1

The setup ...

Mendicants, conditioned phenomena have these three characteristics. What three? Arising is evident, vanishing is evident, and change while persisting is evident. These are the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena.

AN 3.47

Together with ...

Why is that? Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, shrouded by ignorance and fettered by craving. For such a long time you have undergone suffering, agony, and disaster, swelling the cemeteries. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

SN 15.1

Along with the assumption that "transmigration" or "samsara" is a conditioned phenomena ...

Would seem to give rise to a contradiction. On the one hand, the Buddha said quite unambiguously that conditioned phenomena have a beginning, middle and an end, but on the other hand the Buddha said that "transmigration" or "samsara" has no known beginning.

Questions:

  1. Do you agree this is an apparent contradiction?
  2. Do you think this is a real contradiction?
  3. If it is apparent but not real, then how would you resolve it?

I would say, "yes, no, and it is complicated" but I'm curious to know how others resolve it.

Related but distinct questions.

UPDATE:

This was too close to a seeded question. Although it was asked sincerely in that I was curious to know others responses (particular users on this site who I respect and admire) I do have my own idea of how I would answer this question so I should not have opened it out of mere curiosity. I was going to delete it given it goes against the site moderation guidelines, but then there are good answers and we are discouraged to delete questions where people have attempted to give good and thoughtful answers so I will leave it, but I do regret opening it in the first place.

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8 Answers 8

2

A circle has no beginning, but we can by convention start at 0 degrees as a beginning and end at 360 degrees, ready for a new cycle. Transmigration is cyclic. But we can let go of chasing the cycles. We can stop treating the circle as a line and just let it be a circle.

SNp3.12:28.1: “Craving is a person’s partner
SNp3.12:28.2: as they transmigrate on this long journey.
SNp3.12:28.3: They go from this state to another,
SNp3.12:28.4: but don’t escape transmigration.

6
  • Is a circle not a conditioned phenomena? Was the Buddha wrong that with a circle - being a conditioned phenomena - arising is evident, vanishing is evident, and change while persisting is evident?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 18:25
  • Also, by that same token if a 'circle has no beginning' then in the same way it 'has no end' and if you are comparing transmigration to this circle are you then saying transmigration has no end??
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 18:27
  • Thank you for your kind answer. I will think on these.
    – OyaMist
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:34
  • @YesheTenley: I think it can reasonably be argued circles are not conditioned. π is literally a transcendental number, that seems to represent a fundamental quality of our reality. Similarly logical inferences are not conditioned.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 9, 2023 at 22:24
  • 1
    There are many many dependent conditions for transcendental numbers, diameters, circumferences, logical inferences etc and all of these are conditioned phenomena. They are all conventions. No matter how useful a convention, conventions are still just conventions
    – user13375
    Nov 10, 2023 at 1:32
1

This is an apparent contradiction. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent. All conditions are also conditioned phenomena. Therefore as conditions themselves are conditioned phenomena , we say a conditioned phenomena is built upon another conditioned phenomena. There seems to be no beginning of a conditioned phenomena which can be called father or mother of all phenomena.

However , every phenomena along with its conditionals ,in this infinite cycle,has a beginning as the conditioned phenomena arises ,changes and vanishes.

I was asked :

If arising itself has the characteristic of arising, then it leads to an unacceptable infinite regress.

I will explain it using an example as follows:

Take an example of eating, we ask , is there a beginning of phenomena of eating ? Answer is Yes. There is an arising of phenomena of eating.Is there any change in Sankhara of eating ? No. Is there is an end of eating? Yes.

Next we ask , what are the conditions for eating ? Answer is craving(hunger). Is hunger a phenomena? Yes. Does it have arising , change and end ? Yes. What are the conditions for craving ? Answer is feelings.Does it have beginning and end ? Yes. What are the conditions for feelings ? Answer is contact. Does it have beginning, change and end? Yes. What are the conditions for contact ? Six senses. Is six senses a phenomena with beginning, change and end ? Yes. What are the conditions for six senses? Name and form. Is name and form a phenomena with arising , change and end ? Yes. What are the conditions for name and form ? Consciousness. Is consciousness a phenomena with beginning, change and end ? Yes. What are the conditions for consciousness? Volitional formations or mental fabrications. Is volitional formations or mental fabrication a phenomena with beginning, change and end? Yes. What are the conditions for volitional formations? Ignorance. Is ignorance a phenomena with beginning, change and end? Yes. What are the conditions for ignorance? Answer is craving.

