Thursday, 28 July 2016

Vanity in Lefkada

My wife and I recently spent our honeymoon on Lefkada, a beautiful island in the Ionian chain off the west coast of Greece. Our good friend Kim Bennett runs a holiday company out there (specialising in holidays for solo travellers with optional meditation and mindfulness classes; She always takes the hot mid-season months off, so offered for us to come and stay for a couple of weeks in one of her apartments. The location was absolutely stunning, right on the beachside, and the weather was hot and sunny every day! Thank you so much Kim for inviting us!

Now I'm not used to walking around in just a pair of shorts or going out to lie on the beach in the sun. With so much of my body exposed (not all of it mind...) and much of our time spent on the beach, I felt the arising of feelings of vanity much more than usual, especially around the idea of getting a tan.

Why do we want a tan? 

In the old days only people who worked outside in the sun (like farmers or labourers) would have tanned skin, so wealthy people would want to avoid getting a tan in order to show they're rich enough not to have to be outside. This is what led Queen Elizabeth I to whiten her skin. More recently, as more people worked indoors and rich people were able to take holidays to sunny places, having a tan became a sign of affluence – of having enough money to be able to lie around doing nothing on a beach far away.

These days, the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair have made going to spend time on a faraway beach much more accessible, so is having a tan still a sign of richness? Probably yes. In equal measure, people (at least Northern Europeans) generally look more healthy with a bit of colour in their skin, so with getting a tan there's perhaps a sense of wanting to look healthy and well. It's also an obvious outward sign for others to show we've been on a sunny holiday. 

Lying in the sun

Our apartment in Lefkada was right in front of its own little beach, and Kim had very kindly left out two sun loungers and a parasol for us to use. Usually, she commented, after a couple of days her guests are "velcroed to the beach"! So what is it that velcroes us?

Lying there in the sun reminded me of our lizard ancestry – basking in the heat and soaking up the warmth. I'm not a particularly cold blooded person, but I came to really enjoy basking until I began to sweat. So when my intention was to soak up the warmth like a lizard, that was one thing, but when my intention shifted towards "I want a tan" that was another. Wanting a tan is pure vanity, wanting to bask in the warmth was simple in-the-moment pleasure.

There were times when I'd come out of the water and want to dry off and warm back up – then I'd lie in the sun. But what about the other times? Why was I not satisfied with lying in the shade under the parasol, letting my body tan as it needed from just living outside more? Because some part of me wanted to get a tan – wanted to look a certain way. 

I occasionally found myself moving different parts of my body into the sun with the intention of evening up my tan – like a rotisserie oven...! Again the intention is the key – moving because one part is hot is sensible, but moving to even up the tan is vanity. 

Vanity ultimately arises because you see yourself as having a separate self that wants to impress and be "better", nicer looking or more handsome than others. It's delusive behaviour.

Body dissatisfaction

I also noticed increased feelings of dissatisfaction with my body shape. Walking around our holiday apartment with far fewer clothes than I'd normally wear at home, I'd catch myself in the mirror or look down at my uncovered chest and notice yet again the overly forward tilt in my hips, the lifted left shoulder, the uneven tan on my arms, or that wonk in my spine.

These feelings also crept into my daily yoga practice. I've found myself focusing (more than usual) on stretching out my hip flexors and lower back to help straighten my posture, or stretching to the left side to counter my wonky spine.

My yoga was not yoga any more, just like my lounging on the beach was not lounging on the beach anymore. Both became anxiety-filled activities centred around wanting to be something I was not. 

Of course that's an exaggeration! It was a wonderful honeymoon full of amazing experiences and lovely people (including my wonderful wife). Nevertheless there were moments when that anxiety-filled self-interest arose. 

What do you do in that situation? I tried my best to acknowledge it, allow it, and see the patterns of how and when it arose. I didn't manage it every time, but that was my intention. Once it's acknowledged and seen it no longer has any power over you.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Dharma combat

The Hossen ("ho" meaning Dharma in Japanese, and "sen" meaning combat or challenge) was my third and final ceremony for becoming a junior-level Zen teacher. The main point of the ceremony is to allow a teacher to demonstrate their embodiment of Zen, and to give the sangha a chance to test them out. If they're going to become a new teacher, do they think they're up to it? Can they talk as the Dharma, not just about it?

