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Criteria for Judging the Unwholesomeness of Actions in the Texts of Theravaada Buddhism

Peter Harvey

University of Sunderland
School of Social and International Studies
Chester Road, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, United Kingdom


In the perspective of the Four Holy Truths, ethics is not for its own sake but is an essential ingredient on the path to the final goal (though this itself includes an ethical dimension). This is well expressed in a passage which explains that "purity of virtue" leads onward to "purity of mind", this to "purity of view", and this, through various stages of increasing spiritual insight, to "utter Nirvana without attachment", "unshakeable freedom of mind" (M.I.149-50). It is emphasised that while each stage supports the next, the "holy life" is not lived for any of them except the final one. This is because at any lower stage of spiritual progress, there is still attachment and a person may become complacent, conceited or arrogant about his or her attainments, thus barring further progress. The foundational importance of ethics for the rest of the path is, however, crucial:

So you see, Aananda, wholesome virtues (kusalaani siilaani) have freedom from remorse as object and profit; freedom from remorse has gladness; gladness has joy; joy has tranquillity; tranquillity has happiness; happiness has concentration; concentration has seeing things as they really are; seeing things as they really are has turning away and non-attachment; turning away and non-attachment have release by knowing and seeing as their object and profit. So you see, Aananda, wholesome virtues lead gradually up to the summit (A.V.2).
In this process of development, the cultivation of one stage is seen to lead naturally on to the cultivation of the next, so that the components of the path support one another and interact to form a harmonious whole. The basis for them all, however, like the earth for plants or a foundation for a building, is moral virtue (siila) (Miln. 33-4).

 "Defilements" such as greed, hatred and delusion are seen to exist in the form of unwholesome activities of body and speech, unwholesome thoughts, and the latent tendencies in the mind which are the root of all these. Moral virtue aims to restrain the external expression of the defilements, meditation aims to undermine active defilements in the mind, and liberating insight, facilitated by meditative calm, aims to destroy defilements in the form of latent tendencies. These three levels of development can perhaps be seen in the popular verse:

Not to do any evil,
To cultivate wholesome action,
To purify one's mind--
This is the teaching of the Buddhas (Dhp.183)


Within Buddhism, the most usual way of referring to a good action is to describe it as kusala: "wholesome", in that it involves a healthy state of mind--stable, pure, unencumbered, ready-to-act, calm and contented--or "skilful" in producing an uplifting mental state and spiritual progress in the doer. [1] A "bad" action is akusala: "unwholesome" or "unskilful". The criteria for deciding what action is "unwholesome" and what is "wholesome" are of three kinds.

 The first type of criterion concerns motivation. The three possible motivating "roots" of "unwholesome" action (M.I.47) are: i) greed (lobha), which covers a range of states from mild longing up to full-blown lust, avarice, fame-seeking and dogmatic clinging to ideas; ii) hatred (dosa), which covers mild irritation through to burning resentment and wrath; and iii) delusion (moha), the veiling of truth from oneself, as in dull, foggy states of mind through to specious doubt on moral and spiritual matters, distorting the truth, and turning away from the truth.

 The opposites of these are the three "roots" of wholesome action: i) non-greed, covering states from small generous impulses through to a strong urge for renunciation of worldly pleasures; ii) non-hatred, covering friendliness through to forbearance in the face of great provocation, and deep loving kindness and compassion for all beings; and iii) non-delusion, covering clarity of mind through to the deepest insight into reality.

 While phrased negatively, these three are nevertheless seen as positive states. The importance of seeing the harmfulness of the unwholesome roots and the benefit of the wholesome ones is emphasised in a number of texts. The three roots of the unwholesome are seen as intertwined. Greed and hatred are grounded in delusion, and greed may lead to hatred. It is said that greed is a lesser fault, but fades slowly, hatred is a great fault, but fades quickly, and delusion is a great fault and fades slowly (A.I.200). This gives a clear indication of Buddhist values, especially the need to develop wisdom--analytically directed intuitive insight--so as to overcome delusion. It is also said that common motives for evil deeds are partiality, enmity, stupidity and fear (D.III.181-2), and that greed, hatred and delusion can each lead a person to abusing others with the thought "I am powerful" (A.I.201-02).