You see we have again reached to craving. Therefore each phenomena with conditions have beginning, change and end. And also note every phenomena is based on manifestation of other phenomena. We do not regress infinitely because we end up with circle.

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  • Is arising itself a compounded phenomena?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:04
  • @YesheTenley Yes. Nov 7, 2023 at 17:13
  • 1
    So arising itself has the three characteristics of arising, enduring, and ceasing?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:16
  • Also, what school(s) of Buddhism do you follow @SacrificialEquation ?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 17:18
  • If arising itself has the characteristic of arising, then it leads to an unacceptable infinite regress.
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 19:37
1

Do you agree this is a contradiction?

  • First, when I read a sutta I look for meaning -- perhaps I assume it has a meaning -- and a context and a purpose. IMO each of these suttas is saying something meaningful, and is 'sensible' by which I mean 'inline with experience/observation'. Give that they're both/each useful statements in context, and saying different things, their being "contradictory" doesn't come to mind.

  • I'm not sure whether samsara is a sankhara as described in AN 3.47:

    • You might think it is i.e. that, "Samsara is the set/sum/totality of all sankharas and is therefore an aggregate/sankhara itself", but I'm not sure that's true. In general there can be paradoxes if you assume that's true (see "universal set") which in Maths is considered "proof by contradiction" that it isn't true. Knowing a little of that, I avoid making confident statements on that subject (like I beware, or find unsatisfactory, lay-people's making 'logical' arguments using the word 'infinite').
    • If a sankhara is a "conditioned thing" with a start and end, I'm not sure that samsara is a thing in the same way, perhaps you're reifying it. It's true that 'samsara' is a noun: but!
  • By analogy, maybe samsara is like an ocean and sankharas are like the waves. Float a duck on the surface of the ocean, graph its position over time, it goes up and down thus each wave has a top and bottom, like a beginning and an end -- but statements about the properties of "waves" aren't necessarily applicable to the whole ocean.

    Similarly a statement about human beings (e.g. "each has a date of birth and date of death") isn't applicable to the human race (the beginning of which is not only 'lost in the mists of time' but also perhaps indefinite i.e. too gradual to identify).

  • Samsara is like the evolution of an object into another, isn't it. SN 15.9 is about the migration and AN 3.47 is about the objects, they're not mutually-contradictory because they're taking about different subjects/objects.

  • This answer hasn't mentioned 'emptiness' yet but to an extent sankharas are 'mind-made', based on sense-contact, "Oh hello, there's my friend again!", and to that extent short-lived. AN 3.47 is about any specific, identified thing-cluster-perception. Samsara is more or less saying, "It's in the nature of any things to be short/finite-lived", it's not a contradiction to say that samsara or samsaric nature itself is so, and has been so since who even knows when.

  • It may be worth mentioning the 'unanswered questions' too, i.e. Buddhism has a purpose/message. Maybe "the origin of samsara" isn't a useful topic, a tractable problem. Logically it seems that it might be a useful thing to know, so it's tempting. But I think SN 15.9 short-circuits that, "No it's not evident".

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  • * Yes, the suttas have profound meaning * You seem to be saying that there is not even an apparent contradiction (it doesn't come to mind) * You then try to explain the apparent contradiction you won't even acknowledge * The whole question rests on whether samsara is indeed a conditioned phenomena as I said in my question but you don't even seem to want to grab either horn (yes it is conditioned phenomena or no it isn't) * All conditioned phenomena are put together or compound not just samsara. A chariot is made up of parts, the parts are made up of parts, the parts of the parts are made
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:16
  • of parts. Can the beginning of 'chariot' similarly not be known? * I'm talking about conditioned phenomena... the two suttas in question are talking about conditioned phenomena if you grab the horn and agree that samsara is saṅkhata * talking about how samsara is made up of parts does not refute that it is saṅkhata and thus subject to AN 3.47 * You again and again go back to the 'unanswered questions' as an escape from the agitation that the apparent contradiction brings to your mind * It is fine to temporarily escape this agitation if you can't resolve the apparent contradiction * But this
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:20
  • does not actually resolve the agitation or dukkha you have to deal with it at some point if the contradiction is in fact apparent to you. * It really does seem that the contradiction is apparent to you, you refuse to believe it is a real contradiction (which is good), but you are unsure how to actually resolve it
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:22
  • It is fine to say - commendable even - that "It is an apparent contradiction, I don't believe it is a real contradiction, but I'm unsure right now how to resolve it."
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:23
  • It wasn't apparent to me, it didn't occur to me, but you posted the question and said you wanted me to answer. I don't think samsara is a thing like a chariot. Consider a fire: it happens under the right conditions (e.g. fuel and air and heat); a fire is a conditioned thing with a start and end, more or less. But when did the "law of flammability" begin, the tendency of things to combust under certain conditions, when was the first fire? That's not knowable, and not answerable.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 8, 2023 at 15:47
1

The Finke River in central Australia is said to be the oldest river in the world. It is 750km long and 350-400 million years old.