A complicated ceremony

The dojo full of people
Despite the simple intention, the details of the ceremony were a bit more complicated. It started with a short introduction from Daizan, then we chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra). I then read out the koan I'd chosen and gave my talk on it (I posted about that in my previous article), then everyone in the audience got a chance to ask me a question. It finished with me reciting the 4-line verse I'd composed summarising my understanding of the koan, and Daizan giving a short summary to finish.

Where it got complicated was around how all these aspects fitted together. So Daizan told me, the whole thing is designed not to give me (the aspirant teacher) a moment to think – and therefore the potential to worry and get caught up in the world of thoughts, ideas and discrimination. From the beginning I was holding my teaching fan – a traditional symbol of a Zen teacher called a chukei. There was a special way to hold it which I had to be mindful of at all times. There was also a very specific way I had to collect my teaching book, and I had to start my talk on the very last syllable of the Hannya Shingyo chant so as not to leave a moments gap. As soon as I'd finished I had to ceremonially take my teaching book back to Daizan, perform a number of bows, and collect our dojo's shippei (staff/stick; see photo below) and come back to my place. Once the questions started, I was encouraged to answer every one, again, without a moments gap or silence.

As I was reading out the koan, I was conscious of speaking from the hara. As I'd spent quite a while preparing the talk, I felt quite ok following on from the koan and giving the main talk. I think I managed to continue speaking from the hara, and I even got a laugh or two at some point!

No questions and no answers

Collecting the shippei from Daizan
Once the talk had finished and I had collected the shippei and sat down, I banged it hard on the ground and said "What say you?". This was my appeal to the sangha to ask me their questions. Pete Jion Cherry, my assistant, was the first questioner. The format was for the questioner to start by saying a loud "Here!" (to indicate where they were sitting) then give me their question. I would then bang the shippei on the floor and gave my answer. If they thought my answer was sufficient they would say "congratulations" – otherwise they were allowed to ask me to explain or ask a further question. After the "congratulations" I was to bang the shippei again and say "I thank you". Then the next question would start with "Here!". All this was supposed to happen with the minimum hesitation or silence.

We had about 35 people in the room, so the questioning took a while. Some were very short and some I gave just one-word answers, some had some further questions. There were certainly moments when there was literally no questioner and no responder – the emptiness and no-knowing that Bodhidharma refers to in the koan were manifest in the room. There were also other moments when I could feel the spinning up of my thinking mind, wanting to assert control and work out how to answer the question, worrying about what the "right" answer was.

Looking back I can't really remember the actual questions or my answers – I feel like it all happened without being registered in my normal memory!

I have a feeling something changes in the way memory works and the way you perceive time when you're in that true place of oneness – where intuition and instinct are master, and logic and reasoning are in their rightful place as servants. Its like trying to remember what happened in meditation, or during a period where time "just flies". The memory becomes more related to feeling and action than thought and storyline. Luckily we videoed the whole thing (I'll post that up soon)!

After it was all over, people were asking me how it felt. It felt simultaneously really hard work and totally effortless. Maintaining that energy and resisting the temptation to let my reasoning mind take over was perhaps the hard part. Letting the truth speak through me was the effortless part. In essence there was no me – the answers just flowed out of the universe through my mouth.

What happens now?

I'm now officially a lay Zen teacher. What that means is for us all to find out in the coming years. My intention is to stay open to whatever opportunities or situations arise, and do my best to simply act. Let's see what happens...

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

My first dharma talk

In the last few weeks I've been describing the ceremonies I have to pass through in the Zenways school in order to become a junior-level Zen teacher. There are three in total: the private "kechimyaku" ceremony, the public "hodo" ceremony, and the last is called Hossen, literally meaning Dharma combat.

