into the next life. If you’re still attached to something, the universe doesn’t take that attachment and then drop it into your new baby mind, you carry it with you. If you still have karma around anger, it’s not the universe trying to balance cause and effect which gives you anger issues in the next life, it’s you, it’s been in your mind they entire time. No one can forgive you, and no one can make you guilty, it’s all about you.

Now, since for the sake of simplicity I misspoke previously. I’d like to say I’m not discounting, discrediting, or denying the more woogity side of karma, the magickal energetic side of it, but that the vast vast majority of karma is better explained as a mental imprint, a conditioning of mind/soul. I think the fixation on the woogity side of karma is problematic, and impractical. It’s like people who cry ghost or bad energy for everything that happens, without looking and mundane practical causes and ways of dealing with things. Not every random bad mood is someone beaming hate into your soul (cause you’re so special you’re worth that), sometimes it just happens, in fact I’d say almost all the time that’s what is happening. Karma is the same. Sure something might be happening due to some woogity out there karma influence, but chances are, butt number of 99.99% of the time, at least, it’s interpersonal/mental karma.


Losar: Karma, Clean, Exorcise, Eat

2016/02/08

So Losar is upon us again, Tuesday the 9th by most reckonings. (It’s confusing for some folks because Chinese New Years is today). For those just tuning into this blog, or who have forgotten. Losar is the Tibetan New Years. It’s probably one of the only Buddhist holidays I actually go out of my way to celebrate, with the possible exception of Labdab Duchen. Recently a friend shared an article with me about the traditions of Losar asking if it was a legit article, and in telling her that it was, I got thinking about how common certain ideas and practices are across the world regarding New Years. So I got thinking about the Losar traditions in and outside Tibetan Buddhist contexts.

The Julian calendar New Year of January 1st has really lost a lot of the traditions around the changing year, it’s just a day off work and a night to party. If that’s all you want from it, that’s fine, but I like making everything in life part of my practice. (And by like, I mean I’m oathbound to do so…) Personally though January 1st as New Years has struck me as too arbitrary. Really my favourite days to celebrate New Years would be my birthday (as I’ve mentioned here before) and an event like Tibetan New Years. I like Tibetan New Years because it’s a combination of the Solar and Lunar calendar. It’s based on the moon phase, in relation to where the sun is. (Even though I will admit deciding on which moon phase and what solar position is also arbitrary in many ways, why not the full moon, why not the winter solstice?)

The first thing I want to address around Losar is the period leading up to it known as tön. This is generally a difficult time of year, lots of chaos and obstacles can come up. It’s said to last ten days, seven days, or five days, depending on the tradition. The belief is that as the year comes to a close all of your “simple” karmic loose ends are trying to tie themselves up. This causes upheaval, all the things you didn’t dealt with and aren’t “serious” enough to carry over into the next year will come up. This generally manifests as increased accidents, minor illnesses, odd behaviour between people, and the like. This isn’t a uniquely Tibetan belief, I’ve seen it in south east Asian and south Asian beliefs, and even the Epagomenal days of the Egyptians . Of course since all these cultures have different New Years, it’s not the date itself that has any relevance, but it’s the fact we’re “plugged into” them. So because some Buddhist practices are tied into the solar and lunar cycle we’re attuned to a certain ebb and flow, which makes some days and times very powerful for certain practices, but also means we experience a chaotic tön period, when non-Buddhists have no issues with this period.

Tön is a great time to address what appears to be karmic issues. A way to identify a karmic issue is a reoccurring pattern in your life. So perhaps over the last year you’ve been sick off and on, when usually you’re pretty healthy, that might be a karmic issue. Maybe you’ve had to repair one thing after another at your house, or had to replace all your appliances as they died over a few month period, could be karmic. Maybe it’s been a year of fighting with and losing friends, karmic issue perhaps. So in tön you want to address these issues in the hopes that you’ll clear out the karma connected to them, and not have to deal with them next year. The simplest way is to do work that counters the general trend, but being a Buddhist system, generally you try to counter it for others. So if you’ve had a year of illness, don’t try to heal yourself during tön (or don’t focus only on yourself), but work to heal others. If you know people who are sick, work for them, if you don’t, take the Buddhist approach and scattershot it, work to heal all who are sick and suffering. Granted as an individual person when you try to help so many people at once you’ll probably accomplish nothing notable, but it helps get the ball rolling. Focus on helping others with the same or similar issue you’ve been going through, and remember when you are trying to help all beings, you’re one of them, so you can still help yourself.

There is also a more “active” way of dealing with it. I can’t explain the major details, but in my lineage we create a torma, a cake, of a scorpion which is a symbol of our karma. We say a ridiculous amount of mantras over it, to transfer our karma or at least our attachments to it into the scorpion. Then we light a bonfire, evoke a god into the fire, and burn the scorpion and the karma with it. I know other Buddhist lineages use a cake ram’s head.(Also similar to an Egyptian practice of making a snake representing Apep, and destroying it before the new year.)

