‘Through the form of its topic and language it [the liberation-story] must be a cause, when students see or hear it, to lead them to full liberation and omniscience.’ —Second Drugchen, Kunga Peljor (1428-1476) cited by 17th Karmapa

‘A criticism from someone who does not know how to criticize, is better than praise from someone who does not know how to praise.’ —17th Karmapa

Yesterday, 19th March 2022, was the first day of the month-long annual Spring teachings by HH 17th Karmapa, continuing with teachings on the two autobiographical liberations-story praises by 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje ( mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507-1554)- for video of Day One teaching, see here. The texts can both be freely downloaded from Dharma Ebooks website.

For those without the time to watch, I offer here an overview and transcribed quotes. The teaching contained the following topics:

  • The importance of reminding ourselves of other people’s suffering and appreciating one’s own positive circumstances

  • Don’t be Like a fake turquoise dragon or a monkey in a jungle – the importance of knowing one’s history and lineage

  • The purpose and significance of 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorjes’s Autobiographical Liberation-Stories
  • Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy to change one’s mind

  • The reason for calling them liberation-stories not biographies

  • The crucial importance of ‘faith’ to enter the Dharma path and to whom the Buddha taught the profound, vast Dharma

  • Not including oneself when considering the Dharma

  • The supremacy of self-composed liberation-stories compared to those composed by others

  • The value of teaching stories and not only philosophy

  • Ascertaining the anniversary dates of Kagyu forefathers

In summary, the main points of the Karmapa’s teachings were to continually think about other people’s suffering and our own, to read and contemplate the purpose and significance of the liberation-stories of great Buddhist practitioners and masters and why they are called that and not ordinary biographies[1], the crucial importance of faith for the Dharma entering one’s mind-stream and the reason why self-composed liberation-stories are preferable and more accurate than those composed by others.

How wonderful to be able to listen and contemplate the words directly of the 17th Gyelawng Karmapa on this topic, one can only hope that he will write his own namthar for us all to ponder one day!

Music? Walking in My Shoes by Depeche Mode ‘Before you come to any conclusions, try walking in my shoes. You’d stumble in my footsteps, if you tried walking in my shoes’ and Faith by George Michael ‘You gotta have faith’!

Transcribed and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 20th March 2022.




The importance of reminding ourselves of other people’s suffering and appreciating one’s own positive circumstances

HH first spoke a little about the current world situation and the desperate situation many people find themselves in like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and so on due to epidemics, conflict, famine and so on and had to leave their homelands or are defenseless with no protection.

“We always hear about these desperate and suffering situations over the news, but it is important to remind ourselves about them again and again. Normally, for the sake of some trifling pleasure we fight with others. Even if we are in the best circumstances, we are dissatisfied. We speak about our resentments to others. We talk about each other behind their backs, we incite conflict and so on. This is kind of more insane than insane. So even though we have a wonderful situation, we don’t recognize that. So we get upset and crazy and neurotic about it. We need to recognize this and know it. When we understand that, we need to think about right now we have a little bit of pleasure and freedom and we need to us that for a good purpose. This is very important. We need to have a deep feeling about that. We always say it is important to remember one’s motivation. If you don’t think about the actual situations of people’s lives and so on and just think ‘Oh I am going to become a Buddha’ then our thinking is just becoming way too vague. There is not real point to it then. We have to think about the actual suffering of beings. Then we need to change our motivation. If we just have some abstract thought and without any connection with the reality of suffering, there is not much point or benefit to it.”

Don’t be like a fake turquoise dragon or a monkey in a jungle – the importance of knowing one’s history and lineage

The Karmapa then went on to speak about how the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje is not only renowned in Karma Kagyu as a great scholar but in all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. He explained that among all the Karmapas up to now, in terms of his commentaries on the Middle Way and so on, and his texts on Secret Mantra, he is the most influential Karmapa. Therefore, reading his liberation-story is very important, especially for shedra students:

“In most schools, they study history but in the shedras there are no particular courses on history. We do not teach it. We don’t even know the liberation-stories of the masters whose texts we study. This is a totally embarrassing and awful situation. There is an ancient Tibetan historical text and it says people who do not know their ancestors are like monkeys in the jungle. We are human and we have a human body. But if we don’t know the history of previous generations, we are like a fake turquoise dragon. If you don’t know your own maternal lineage, clan and so on, then you might think you are something special and well-known, but you are like a fake turquoise dragon, who makes a big noise, but actually there is not much to it. They are like children who have left their home, if you don’t know your past, you are like a person who has left their home and has no knowledge about where they are form.  Whether we think about it in worldly terms of Dharma terms, we need to know our source and origins. This is very important.