It's kind of similar to the river of samsara in Buddhism, whose river current is craving:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: "Suppose a man was being carried along by the flow of a river, lovely & alluring. And then another man with good eyesight, standing on the bank, on seeing him would say: 'My good man, even though you are being carried along by the flow of a river, lovely & alluring, further down from here is a pool with waves & whirlpools, with monsters & demons. On reaching that pool you will suffer death or death-like pain.' Then the first man, on hearing the words of the second man, would make an effort with his hands & feet to go against the flow.

"I have given you this simile to illustrate a meaning. The meaning is this: the flow of the river stands for craving. Lovely & alluring stands for the six internal sense-media. The pool further down stands for the five lower fetters. The waves stand for anger & distress. The whirlpools stand for the five strings of sensuality. The monsters & demons stand for the opposite sex. Against the flow stands for renunciation. Making an effort with hands & feet stands for the arousing of persistence. The man with good eyesight standing on the bank stands for the Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened."
Iti 109

Is the Finke River persistent and unchanging throughout its lifetime for millions of years?

No. It is constantly changing, with different water molecules, different animals and plants, different sedimentation, different flow rate, changing route etc.

It appears to be persistent and long standing, but the reality is that it is constantly changing. The appearance of being long standing and long lived is merely apparent.

The same applies to the river of samsara. The beings and sankharas arising and ceasing on the river of samsara, is not unlike the water molecules coursing through the Finke River through millions of years. It's constantly changing based on conditions.

“Consider the Ganges river from where it originates to where it meets the ocean. Between these places it’s not easy to calculate how many grains of sand there are, how many hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of grains of sand. The eons that have passed are more than this. It’s not easy to calculate how many eons have passed, how many hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of eons.

Why is that? Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, shrouded by ignorance and fettered by craving. For such a long time you have undergone suffering, agony, and disaster, swelling the cemeteries. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.”
SN 15.8

I see sankharas like samsara, a river or a stream of consciousness as also temporally composite conditional phenomena. That is to say, you can never step into the exact same river twice. The river is changing from moment to moment, in terms of water molecules, temperature, water current speed etc. And so is samsara.

So, in short, there is no contradiction at all.

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  • This does not even attempt to answer the OP questions. I still don't know from this answer whether you would answer yes or no to an apparent contradiction for instance.
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:12
  • @YesheTenley The answer is that there is no contradiction at all. It's constantly changing based on conditions.
    – ruben2020
    Nov 9, 2023 at 12:17
  • The Finke River is sankhata, right? Then according to AN 3.47 its arising is evident, right? Can the same be said of samsara?
    – user13375
    Nov 9, 2023 at 13:53
  • @YesheTenley Samsara is merely a convention and conceptual description of the continual arising and ceasing of beings, and the continuity of their suffering. Samsara is not a separate standalone entity that arises and ceases.
    – ruben2020
    Nov 10, 2023 at 11:06
  • In your other answer, you give a very good description of a lap, a fist, that arise and cease but are not standalone entities. Thus we can conclude that samsara - also not a standalone separate entity - can arise and cease just like a lap, a fist, etc, right? right?? :)
    – user13375
    Nov 10, 2023 at 12:42
1

On the one hand, the Buddha said quite unambiguously that conditioned phenomena have a beginning, middle and an end, but on the other hand the Buddha said that "transmigration" or "samsara" has no known beginning.

Do you agree this is an apparent contradiction?

It appears to be a contradiction when we are not mindful of what is being stated. It is not, on it's own, an apparent contradiction.

Do you think this is a real contradiction?

No. What do you mean by 'real'?

If it is apparent but not real, then how would you resolve it?

Samsara is not a product beyond being the Dharma that points to the fact that a mental continuum has not yet achieved cessation of suffering: It is still prone to an endless cycle of suffering.