 The second type of criterion for what actions are unwholesome or wholesome concerns the anticipatable direct effect of the action in terms of causing suffering or happiness. This is shown by a passage where the Buddha advises that one should reflect before, during and after any action of body, speech or thought, to consider whether it might conduce to the harm of oneself, others or both, such that it is unwholesome and results in dukkha. If one sees that it will so result, one should desist from the action. If one sees that the action conduces to the harm of neither oneself nor others, nor both, it can be seen to be wholesome, with a happy result (M.I.415-16). The "harm" to oneself which is relevant here is spiritual harm, or material harm if this arises from self-hatred (e.g. by harsh asceticism, M.I.342-9): an act which benefits others at the expense of material harm to oneself is certainly not unwholesome. Harm to oneself is also seen to arise as an immediate result of unwholesome action: "One who is thus caught up, whose mind is thus infected, in the evil, unwholesome states born of greed... of hatred... of delusion, experiences suffering, stress, agitation and anxiety in this present life" (A.I.202).

 The third type of criterion for what is wholesome or unwholesome builds on the second. It concerns an action's contribution to spiritual development, culminating in Nirvana. Thus it is said that unwholesome conduct is that which causes injury, that is, having dukkha as fruit, due to leading to the torment of oneself, others or both, and conducing to the arising of further unwholesome states and the diminution of wholesome ones: that is, having unhealthy effects on the psyche. Wholesome actions are of the opposite kind (M.II.114-15). Moreover, "wrong directed thought", for example, is said not only to conduce to the harm of self and other but to be "destructive of intuitive wisdom, associated with distress, not conducive to Nirvana", while "right thought" has the opposite effect (M.I.115-16).

 Overall, one can say that an "unwholesome" action is one that arises from greed, hatred or delusion (or a combination of these), leads to immediate suffering in others and/or oneself and thus to further karmic suffering for oneself in the future, and contributes to more unwholesome states arising and to liberating wisdom being weakened. "Wholesome" actions have the opposite characteristics. They arise from a state of mind which is virtuous, as judged by the action's motive and the agent's knowledge of likely harm or benefit, its contribution to the improvement of the character of the person who does it, and thus its assistance in moving a person along the path to Nirvana.

 Using the above criteria, one list of what is "unwholesome" specifies: i) onslaught on living beings, ii) taking what is not given, iii) sensual misconduct, iv) lying speech, v) back-biting speech, vi) harsh speech, vii) empty gossip, viii) covetousness (abhijjhaa), ix) ill-will (byaapaada), and x) wrong view (particularly the view that one should not be held responsible for ones actions, that actions matter). That is, wrong action of body (i-iii), speech (iv)-vii) and mind (viii-x). What is wholesome is restraint (verama.nii) from each of these (M.I.47). Such unwholesome actions are said to be "of unwholesome will (akusala-sa~ncetanika), yielding dukkha, ripening in dukkha" (A.V.292). Of these actions, only those relating to body and speech would normally be seen as coming under the purview of the English words "morality" or "ethics"; indeed the Pali word siila, or "moral virtue", has a similar range. That which is "wholesome" or "unwholesome", then, goes beyond purely moral considerations to include states of mind, which may have no direct effect on other people. All the factors of the Eightfold Path, for example, are seen as "wholesome".


The degree of unwholesomeness of an action is seen to vary according to the degree and nature of the volition/intention (cetanaa) behind the action, and the degree of knowledge (of various kinds) relating to it. An action becomes more unwholesome as the force of the volition behind it increases, for this leaves a greater karmic "trace" on the mind. The Theravaadin commentator Buddhaghosa discusses the unwholesome act of "onslaught on living beings" as follows:

 "Onslaught on living beings" is, as regards a living being that one perceives as living, the will to kill it, expressed through body or speech, occasioning an attack which cuts off its life-faculty. That action, in regard to those without good qualities ( animals etc.--is of lesser fault when they are small, greater fault when they have a large physical frame. Why? Because of the greater effort involved; and even where the effort is the same, due to the greater substance of animal. In regard to those with good qualities-- humans etc.--the action is of lesser fault when they are of few good qualities, greater fault when they are of many good qualities. But when size or good qualities are equal, the fault of the action is in proportion to the intensity of the mental defilements and of the attack. Five factors are involved: a living being, the actual perceiving of a living being, a thought of killing, the attack, and death as a result of it. There are six methods: with one's own hand, by instigation, by missiles, by contrivance (trap or poison), by sorcery, by psychic power (M.A.I.198). [2] Here, one can see that an act is the worse according to the strength and perversity of the volition motivating and accompanying it. To kill a virtuous human, or a respect-worthy one such as a parent is particularly perverse (D.I.85; Vibh.378), just as giving to a virtuous person is particularly good (A.IV.237-78). That killing in a state of intense defilement is worse, would mean that premeditated killing, from a mix of greed, resentment and also delusion, would be very bad.