Don’t be a fake turquoise dragon 🙂
The purpose and significance of 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorjes’s Autobiographical Liberation-Stories for the Karma Kagyu history
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

”Generally, when we think about the stories of Mikyo Dorje’s liberation, there are some that MD himself wrote himself and some by his students. So there are two types. MD’s liberations stories are mainly written in verse, not prose. Among these several autobiographies in verse, the most well-known is the Praise He Searched Thoroughly. The reason why this is the most famous is mainly because it is included in the Karma Kagyu prayer books. So we have all read it. In the prayer books, there is that Praise and the words are quite difficult. So when you memorise it, it is difficult. Many old monks have told me that when one is memorizing it is the most difficult to memorise. When I was small and had to memorise it I also had some difficulty with it. However, as a child, the ones that are most difficult are also the ones you never forget, because you worked so hard at them.  You get beaten by your teacher and so remember them well. So later, when you are an adult and think about them, then you don’t forget them  and can remember them easily.

Generally, we force ourselves to memorise the words, but in terms of the meaning, the teachers don’t explain them either. It is not that they don’t want to but they themselves do not understand them. We are just trying to memorise them, we do not take much interest in their meaning. Actually, these autobiographical stories have incredibly vast and profound meanings.

As an example of its profundity, the Karmapa then explained how the 8th Karmapa’s He Searched Thoroughly, makes up almost ten percent of one of the most  famous Dharma History texts,  is the Feast for Scholars (Kheypai Gaton) by Pawo Tsuglag Threngwa (1504-1566) [1]:

 The Mikyo Dorje liberation-story is included in that text, which is built around and completely based on the self-composed text  He Searched Thoroughly text and quotes it completely. Among all the liberation stories in Feast For Scholars,  it is fair to say that the 8th Karmapa one is the longest and most complete. It is 33 folios, or 67 pages long.  Within the Feast for Scholars, the 8th Karmapa namthar is like 10 percent of the Karma Kagyu history lineage, yet it is only nine stanzas long, but is it so vast and covers a lot of subject-matter.

If we do not take interest in it and research it, then we can see how important it is, and that the framework is based on his self-composed praises.  Similarly, the Good Deeds autobiography speaks about what are the most important good acts he did. Also provides an important summary of his life. So for his students and followers, if we think we want to be a lama who is learned, venerable and good, then 8th Karmapa is like an example for us.  That is why they are crucial.”

Tsuglag Threngwa, author of one of the most famous Karma Kamtsang historical texts, ‘Feast for Scholars’
Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy to change one’s mind

“It is possible that because I have told many of these stories over the last couple of years, you may be thinking it is endless how many stories I am going to tell. Some might think, what we need is the philosophy, we need the meditation instructions and instead he is teaching all these stories that have no real point or purpose. It is possible some might think that. Certainly, if you think that about the person (like myself) who is teaching it, then it is exactly as you think. If you think the person teaching about the story is someone who has the substance, like me, if it is someone has a name-only and pretends to be wise and learned and speaking a pseudo-Dharma when they are not, is like this Tibetan saying:

‘when they are no birds, then the dogs rule the sky and when there are no dogs, the cats gnaw on bones.’

We have got to the situation where there is no choice, but if we think about the liberation stories as being pointless and without need, that is not correct.