Another part of the lead up to Losar is the house cleaning. Basically this is when you should do your big clean. Don’t just tidy up the house, make sure that you’ve vacuumed and washed what you can. If possible focus on the two extremes of your mess first, the daily clutter (all that junk on the sidetable beside your chair) and the more longterm clutter (remember when you thought you’d move that wall unit, and so you stacked everything on the floor and you still haven’t put it back up after three months? Do that now). You want to start the New Year clean and fresh. This is also a spiritual thing, not just physical. It’s common for people to do prayers in every room, purifying the space. So do your banishings, your cleansings. Here is a method I wrote about a few years ago I still use a variation of it.

It’s also traditional to paint the ashtamangala (the eight auspicious symbols) inside the house. Each one represents something else, but if you’re not Buddhist you probably won’t connect with them, but you can still paint your own symbols inside the house. Usually you’d paint it, and then paint over it, but that’s from a time when we didn’t have long lasting latex or acrylic paint and you’d have to repaint every year anyways. Now it’s more common to “paint” with holy water. Think of it as a way of reconsecrating your house and marking what blessings you want for the upcoming year.

It’s also when you do your protector practices, specifically the day before (which in this case should have been yesterday really), so after you banish you set up your wards, you call your protective spirits, give them offerings and reaffirm your connection and requests. In some cases you’re really recharging/refreshing them, or you might just be reconnecting. Even if you’re sure the wards are up and your guardians are there it doesn’t hurt to touch up wards, and it’s good to be nice to your protectors.

Leading up to the New Years you’ve dealt with minor karma, you’ve cleaned the house, exorcised it, blessed it, and warded it.

My Losar altar three years ago.

My Losar altar three years ago.

Then on the day you wear new clothing. In poorer regions of historical Tibet it wasn’t unheard of for people only to get a new set of clothing on Losar, but it was so important to them that if that’s all they got they wanted it for Losar. I think the symbolism is more than obvious about having fresh new clothing to start a new year. Another important part of the Losar celebration is the offerings, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is all about the food. Set up your altar, and pack it with food. Your Buddhas and Dharma texts should be hiding behind cookies and fruit and tea. The idea is to make a big offering to them, to everything, start the year off generous, and in return the year will be generous to you. Do your prayers and rituals over the altar. Leave it for a time. Then the next day, maybe after some more rituals and prayers, it’s time to give away the food. It’s not just food, it’s sacred offerings, the Buddhas and whatnot have taken what they need, now you’re sharing it, and those blessings with everyone else.

Even striped of the Buddhist context you can see the logic and value to preparing for the new year in this way.

If I might sound horribly Buddhist, may all beings be happy in the coming year.

Losar tashi delek.


Buddhism 101: Response to Added Value

2016/01/12

Last time I talked about dukkha, often (mis?)translated as suffering in Buddhism. Harry picked up that thread and elaborated more on it, including the causes of dukkha, and some of the different types. I really suggest if you want clarification on the concept in Buddhism you pop over and read that post.

It looks like Harry and I are going to continue our conversation on Buddhism, due to the length of my response to him I’ve decided for now to split up the next few posts between discussion with Harry, and then my own topics I wanted to cover.

I mentioned that Vajrayana is built upon Theravada Buddhism, we hold the same texts important, the same practices, and have built upon them, expanded, and added more. So anything Theravadan exists in Vajrayana, though it might have a shift in importance or emphasis. Harry asks what is the value of this expansion, beyond the access to really cool magick?

That’s a great point that can be easy to miss. If the Buddha originally taught something resembling Theravada Buddhism, and it was good enough for the Buddha, why did these other forms appear? I would break these reasons down to speed, relevance, and scope.

I’ll freely admit though I got trapped by Buddhism, I originally got involved for the cool magick, I thought I could sneak in, get what I needed, and escape…and now I’m a monk…and a good person… I miss being a heartless asshole…

The first reason is effectiveness. (Note: At this point I’m talking theory, not claiming this as a truth, but as how the tradition frames it because I’m not at a point where I can make such declarations.) The Buddha was able to become enlightened because he had worked for many lifetimes to eliminate his karma and set the stage so to speak. So from that point it only took a few years of work to become enlightened, after many lifetimes of getting prepared. There is a state in Buddhism called Stream Entry, which simply put is when you’ve reached a point where you have at most seven incarnations left, but it’s still a lot of work. It might not take all seven, but from how I usually see it explained it seems like they assume you’ll still be in the game for several more lives.