There is the word 'samsara'. The word, as are all words, is subject to samsara: It is selfless, and subject to momentary change. Its meaning is selfless, and is subject to momentary change. The word has a beginning, and an end. Our understanding of what the word is saying has a beginning and an end. The referent - that which it refers to - has no beginning, but might be ended through continuous, sincere practice. But the referent is a synthetic: 'samsara' is a place-holder for a teaching on the way things are.

There is nothing unique about samsara; think of anicca. Does it end?
Does death die? (or, if you prefer, Does Death die?)

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  • "No. What do you mean by 'real'?" -> I mean that it appears the same way it actually exists.
    – user13375
    Nov 15, 2023 at 19:21
  • @YesheTenley, well according to the Madhyamaka of Candrakirti, nothing appears the same way it actually exists. In fact, the entire Buddhist project rests upon the fact that nothing appears the same way it actually exists, right? Otherwise we would not need to develop right view.
    – Konchog
    Nov 16, 2023 at 11:26
  • Emptiness appears the exact way it exists
    – user13375
    Nov 16, 2023 at 12:43
  • "Emptiness appears the exact way it exists" - is true only to a Buddha. If emptiness appeared the way it existed then we would not be subject to self-grasping. As it is, emptiness is completely obscured by ignorance - which, by definition, is the inability to see the way things are. As a Dharma tradition, Buddhism holds that ignorance is the root of samsara.
    – Konchog
    Nov 16, 2023 at 15:33
  • It is also true to an Arya being in meditative equipoise directly perceiving emptiness. Either way, the statement that Chandrakirti asserted that, “nothing appears the same way it exists” is wrong given this counter example. The definition of “real” is correct and the Buddha himself gave this definition. I can find the sutta if you like.
    – user13375
    Nov 16, 2023 at 17:19
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I do not agree this an apparent contradiction between AN 3.47 & SN 15.9 because:

  • AN 3.47 says all conditioned things having an arising/uprising (uppāda).

  • SN 15.9 says moving about (samsara) has no imaginable (mata; pp. of maññati) first point (agga).

  • If we emphasize arising/uprising (uppāda), SN 15.9 is simply saying the first arising/uprising is not imaginable.

However, SN 15.9 may have a contradiction with MN 64 & MN 38, which do point out the first dependent-co-arising (paticca-sam-uppada) of 'satta' ('beings'), when they say:

  • For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to identity view lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings,’ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him. (MN 64)

  • Then, when the child is born, she nourishes it with her own blood; for the mother’s breast-milk is called blood in the Noble One’s Discipline. When he grows up and his faculties mature, the child plays at such games as toy ploughs, tipcat, somersaults, toy windmills, toy measures, toy carts, and a toy bow and arrow. When he grows up and his faculties mature still further, the youth enjoys himself provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure, with forms cognizable by the eye… sounds cognizable by the ear…odours cognizable by the nose… flavours cognizable by the tongue…tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire, and provocative of lust. On seeing a form with the eye, he lusts after it if it is pleasing; he dislikes it if it is unpleasing. He abides with mindfulness of the body unestablished, with a limited mind, and he does not understand as it actually is the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Engaged as he is in favouring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—he delights in that feeling, welcomes it, and remains holding to it. As he does so, delight arises in him. Now delight in feelings is clinging. With his clinging as condition, being comes to be; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. (MN 38).

Note: Bhikkhu Bodhi embellishes the above passage in MN 38 by adding the title: "The Continuation of the Round". However, when we read the above passage objectively, the above appears to be about: "The First Point (Agga) of the Round".



Epilogue: It was asked by Yeshe Tenley:

Hmm, so you would not object to someone that said: "Samsara (saṁsāro), being a conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata), has three characteristics, Arising (uppādo) is evident, vanishing (vayo) is evident, and change (aññathatta) while persisting (ṭhita) is evident." Someone could say the above faultlessly in your estimation?

The term 'samsara' refers to 'moving about continuously'. Therefore, in my opinion, the term 'samara' is not intended to characterise the characteristics of arising, change while continuing & vanishing. The term 'samsara' is intended to characterize moving about without respite & without ending. For example, SN 22.99 says:

"Just as a dog, tied by a leash to a post or stake, keeps running around and circling around that very post or stake; in the same way, an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for people of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form.

"He assumes feeling to be the self...

"He assumes perception to be the self...

"He assumes (mental) fabrications to be the self...

"He assumes consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness.

"He keeps running around and circling around that very form... that very feeling... that very perception... those very fabrications... that very consciousness. He is not set loose from form, not set loose from feeling... from perception... from fabrications... not set loose from consciousness. He is not set loose from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is not set loose, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

Therefore, it is only at the end of SN 15.9, when the vanishing of samara is mentioned, when it is said: "This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions".