On Sunday 17th July, we had the last of the three ceremonies, the Hossen-shiki, at the dojo in Camberwell. The format of the ceremony was that I would come in with my assistant (the solid Pete Jion Cherry), read out the koan I was going to talk about, then give a talk about it. Then every member of the sangha present in the room would have an opportunity to ask me a question about what I'd said (or about anything else), then I would finish by reciting a 4-line verse I'd composed summarising my understanding of the koan.

In my next post I'll talk about how it went and my experience of it. For now, here's the contents of the talk and my 4-line verse.


Emperor Wu of Liang said to Bodhidharma “I’ve built many temples, copied innumerable sutras and ordained many monks since becoming emperor. I ask you, what is my merit?” Bodhidharma replied “No merit.” The emperor asked “What is the first principle of the holy teachings?” Bodhidharma said, “Emptiness, no holiness.” The emperor asked “Who is this standing before me?”, Bodhidharma answered, “No knowing.” The emperor did not grasp his meaning. Thereupon Bodhidharma crossed the river and went to the land of Wei.

The emperor later spoke of this to Shiko (his most trusted priest), who said, "Do you know in fact who this person is?” The emperor said, “No.” Shiko said, “This is the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Bearer of the Buddha’s Heart Seal.” The Emperor was full of regret and wanted to send for Bodhidharma, but Shiko said, “It is no good sending a messenger to fetch him back. Even if all the people went, he would not turn back.”


Let's start with a bit of background. The emperor was a serious and committed student of Buddhism. It seems Bodhidharma's reputation as a Buddhist teacher had preceded him since the emperor had asked him to visit the Imperial Palace as soon as he arrived from India.

No merit

The exchange starts with this whole idea of merit. The emperor proudly lists all the good deeds he's done and asks how much merit he had accrued. Bodhidharma said flatly “no merit”. So it might be a good idea to start by looking at this idea of merit. As far as I understand, merit is a kind of Buddhist technical term meaning “the effect or consequence of doing good things”. Traditionally one can gain merit through giving or generosity, and the cultivation of virtue (patience, tolerance, etc.) and insight or wisdom.

The Chinese at this time had become quite captivated by the idea of merit and of the idea of karma (the law of volitional action and consequence). So the emperor had been building stupas, supporting monasteries and ordaining monks, assuming that these would all count as “good things” and that he would accrue merit as a result. Of course they were all good things – but why was he doing them? What was his underlying intention? Bodhidharma saw it straight away.

Have you ever come across the idea that when you die you’ll arrive at the gates of heaven and St. Peter will open up his great big book and read out a list of all the good and bad things you've done in your life? Depending on how it adds up he’ll either unchain the gates of heaven and let you in or send you off down to hell and eternal damnation. I was looking this up the other day an apparently it's entirely baseless in Christian scripture – the bible doesn't actually say that. It's a horribly misconstrued version of “judgement”. But it's out there in common culture and probably most of us have heard of it in one way or another! In the same way as this idea is a misunderstanding of the Christian teachings, Emperor Wu had similarly misunderstood the Buddhist teachings.

This mentality also persists in the Father Christmas myth – and kids get this drummed into them at a very young age. In the run up to Christmas, Santa tots up all the good and naughty things children have done over the year and only comes down the chimney to drop off a present if they’ve been good enough. So the child grows up thinking someone is always keeping a tally.

Then as adults we end up having thoughts like “when will I get what I'm owed?” or “I’ve worked so hard, surely I deserve that promotion…” All this comes from this same misperception – that we've accumulated enough merit on our balance sheet to get what we want.

Conditional love falls into this category too. I was in Greece recently and someone said “the love of a Greek mother is complete and "unconditional"... except that you're not allowed to escape it!” Loving someone conditionally, i.e. with strings attached, is about wanting something back in return.

Keeping a balance sheet and wanting something in return can only happen if we perceive there is a “self” to win and an “other” to lose. It's rooted in the world of separation. “I” want this, because “I” want to feel better. This was exactly where the emperor was coming from.