 Other factors which are seen to affect the degree of unwholesomeness of an action are the degree of both intention and knowledge involved, and one can outline five levels of unwholesomeness accordingly:

 i) An action performed without intending to do that particular action, for example accidentally treading on an insect, without any thought of harming, or doing something when one is insane.

 Such an action is not seen as unwholesome, blameworthy or as generating any bad karmic results. This can be seen from the fact that it is said that to accidentally crush worms while crushing sugar cane for its juice is not blameable (Miln.166) though to deliberately kill any living being is morally blameable. Moreover, there is no offence for a monk if he kills a living being unintentionally, not realising that his actions would harm a living being (Vin.IV.125). Likewise, in the case of the monastic offence--normally entailing defeat in the monastic life--of deliberately killing a human, "there is no offence if it was unintentional, if he did not know, if he were not meaning death, if he was out of his mind..." (Vin.III.78; cf.Vin.II.91). Again, a monk who breaks a monastic rule when mad does not commit an offence (Vin.IV.125). What, though, of an act which is not intended to harm any being, but is such that one knows, or has strong reasons to expect, that a being or beings will be harmed? For example, crushing the sugar cane when one knows, or strongly suspects, that it contains worms? Or driving a car on a hot day when it is very likely that many insects will be killed? Are these cases of a) culpable carelessness, or b) simply a lack of extra-mile altruism?

 ii) If one knows that a certain kind of action is evil, but does it when one is not in full control of oneself, for example when drunk or impassioned.

 This is a lesser evil than if one did it with full knowledge of what one was doing, and with full intention. The Milindapa~nha discusses the case of a Jaataka story (no.433, J.III.514-19) where the Bodhisattva, as an ascetic, sacrifices (or almost does?) many animals when a king says that he can marry his beautiful daughter if he does so (Miln.219-21). The Milindapa~nha says that this was an action done when he was "out of his mind (visa~n~ninaa) with passion, not when he was thinking of what he was doing (sacetanena)". The action was not in accordance with his nature for he was "unhinged, impassioned. It was when he was out of his mind, thoroughly confused and agitated that, with thoughts confused, in a turmoil and disturbed", like a madman. Thus it is said that "Evil done by one who is not of great blame here and now, nor is it so in respect of its ripening in a future state". Thus, full insanity excuses an act, while a temporary "unhinged" state, from passion or drink, means that there is little moral blame or karmic effect; getting into such a state can be held to be blameworthy, though.

 iii) If one does an evil action when one is unclear or mistaken about the object affected by the action.

 This is moderately blameable. Thus, while it is an offence requiring expiation for a monk to intentionally kill a living being, it is a lesser offence, of "wrong-doing", if a) he is in doubt as to whether it is a living being, or b) if he tries to kill a non-living thing that he thinks is, or might be, living, for example by shooting an arrow at it. There is no offence, though, if he fires an arrow at a living being not knowing that it is a living being (Vin.IV.125). An attempt to use such reasoning to lessen the evil of an action can be seen in the actions of the Buddhists of Zanskar, a Kashmiri valley bordering Tibet, who feel that they have to kill predatory wolves. The killing is done as indirectly as possible: after luring the wolves into high-walled stone traps, large stones are thrown over the wall by a group of people--consequently nobody knows for sure who kills the animals. In this way, the people seek to put a distance between themselves and what they see as a practically necessary evil. One might compare, here, the practice sometimes used in firing squads, where not everyone's rifle has live ammunition in it, so that no one actually knows whether they have fired one of the fatal shots!

 iv) An evil action done where one intends to do the act, fully knows what one is doing, and knows that the action is evil. This is the most obvious kind of wrong action, with bad karmic results, particularly if it is premeditated.