In conclusion, while 'samsara' is obviously a conditioned phenomena because its arising is dependent upon conditions, the word samsara is only intended to describe its conditioned nature of arising (uppādo) & continuance (ṭhita) but not its conditioned nature of vanishing. In other words, samsara is not Nirvana and Nirvana is not samara. Nirvana is known when samara vanishes. Nirvana is cessation. Samsara is continuance.

9
  • Hmm, so you would not object to someone that said: "Samsara (saṁsāro), being a conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata), has three characteristics, Arising (uppādo) is evident, vanishing (vayo) is evident, and change (aññathatta) while persisting (ṭhita) is evident." Someone could say the above faultlessly in your estimation?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:14
  • Also, in MN 64 the Buddha is specifically refuting that he ever taught that way to Mālunkyāputta, right?
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:19
  • Hmm, according to your latest update you say that (saṁsāro) is not a conditioned phenomena (saṅkhata)??
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:25
  • I concluded by saying samsara is conditioned. Time to go to the beach. The hour is getting late. Nov 7, 2023 at 20:32
  • The Buddha said that which is saṅkhata has the three characteristics. You acknowledge samsara is 'conditioned phenomena' but say it does not have the three characteristics. That contradicts AN 3.47 at least apparently or at least I have no idea how you maintain otherwise.
    – user13375
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:40
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from mil5.2.3

‘There is the non-inclusive expression, O king, whose meaning is non-inclusive, and the non-inclusive expression whose meaning is inclusive; there is the inclusive expression whose meaning is non-inclusive, and the inclusive expression whose meaning is inclusive. And the meaning, in each case, should be accepted accordingly. And there are five ways in which the meaning should be ascertained-by the connection, and by taste, and by the tradition of the teachers, and by the meaning, and by abundance of reasons. And herein “connection” means the meaning as seen in the Sutta itself, “taste” means that it is in accordance with other Suttas, “the tradition of the teachers” means what they hold, “the meaning” means what they think, and “abundance of reasons” means all these four combined.’

1
  • This does not even attempt to answer the OP questions.
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:09
0

If we play on the words “no known beginning” to mean there is an “unknown beginning”, this might help clarify the situation. Likewise, the Buddha himself indicated that it is impossible to discover a beginning in SN15.7 simply because it is lost in antiquity. The example given was four monks who spend each day recollecting 100,000 eons and lived for a hundred years but would still not be able to discover how it all begin. If you do a backhand calculation, that would be 3.65 billion eons (100,000 x 365 x 100) i.e. 3.65 billion times that the universe was destroyed and recreated yet this is not even close to the starting point!

Surely, one would not expect the Buddha or any of his monks to spend their precious time doing such an inane task. Therefore, this (unknowable beginning) is extrapolated and inferred by the Buddha and cannot be validated. Thus, we will not be able to come to any conclusion when the Buddha himself did not. The below sections are some of my thoughts.

Suppose we asked when was a school first started, the natural answer would be when the first student(s) and teacher(s) were enrolled. A school is merely a building, it is the students and teachers that makes it special. Similarly, samsara is special because of the beings in it. If we need to know when a school was first started, we would approach the first student(s) or teacher(s). In the same manner, we would need to find the first sentient being(s) who appeared in samsara and they would also need to have the ability to recollect their past lives. But what if the first student(s) had long graduated or the first teacher(s) retired i.e. the first sentient being(s) had attained Nirvana and are no longer in samsara?

Underlying the above is the hypothesis that sentient beings evolved into existence. The critical point is that as long as new sentient beings continue to emerge in samsara, there will be no known ending either. Perhaps what matters most for any student is to finally graduate from this school after eons of retention.

3
  • Things can be known from inference. If you accept that samsara is a conditioned phenomena, then by AN 3.47 then an arising can be known (inferred)
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:11
  • @YesheTenley in theory, that is true. There are 3 points to be stressed. 1) It is not possible to verify samsara's arising or cessation. 2) Things that cannot be verified always lead to endless debate. 3) The Buddha was trying to stop this kind of debate.
    – Desmon
    Nov 8, 2023 at 13:50
  • Debates that lead to no learning are not just pointless, but actually harmful. I do think/hope there is something meaningful to learn in resolving this apparent contradiction. I could be wrong.
    – user13375
    Nov 8, 2023 at 14:12

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