Now in Vajrayana it’s believed you can become enlightened in this life, as long as you’re born in the human realm (which really just means an intelligent being) and have access to tantra, you can become enlightened here and now. One of the best examples of this is Milarepa, probably my third favourite Buddhist Saint. He wasn’t anyone special, he wasn’t an incarnation of a Buddha, or a previous saint, he didn’t have any glorious past lives, he was a regular Joe. He was also a sorcerer and was raised in a troubling family. Eventually he used magick and killed dozens of people at a wedding, including many family members. Even if you don’t understand karma, I’m sure you understand that murdering a bunch of people, especially family, because you’re angry and jealous is not a good step toward enlightenment. Milarepa realized what he did was wrong, and eventually found a lama, who put him to work, and trained him, and because he diligently practiced and purified himself, he became enlightened.

Milarepa didn’t spend hundreds of lives to get everything set up to become enlightened. He wasn’t a Bodhisattva in human form. He hadn’t been a saint. He was a normal man (as much as a talented sorcerer is normal…well…they are in my life) who committed some horrible acts, but through Vajrayana he dealt with his karma and his impurities and became enlightened in one life. This is the promise of Vajrayana compared to some other forms of Buddhism, you can become a Buddha here and now if you commit to the path.

Now to balance this though Vajrayana is not easy, nor is it really safe, remember the vaapad analogy. It’s the Buddhism where you could potentially screw up your karma the most and make things worse, but it’s supposedly the Buddhism that allows you to become enlightened here and now, no matter what, because of these additional magickal tantric techniques. I’d say going from reincarnating somewhere between seven and nearly infinite times down to 1 is a good additional value, but that’s not the only reason.

The second is relevance. Traditionally Buddhism wasn’t exactly conducive to society. To varying extents owning property and possessions was frowned on. Some went so far as to say that enlightenment was impossible with these things, that really you had to give up everything and give your time to meditation alone to become enlightened. Some people have a drive that supports this, not everyone does.

There is a myth (there are a several, details change, story is the same) that a great king invited the Buddha to come teach him, because he had a spiritual calling. The Buddha came and taught the king the path to enlightenment was renunciation, give it all up and meditate. The king pointed out that he was a good king, protecting his people and guiding them, and if he gave up his crown who knew what would happen to his people? But if he remained king he could rule as a Buddhist and guide his people to the Dharma, so he asked is there a way to remain “in the world” and practice Buddhism? At that moment the Buddha transformed into a tantric deity in union (for those unfamiliar, that means he was two gods having sex), something so shocking all the monks fainted (convenient they were unconscious for this so it couldn’t get recorded…), and he taught the king about tantric Buddhism.

Tantric Buddhism is more inclusive of a day-to-day life as we’d picture it. You can own property, be married with kids, you can even drink, eat meat, and have sex, but it’s all done in a way that is mindful and aware. It makes it “easier” because you can keep your life externally much the same, but it’s so much harder because every moment becomes a dance between insight and distraction. You’re challenged to try to keep your awareness at all times. As someone who has done silent temple retreats I can tell you, it is a lot easier to keep focused on emptiness and suffering when all you do is sit and meditate, than it is to remember that your burger is empty as you chat with a friend over dinner.

This is part of the danger of Vajrayana, it’s so easy to think you’re practicing because you do certain rituals and say mantras, but it’s not about what you do when you’re at your shrine, it’s about striving to keep a constant understanding. That’s a large point for another time.

Lastly is scope. Vajrayana holds the Bodhisattva ideal, that your journey to enlightenment is so you can help all beings reach that state. This is where the magick comes into play. It’s not about you. Sure, you can use the magick to help yourself, and that’s not necessarily considered bad or wrong, but it’s really about helping everyone (which includes you) get to a place where they can practice dharma and become enlightened.

Some of my training in Vajrayana is around exorcisms, how does this help others to enlightenment? Well first off, if you’re constantly being disturbed or frightened or made sick by ghosts/demons it’s hard to practice, you might not have the inspiration or comfort. So by ridding you of those disruptions I give you more space to encounter and practice the dharma. Secondly those ghosts/demons have to become enlightened too, and part of the exorcism is connecting them to the dharma so that in their next life they can learn it.

I also have training in tantric wealth magick, how does that help, isn’t greed bad? Yes. But again if you’re too tired from working multiple jobs to pay the rent, or mentally and physically unwell because you’re always worried about where the next meal will come from, then it’s really hard to be inspired to practice. If you’re financially stable, even if you’re not well off, then it’s a lot easier to practice. Then if you can maintain your compassion with wealth, you can use it to support your local temple, or help people.

As my Rinpoche has said “If you want to be a wandering monk, with just a blanket and a bowl, walking the world to meditate and pray, then owning nothing is a great blessing. But if you aren’t that monk, and you’re living in this modern world, then being poor is more of an obstacle than a blessing.”

Our magick helps peoples, not because we believe we can save them, but because it enables them to be in a place that allows them to find a release from their suffering.

Okay, that was about 1500 words on “Why Vajrayana?” and only one of Harry’s questions/points. So I guess I’ll cut this entry off here for now.


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