Generally, in this world, there are any religions that assert there is a creator God, who created the world, most of these religions that say that, say that the God has given advice to us from messengers and prophets who can communicate that to us exactly. For example, in Christianity, the teacher is like a messenger of God who is teaching human beings and communicating the words. What is the Creator? It is transcendent and ineffable. Our situation is completely different and we cannot become like them.  I do not know this in detail, but that is generally what is said. However in Buddhism, we do not say there is a Creator God and our teacher, Shakyamuni came to this world in human form and ate human food and so on and performed the twelve great deeds and many other actions. The main reason for the Buddha appearing in this way, is mainly to show that we ordinary individuals can become Buddhas too. The methods for making this happen are not just something he taught for someone else. He showed us practically how to do it himself. If we think about that situation, we can get an idea about how important the life-stories of the teachers are for us. If we think there is some voice in the middle of an empty sky who taught that, and if no-one is showing us what to do and it is just words coming from the sky, I do not think that would be easy to practice. There would be no one to give us actual direct experience and instructions.

So Buddhism is not a religion that only teaches a complicated philosophy, it is primarily a meditation practice. It is changing the mind. In order to practice, we can never be separated from the guru or the spiritual friend. We can talk about many great beings, but the most important is our kind root guru. So if we talk about their deeds and liberation as living and breathing the Dharma, we can see and feel that and understand that. This gift they gave us is extremely important and sacred.

In brief, the deeds that the great masters performed are like the practice of the true Dharma and therefore, we must consider them significant and important to follow and practice.”


The Karmapa then explained that the reason they are not called biographies but liberation-stories (namthar) is because they are significant for practice and inspiration:

“I did speak quite a bit about this last year, but will review it now[2]. First, we need to understand why we call biographies liberation stories? We first need to understand what liberation means? This word ‘liberation’ comes from Sanksrit Vimoksha, in Tibetan nampa tharpa , which has been shortened to namthar[3].

In terms of the Kadamapa tradition, they talk about three types of individuals, the stages of the path of the lesser, middling and greater individuals. Likewise, there are three different levels of liberation. For example, the lesser individual because of having faith in the meaning of karma, cause and effect. The middling is due to have the pure wish for liberation from samsara, that is their liberation. For greater individuals it is their pure wish to benefit and enlighten others, that is the liberation of the greater individual.

They can be stories about previous lives or current lives. They don’t have to only be this lifetime. If we think about the 12 different types of scriptures, there are the Jataka Tales. These are tales of where the Buddha was born in previous lifetimes and hardships he experienced. This is another type of genre of literature.

Generally, when we think about the biggest difference between a liberation story and biography of an ordinary individual, they are not about how ordinary people lived their lives and so on. They are necessarily stories about great beings. In particular, how they studied, contemplated and meditated on the Dharma. And due to that, how they developed scholarly qualities of learning, of discipline, of vows, of practice and how they experienced realization and about their benefiting the beings and teachings in total. When individuals see or hear those stories, their faith and uncontrived devotion increase. Due to that, those disciples can then make it something to aspire to. So this genre of literature is called liberation stories.”

In brief, Druk Gyelwang Kunga Peljor (‘brug chen 02 kun dga’ dpal ‘byor, 1428 – 1476) (see image above) said:

‘Through the form of its topic and language it must become a cause when students see or hear it to lead students to full liberation and omniscience.’

So when teaching these stories about great beings, the teacher and the listeners must understand the reason why they must be taught. Can they develop in their mindstreams sincere faith and conviction, the three types of faith. If they can develop any of those types of faith, the benefit of that is called ‘awakening the potential’ or ‘planting the seed of liberation’. This comes down to whether or not we develop faith in our being. So it must have the following:

    • It must be about a great being.
    • The topic must be connected to the true Dharma. If it is about worldly matters, like overcoming enemies and benefiting friends, it is not Dharma.
    • It must be capable of instilling longing inspiration and faith in people of all levels.

So it must generally have all three of these features. Normally, when we read the Kanjur, at the beginning of every Sutra or text, it says ‘thus have I heard, at one time’ This phrase comes up many times.