So the emperor was hoping for praise and recognition when he asked how much merit he’d accrued – but he got a sharp "no merit".

Ok then, fancy teacher from India, if doing "good" things isn't enough by your standards, "what is the 1st principle of the holy teachings?" Bodhidharma answered again with a very pithy retort "Emptiness, no holiness".

Who do you think you are?

The emperor was perhaps now completely confused and frustrated. Whatever he thought Buddhism was about, he was being told it's not. He'd understood Bodhidharma was a great teacher, but none of what he was saying was making any sense. Bodhidharma was refuting everything and I’m guess the emperor's ego was feeling pretty hurt. So he asks "who are you then?" or perhaps "who do you think you are?"

Again he gets a seemingly ridiculous answer – "no knowing." And that's the end of the conversation! Who knows, maybe the emperor chucked him out at this point, or maybe he just let him go thinking he's worthless.

Later the emperor goes to see his most trusted priest, who says “do you know who that was? It was the Bodhisattva Kannon – the embodiment of compassion – and bearer of the Buddha’s Heart Seal”. At that the emperor was full of regret – "I didn't understand... If you, my most trusted priest hold him in such high regard then I should talk to him more – Can you get him back?" But the priest says nope, he's gone and won't come back now. It was a one-time opportunity.

Nari kiru Bodhidharma

The character of the emperor is equivalent to our small, suffering selves – the one that's caught up in concepts and ideas, especially the one thinking we have a separate self. We look for something outside of ourselves to ease our suffering – if I do this, or get that, I'll be better or happier, or get enlightened…

Now let's try and stand in the shoes of Bodhidharma – nari kiru Bodhidharma, literally become Bodhidharma. If the emperor represents our small, limited self, then Bodhidharma represents our true Self – unlimited and one with the whole Universe.

The emperor asked, "how much merit have I accumulated?" Bodhidharma saw that his “good deeds” had been motivated by self-interest – by a belief in a separate "I" that can win merit. Basically he was asking, "have I done enough to go to heaven (Pure Land)?" Bodhidharma cut straight through that. “No merit” – “I” doesn't accumulate merit, because “I” doesn’t exist in the way you think it does.

But we all fall into this trap, all the time – expecting to be recognised for what we do. Giving and wanting something in return.

True merit comes from the pursuit of knowing who we really are – finding out our true nature – and from the spontaneous actions that arise from that place. Ultimately there is no giver and no receiver of merit. Which is exactly the next point.

Emptiness, no holiness

Confused that accumulating merit isn’t the main point of Buddhist practice, the emperor asks, ok then "what's the main point of the holy teachings?"

"Emptiness". Again, it’s another technical term if you like. But it’s the absolute crux of Zen – everything is changing, there are no things and no fixed ideas, nothing arises independently. And because everything is changing, things are empty of a fixed “essence” or permanence.

Then Bodhidharma, man of few words, elaborates on this. He says “No holiness". Seeing the emperor is the kind of guy, like all of us, that grasps onto ideas, he cuts straight through any inklings he might have that this teaching was 'holy'.

It's all too easy to get caught up thinking that the Dharma is something holy – that it's to be held up on a pedestal or revered, even worshipped. Again, we all do this. What do you hold up as "holy"? Something that's special, to be revered or held in especially high regard in your life? Your iPhone? Your partner? Your Zen teacher (Daizan)? Enlightenment itself? The Buddha? Is the Buddha holy? There’s that great phrase in Zen “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

No knowing

Exasperated and frustrated, the emperor asks "Who is this that stands before me?"

“No knowing.” Bodhidharma again speaks the absolute truth. He doesn't let up in his attempts to teach the emperor. It's not a no-knowing like "I haven't a clue" – he didn’t have amnesia! He wanted again to make the point that on the absolute level, all thoughts, ideas and concepts are fundamentally empty – there's nothing to know. Bodhidharma isn’t a fixed thing, he’s a process, a flow.

So "not knowing" is exactly the same as "emptiness" – it's the first principle of Buddhism.