 v) An evil action done where one intends to do the act, fully knows what one is doing (as in iv), but do not recognize that one is doing wrong. This is seen as the worse kind of action. Such an action is discussed at Milindapa~nha 84, which says that if an evil action is done "unknowingly (ajaananto)", it has a worse karmic effect than if it is done "knowingly". This is illustrated by saying that a person taking hold of a red-hot iron ball is more severely burnt if he does so unknowingly. This suggests that an evil action--such as intentionally killing a living being (Miln.158)--is the worse if it is done without hesitation, restraint or compunction. This will be the case if an action is not seen to be wrong, as there will be no holding back on the volitional force put into the action. On the face of it, this may seem unjust but perhaps not on further reflection. In an English court of law, the "ring-leader" of a crime is often punished more harshly than those who were led on, half-reluctantly. The leader may well be held to see no wrong in the action--e.g. by showing no remorse--but the others have some compunction. Relevant to this is the case of doing a so-called "necessary evil", for example killing an enemy to prevent one's country being invaded. Here, a recognition that such an act is still evil is preferable to a glorying in the act. Indeed, some of the worse crimes of the twentieth century have been carried out under the banner of an ideology which saw them as "right" actions: Hitler's Holocaust, Stalin's purges and the Khmer Rouge's murder of many Cambodians. If one has the wrong view, for example, that one belongs to the "master race" and that Jews are "vermin" who should be killed, one is not likely to hold back in one's evil actions. Here, wrong physical action is both accompanied by and strengthened by wrong view. [3]

Milindapa~ha .Tiikaa 29, on Milindapa~nha 158, talks of the "non-knowing of evil (paapa-ajaanana)". Note that in the monastic discipline, the only viewpoint that a monk can be disciplined for is the persistent claim, even when admonished, that what the Buddha calls "stumbling blocks"--namely sense-pleasures--are no stumbling blocks in the spiritual life (Vin. IV.133-36). Elsewhere, such an "evil" view is said to generate much badness-power (apu~n~na) (M.I.132). That is, to deny that something reprehensible is reprehensible is particularly blameworthy.

 The above may perhaps be clarified by tabulating what is said of particular kinds of actions which are unwholesome when intentionally and knowingly done:


                                                 i)          ii)         iii)      iv)      v)

One intends to do

a specific act                          No      Min     Part    Yes    Full



One is in a state of

mind in which one knows

one is doing that act              No      Min     Part    Yes    Yes

One knows the act to

be wrong, if it is

intentionally done                  Yes     Yes     Yes     Yes    No

The act is unwholesome        No      Min     Part    Full    More


Min   Minimally

Part  Partially

Full  Fully

More  More than normally so
Here, it can be pointed out that there are different kinds of "ignorance", only some of which excuse an action. If one knows that sentient beings should not be harmed, but not that one's action is actually harming one, this "ignorance" as to a matter of ordinary fact excuses one. The spiritual ignorance which leads one to deny that harming living beings is wrong is no excuse, however, but compounds a wrong action. Of course, in Buddhism, lesser degrees of spiritual ignorance--lack of spiritual insight--are seen to affect all beings until they are enlightened. This forms a background to all unenlightened actions, good or bad, though specifically feeds into wrong actions when they are "rooted" in, that is, motivated by, delusion: "whatever unwholesome states there are, all are rooted in spiritual ignorance... are fixed together in spiritual ignorance", like rafters in a roof-peak (S.II.263). Among other things, spiritual ignorance feeds the "I am" conceit: the conviction that one has a permanent, substantial, essential Self to protect and bolster up the root of selfishness.

 It is no coincidence that the Buddha's criticism of people is not couched in terms of them being evil or sinful, but usually in terms of them being a "fool". It is said that a person is known as a "fool" by immoral conduct of body, speech and mind, just as a wise person is known by moral conduct, and that the fool does not recognise a transgression for what it is (A.I.102-03), nor to accept another person's acknowledgement of having committed a transgression (A.I.59). That is, it is good to see one's own faults and pardon those of others. Indeed, "a fool who knows he is a fool is to that extent a wise person; the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed" (Dhp.63). Given this, it is clear that one is, for example, doing a slaughterer a favour if one tries to get him to see that what he is doing is wrong (though to do so in an aggressive manner is unwholesome as it is an expression of ill-will). Even if he carries on in his trade, he is better off if he is at least uneasy about what he is doing.