The Karmapa then related a story about some Mongolian monks who came to Lhasa to study at the great monasteries there. At one point, there were seven Mongolians who came to study there, and they were originally from a  remote place and not well-educated or much experience. So when they came from the homeland, their parents advised them that they need to protect each other and help each other out. In particular, they told them when travelling that in case they got lost, they need to count each other every day. So the following day, they were counting each person, but the person who was counting did not count himself, so he thought there was someone missing. They were puzzled because nothing had happened to them but one person was not there so how did that happen? They became worried and stressed and watching each other. They eventually reached Lhasa exhausted with stress and sleeplessness. When they got there, it was during the time of the 5h Dalai Lama and they asked him for a Mo divination to find the lost person. In order to request the 5th Dalai Lama they had to write a letter, but they were illiterate and could not write. One of them could write a little, but he looked at the Kanjur and saw that it says at the beginning, ‘the Buddha Bhagavan spoke to Shariputra’ and wrote it down that we Mongolians speak to 5th Dalai Lama and we were seven but now we are only six and have lost someone and asked him to tell them where the person was and offered the letter to the 5th Dalai Lama. He understood what had happened and told them to put their bowls in front of them and to count them and to see there were exactly seven. So when they were not looking at themselves and looking outwards, they saw there were seven and that they had not lost anyone. They were amazed and thought he was omniscient. The Karmapa explained:

“Even though it is not clear if the story  is true or not, it is in some history books, this phrase ‘thus have I heard, one time’ and this first word ‘thus (EVAM)’ can be explained in many ways. It shows ‘faith’ because if we have confidence and belief in what the Buddha taught then they will be able to enter the path of the Dharma. If someone thinks that maybe it is not like that, and does not have faith, then that person will not be able to enter the path of Dharma. That is why faith is incredibly important.”

In Chinese, there is a commentary on the 100 thousand lines Prajnaparamita by Nagarjuna, that was translated into Chinese by translator Kumarajiva. The basic things this commentary says is that faith is like having two hands, if a person has hands, if they go to an island full of jewels, they can take whatever they want. Similarly, faith is like that, then the Dharma teachings are like jewels and you can practice whatever you want. Without faith, a person cannot practice any of the jewels of practice. So you cannot do anything without faith. It also says that if a person has faith, then they can enter the Buddha Dharma, they can also achieve the result, and go forth become monastic and it will be meaningful. If you do not have faith, you will not be able to do that. Even if you wear the Dharma robes and read many sutras and become skilled in questions and answers  there is no real benefit to it, because you do not have faith. Therefore, faith is the number one condition for entering the gate of Dharma.

Even if they have not awakened to Buddhahood, because of the power of faith they can have confidence in the Dharma and will be able to enter it. One cannot realize the vast Dharma straight away, but through the power of faith we will understand how precious it is and want to study and value it. That is why faith is crucial for beginners.”

“There is another important story from the same Prajnaparamita commentary, he didn’t teach right away, between the time when he achieved awakening there were several weeks he did not teach the Dharma. While he was not teaching the Dharma, Brahma the Hindu Creator came to him and said please teach the Dharma. The first time he made this request, the Buddha replied:

“The true Dharma is incredibly profound and difficult find. People will find it difficult to understand as I have understood it.”

Brahma then made a second request and he said:

“All the Buddhas of the three times, the past Buddhas all taught the Dharma. Even at this time there are many Buddhas in different universes who are teaching. So he thought I also need to teach it. At that point, the Buddha said to Brahma:

‘Today I will teach the flavor of this nectar. Those with faith should rejoice. Today, I shall teach them this true Dharma. ‘

The main point is he decided he would teach the Dharma and if someone has faith in the true Dharma, then one should rejoice and be excited. The Dharma he taught was for those with faith and belief in the Dharma.

In the commentary translated by Kumarajiva, it explains that the reason he didn’t say you who are generous, patience, diligent, have prajna and Samadhi rejoice, the Buddha said those who have faith rejoice.  Even people with intelligence or prajna who are ordinary, cannot realize the whole profundity of the Buddha Dharma.  So if no one can understand it fully, who can he teach it to? He can teach it to those who have faith and are faithful. Therefore, they will be able to understand his teaching. Those people can really enter the Dharma. That is why faith is extremely important for beginners. It is the seed of liberation and the gateway for the Dharma.

These days, people say you have to examine and analyze everything. We have to follow logic and so on. If we talk about logic and so on , then we don’t actually have real logic, more pseudo logic. We think it is logic but it is not. It’s a bit over-confident and audacious. Having faith is extremely important. We need to consider this point.”