In this whole exchange, Bodhidharma embodies the classically Zen approach of ‘tough love’ – the old priest knew that when he described Bodhidharma as Kannon, the embodiment of compassion. The kindest thing to do is tell it straight. No beating around the bush and prolonging his agony!

It’s like Bodhidharma is doing everything he can in this to point at the truth. "It's not this, not that, not that either. Here's the truth, here..." His fingers are pointing from every direction at the truth! But the emperor is still saying "Where? Where? I don't see it". After doing all he can, being as direct as he can, Bodhidharma just leaves!

So as we come to do our meditation practice, I invite you ask yourself “who is this that stands here?" – or who am I that sits here?

When you truly have no idea of who that is, you will be Bodhidharma. You will be all the ancestors. You will be the whole Universe. And in that, can you find an "I" to accumulate merit?


Merit made into a jewel,
Smashed with words as the tool.
No merit, knowing or idea
Gives freedom and life without fear.

Having tea in the dojo after the ceremony

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

Raising the Dharma Banner

In my last post I talked about my experience of the first of three ceremonies I have to pass through to become a junior Zen teacher – the Kechimyaku (lit. bloodline) ceremony.

In this article I want to describe the next ceremony called the Hodo-shiki, and the first of the two public 'exams'.

Hodo literally means "dharma banner" and refers to the times when temples would put up a flag or banner to advertise when a visiting teacher was giving a talk on the Dharma. In our Zenways school, a Hodo-shiki (ceremony) is when a prospective teacher is tested on their intellectual knowledge of the Dharma (as opposed to their embodiment of it, which will be tested in the next ceremony, Hossen-shiki). It's a bit like a PhD viva – and it's been almost 10 years since I did one of those!

On 26th June I did my Hodo-shiki at our dojo in Camberwell in front of the sangha. In the preceding weeks I'd been revising my basic knowledge of the Dharma, based on the last few years of reading the study book list (given here). Some of my fellow trainee teachers had been sending me test questions to answer, and Daizan Roshi had also given me a list of sample questions to study. I felt reasonably confident on the test questions, but was acutely aware Daizan could ask me literally anything.

The ceremony started with me making my bows and then chanting the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) by myself. I was a touch nervous, and although my voice came out clear and steady my memory was obviously affected. I was aware somewhere in the first quarter of missing a few syllables (miraculously without missing a beat). I felt disappointed that I messed it up because I know it well! That was just the way it was – nerves have that effect.

Then I had to say "I wish to be a teacher of the Dharma. Please test my knowledge." And off we went with the questions. Daizan was sitting at one end of the dojo, and me at the other. Thankfully he didn't ask anything out of left field. He asked a few of the "name the 6 whatevers and 10 whatever elses" that Buddhism is full of (in my case the parameters and the precepts). He also asked a couple of questions more specific to me considering my background in physics – "do people use quantum mechanics to help explain the Dharma, and how successful are they?" (That'll be the subject of a future post!)

At the end he said "you've done well" and that was the end! Here's a link to the video of the ceremony where you can hear all the questions I was asked.

Although being a Zen teacher is really about being the truth and speaking as that truth (not talking about it), there's an obvious wisdom to a ceremony like this. As I become a teacher there are some basics I need to know regarding what the Buddha taught, and the history and context.

The session finished with about 40 mins of zazen (sitting meditation) and our usual tea and chat afterwards.

In my next post I'll talk about the final ceremony – the Hossen-shiki – where I have to demonstrate my ability to speak as the Dharma. If you're free to come along to it this Sunday, please do! The more the merrier!

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 8 July 2016

On the path to becoming a junior Zen teacher

In our Zenways lineage, becoming a Zen teacher happens in three stages: junior Zen teacher, senior Zen teacher and Zen master (or Roshi). Our Roshi, Daizan, likens the process of becoming a Zen teacher to an apprenticeship. It's not a structured course, or even a well defined learning journey, but individual to each person and taken at a speed directed by them.

I've been on the programme for a few years, and back in February Daizan told me he thought I was ready to do the junior-level ceremonies. I knew his would be a great honour so we went ahead and booked in some dates. 