The supremacy of self-composed liberation-stories compared to those composed by others

The Karmapa then continued with the topic of the liberation-stories of the 8th Karmapa:

“There are two life-story texts we are discussing here, they were not written by his students but were written by the 8th Karmapa himself: He Searched Thoroughly and Good Deeds. They have a particular quality because of that. The autobiographical stories written by the teachers themselves have a particular quality. There was a student of 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje called Gyalwang Yontenpa he said that most liberation stories written by students praised them so highly that they turned the guru into a charlatan! Most liberation-stories written by students only praise the teacher and go above and beyond in their praises and turn the guru into someone fake. So most of those stories have that fault[4].

What he says is that as ‘I know my own experience best I shall write about that’. The teacher is the best source of their liberation story. When they write it they know exactly what they were thinking and doing and the deeds and activities that others do not know about. Another person cannot write about those, right? That is one of the qualities of an autobiographical liberation-story.”

Yogi and siddha, Drukpa Kunley

Another example is the great Tibetan yogi and mahasiddha Drugpa Kunley said:

“Though they may deserve praise as one’s guru, these stories about what they did and did not, may cause them to lose faith.”

So what he is saying here is that when one praises the guru, they are worthy of praise, but they might say things that the guru did not do. That may fool some foolish people but wise people will laugh inside at it. So Drugpa Kunley said I will write my own liberation-story. There are several liberations-stories about him, and some of these are probably not so pure or correct. People should consider that the most authoritative. The reason is because he explained all his qualities and faults without hiding any of them. Whatever people said about him he would include.

Then there is Je Barwa, Kunzang Pelsing, who said that ‘it was inappropriate for me to write my own liberation story, but that if someone else did there would be many meaningless and stained words.’ It is not very comfortable to write it because you have to write good things about yourself. It is difficult to write a life-story oneself, wither you teach all your faults and qualities exactly as they are. Or you have to hide your faults and be someone who shows off their qualities. That is why it is difficult. However, if someone else writes it there may be meaningless passages in them. That is why self-composed liberation-stores are so important. The main reason being that one’s own mind is not hidden to oneself, one knows one’s own mind best. Then the one we write ourselves can be the most complete and accurate. If the students write them, they wish to praise the guru and say they had these visions and miracles, and say many things that did not actually happen, it becomes false. There is a Tibetan saying:

‘A criticism from someone who does not know how to criticize, is better than praise from someone who does not know how to praise.’

For that reason, the self-composed stories are important.


“Generally, they are stories but that does not mean that they lack value, or are pointless. When we think about ancient Tibetan histories, is it because of them that we can understand Tibetan history. Likewise, with Indian history and Buddhist history, such as the Jataka Tales, which gives many stories and accounts.  Also, when teaching the Dharma through stories, everyone young or old, all like listening to stories, then it is easier for people to understand. Otherwise, if you only teach about philosophy using terms they don’ know and they get bored and won’t be interested.

Buddhism is not just philosophy, primarily we are looking inside and taming one’s own mindstream. This practice is for everyone, whether they have education or not. So we need various different methods to bring people to the Dharma. Instead if we only use one method, or way, then it would not work for everyone.

When we talk about the liberation stories of great masters, they are stories, but they are different than ordinary stories and biographies.

They give us an example of how we can practice. A direct, experiential experience and pith instructions. So if we see them as being mere stories and biographies that means we are only at a level we can listen to them as stories and that we ourselves have no qualities. We only have an education but no qualities.

Basically, for the next month we will speak about the two liberation stories of Mikyo Dorje. We left off last year, there are three main sections:

    • Pledge and homage
    • Nature of the biography
    • Conclusion and dedication

Among these , the main one is 2) the nature of the biography. The main part, how we practice the paths of the individuals. So we are now at the second section. We can divide this into three parts: 1) the lesser individuals, 2) the middling individuals 3) the great individual. We are on 3) the path of the great individual. This also has three sections: 1) rousing bodhicitta, 2) the action of mediation 3) training in the precepts. We are speaking about 1).”

The Karmapa concluded the teaching by explaining that there are thirty-three good deeds and that they had reached the ninth good deed, which he had already taught and would begin with with the tenth verse.  The other text, the Good Deeds, will resume from the sixth verse.

Marpa the Translator statue by 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje

The Karmapa then spoke briefly about the anniversary of Marpa Lotsawa’s anniversary of passing (that was said to be on 18th March this year) and that it was important to research that and find out when the actual date of his anniversary was, as well as other Kagyu lineage forefathers like Milarepa, Gampopa and so on. That there needs to be a unified standard for the Kagyu for when these anniversaries should be commemorated.

“If we say we are the Kagyu followers, but do not know exactly when these masters passed away, that is a great disgrace. So I have asked some people to research this and then we can combine that and we can offer to the Kagyu masters this research and conclusions and we can decide. From then on, we can say the anniversaries are on a particular day. This cannot be decided immediately and that is why I postponed the sadhana on Marpa for the anniversary (said to be on the 18th March)”.




GURUS OF THE EIGHTH KARMAPA (PART II): FIRST SANGYE NYENPA. ‘Gnarled blue Uncle’, vegetarian yogi Siddha from Denma – First Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Peljor




[1] Gtsug lag phreng ba (1504–1566). Chos ’byung mkas pa’i dga’ ston [Feast for scholars]. Varanasi: Vajra Vidya Publishing, 2003.

[2] For a summary and transcript of the 17th Karmapa’s teaching in 2021 on the meaning of liberation story and faithhttps://dakinitranslations.com/2021/02/17/jaw-dropping-handwritten-collection-that-emanated-light-textual-sources-the-meaning-of-liberation-story-importance-of-faith-and-inner-qualities-good-de/, see here:

[3] Rheingans (2017:59) says about the origin of the term ‘namthar’ that:

“Roberts has indicated that the term rnam thar in a Tibetan title probably first occurred within the early bKa’ gdams pa traditions and was also used by sGam po pa. Early bKa’ gdams pa scholars likely adapted the term as found in a verse of the translated Bodhicāryāvatāra. The term rnam thar translates the Sanskrit vimokṣa, meaning ‘liberation, the experience of a meditating saint’. A Tibetan definition of the term rnam thar claims: ‘(i) a historical work of the deeds of a holy (dam pa) person or a treatise which tells his [religious] achievement; (ii) liberation.’ To emphasise the fact that these works portray the liberation or accomplishment of a person, one could render the term ‘liberation story’; to nuance their historical content ‘spiritual biography’ is also appropriate and is the rendition chosen for this thesis. The related rang rnam genre (literally ‘one’s own liberation [story]’) may be translated as ‘spiritual memoir’. The mere use of ‘biography’ or ‘autobiography’ overlooks the primary function of the genre.”


[4] As example of such personal experience in a life-story called Liberation Story of the In-Between State in the 3rd Karmapa’s self-composed liberation-story, Ruth Gamble (2020) writes that:

“The ambiguity over the gap between the Second and Third Karmapas’ lives is mirrored in the divergent stories Rangjung Dorje tells (or Rangjung Dorje and the person to whom he narrated the Liberation Story of the In-Between State tell) about his consciousness’s journey out of Karma Pakshi’s body. The Liberation Story of the In-Between State says he took a direct route.

I performed inconceivable magic.64 I flew into the sky in a rainbow body, traveling upward toward the god realms. On arrival, I was greeted with divine music and saw many other inconceivable things, divine parasols and the like. As I watched, bodhisattvas like Maitreya performed awakened deeds. They cultivated immeasurable compassion for beings, trained without respite, and remained in a state in which nothing was generated and nothing stopped.65

The Karmapa, this story suggests, had ascended to Tuṣita, the home of Maitreya and all the world’s future buddhas. It makes sense—narratively speaking—that this is the heaven to which the Karmapa’s consciousness travels between lives. According to the narrative traditions that already existed about the first two Karmapas, they were going to become the future buddha Siṃha, and Tuṣita was the place in which all future buddhas are said to prepare for the final awakening.

See Chapter One of the Third Karmapa: Master of Mahamudra by Ruth Gamble (Shambala Publications, 2020).



[1] Having recently composed two liberation-stories on two of the 8th Karmapa’s main teachers for the Treasury of Lives, the 2nd Goshri Gyeltsab and 1st Sangye Nyenpa, I was told to remove parts of the stories which were not ‘factual’, while I can understand that this is perhaps necessary for this kind of ‘academic’ website, I also felt that by removing such aspects also affected their purpose and significance as liberation-stories.

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