The first one I did was called the Kechimyaku ceremony (I don't think it has to be the first one – just happened to be in my case) starting on Monday 20th June and running through to the summer solstice on 21st. In Japanese, "kechi" means blood and "myaku" means line or channel. The main emphasis of the 2-day long ceremony is to write out our Zen lineage (or "bloodline" of master-to-student) stretching all the way back to the Buddha, and take my place within that (the image shows a small part of a kechimyaku – this one is written in Chinese characters but mine was written in English).

Part of a kechimyaku written in Chinese. It starts with
emptiness, then comes Shakumuni Buddha, then all
the rest of the ancestors.
As Daizan was telling me, historians can find holes and inconsistencies in the official lineage all over the place! – in the succession of Indian masters in the centuries following the Buddha, in the line of ancient Chinese masters, and in the Japanese line too. That's not the point. The point is that each of these masters realised the truth of their Buddha-nature, and once you do that you become Buddha – you become all of the ancestors – and then the lineage is just a mark of gratitude to all those that have carried the torch down through the centuries. 

Notable in their absence, though, are the women "torch-bearers" (for a great book on this see Hidden Lamp). Only one woman appears in our lineage: Rev. Jiyu Kennett Daiosho (d. 1996) who was the founder (1972) and abbot of Throssel Hole monastery in Northumberland, England, where Daizan studied in the Soto tradition for many years. The absence of women only reflects the dominant male monastic culture throughout India, China and Japan for the last millennium, not their ability to realise enlightenment. The Buddha himself always said women can achieve equal levels of insight to men.

The kechimyaku ceremony has five components: (1) asking, (2) san-ge (purification), (3) taking your place, (4) writing out the kechimyaku lineage, and (5) endless bowing. 

The asking part involved some ceremony and symbolism around arriving into the space, and me formally asking Daizan to become a Zen teacher. Sange (pronounced san-gay) means "regret" (san) and "resolve" (ge), referring to acknowledging past harmful actions (the things you regret) and the committing never to do them again (resolve). 

In the "taking my place" section I was asked to sit in meditation for 3hrs without moving. This represents the resolve made by the Buddha before his enlightenment – "if only my skin, sinews and bones remain and the flesh and blood in my body dry up, I will not move from this place until I realise complete enlightenment". The 3hrs was about exploring that steadfast stillness and resolve.

Sitting for 3hrs in stillness wasn't easy. Daizan told me a few months ago to start preparing so I  had been slowly building my way up to the full length. I saw it like a marathon, so trained using an adapted marathon training schedule (where I replaced running distance with time)! I'd tested out a few different postures and found kneeling with a bench to be ok, and the week before my ceremony I'd done 2h30 like that. I'd generally start off with a breath counting meditation, counting to 100 a few times to stabilise and still my mind. Then I'd let go of the breath and sit in the Unborn (open presence. If my thoughts began to wander again, I'd come back to the breath counting for another few 100. I was finding after about 1h30, things would get very still indeed and almost pleasurable (I think people call this a dhyana/jhana state).

During the ceremony, however, I was sitting with my bench on a carpet rug, which (at about 15mins in) I realised wasn't as soft as the zabuton I was used to. The knobbles on my knees got very painful – excruciating at points. Nevertheless I did find some internal stillness after about 2hrs. At this point I basically just gave up trying to make the pain go away. As I stopped wanting things to be different, the suffering ceased – it's a good lesson to be reminded of.

The next part was a kind of retreat involving the writing out of my kechimyaku and a ceremony around embodying what it truly means to be a teacher. After some more meditation and many bows (the 5th stage of the ceremony), we finished sometime in the early evening. I'd been given my junior teacher Rakusu and teaching fan. Now all I have to do is prove my worth in the next two public ceremonies...

Next week I'll tell you a bit about the next stage, the first of the two public ceremonies for testing my knowledge of the Dharma called the Hodo ceremony.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

do you have an experience of sitting still for a long period? Who do you consider to be your Dharma ancestors? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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