 Of course, this assumes that there is such a thing as objectively wrong actions. Only then does it make sense to say that one could be mistaken in holding something not to be wrong. Given Buddhism's clear criteria of what is unwholesome action, it is quite happy to agree to this: an action's "wrongness" subsisting in a combination of the action itself and the state of mind in which it is done. It is not a matter of what a person happens to like or dislike (emotivism), nor of what his society happens to approve or disapprove of (cultural relativism). [4]

Parallel things to the above could mostly be said for good actions: i) an unintentionally beneficial action is not to one's credit; ii) a beneficial action done when one was in a disturbed state is only of little credit; iii) an action done when one is unsure there is someone to benefit from it is moderately good; iv) an intentional good action is straightforwardly good. The parallel breaks down at v), though: if one thinks that a right action is a wrong one but still does it, one will do it with compunction, such that it is a less good action than it would otherwise be. This perhaps shows the potency of "right view". Indeed, it is said that the thing which is the greatest cause of the arising or increase of unwholesome states, and the nonarising or decrease of wholesome states, is wrong view. It is likewise seen as the greatest cause of rebirth in a hellish realm. For one of wrong, evil view, whatever deeds of body, speech or mind "undertaken in complete accord with (that) view, whatever volitions, aspirations, resolves, activities, all those states conduce to...suffering" (A.I.31-2; cf. M.III.178-79). The opposite is said of right view. As a wholesome mental action, right view is defined as holding that good and bad actions do have results beyond this life, and that spiritually developed people have knowledge of such things, wrong view being to deny this:

i) there is gift, there is offering, there is sacrifice;
ii) there is fruit and ripening of deeds well done or ill done;
iii) there is this world, there is a world beyond; iv) there is
mother and father; v) there are spontaneously arising beings;
vi) there are in this world ascetics and brahmins who are faring
rightly, practising rightly, and who proclaim this world and the
world beyond having realized them by their own super-knowledge
(M.III.72, numbers added).
A partial "good" parallel to v) would be doing a truly good action even though others say it is a bad one. Here, great determination is needed, so the action can be seen as a very good one. Another partial parallel is where a young child does a good action even though he or she has not been told it is "good". An example, here, is given at Asl.103. A young boy is told to catch a hare to feed as medicine for his sick mother; he could not do so, though, for he intuitively recognized that it was wrong to kill.


This raises the question, though, of whether it is worse to do an unwholesome action when i) one has formally undertaken not to do so, or ii) when one has not so undertaken. If one undertakes the precept of not stealing, this must be because one recognises that such an action is unwholesome. If one then breaks the precept, while one does not do so in ignorance of what is right and wrong (as in v), above), one is also breaking a promise: not to steal. Unless this is a premeditated lie, though, it perhaps does not outweigh the goodness of the original promise/resolution to avoid stealing. As expressed by Tatz, "To act morally in accordance with a vow is considered more beneficial than to act morally without one, because the moral conduct is associated with progress toward a higher goal". [5] To break a moral precept which one is generally seeking, and succeeding, to follow, would thus be better than to go against one that one has not formally undertaken.

 What, though, of the many monastic rules undertaken by a monk or nun, but not by a lay-person? The most obvious one of these is the avoidance of all sexual activity. Sexual activity is acceptable for a lay-person, provided it is within certain moral bounds. A monk undertakes to avoid it, as a crucial part of his training to overcome all greed/attachment, hatred and delusion. Any act of sexual intercourse will then lead to "defeat" in the monastic life, and expulsion from it. In this case, it is seen as better not to take the relevant precept, by remaining a lay-person, or disrobing, than to take it and then break it. This is partly because of the solemnity of the monastic vows, and the obligation a monk has to make himself worthy of the alms of the lay-people who support him, and so not betray their faith. One could also say that sexual activity is not itself immoral, so it only becomes blameworthy if indulged in after vowing not to do so (or if done in a way involving suffering to others). Here, a useful distinction is made by Asa"nga: between the ten unwholesome courses of action (above), which are "reprehensible by nature", and most of the monastic rules, which are "reprehensibly only 'by precept'", as breaking them brings no direct harm to others. [6] Likewise, the Abhidharma-Ko"sa (IV.122bc) says that some things are not immoral, dauh"siilya, but are prohibited by the Buddha for monks, for example eating after noon.

 Another potentially problematic issue is the case, for example, of a person who steals so as to feed his starving mother. This would be seen as an act which is a mixture of bad and good, in which the good aspect helps counterbalance the bad, especially if the theft is done in recognition of the wrongness of stealing. Buddhism acknowledges that poverty in a society makes theft more likely (D.I.76-7). While poverty does not excuse theft, it can be seen to make it less blameable.


The perspective of early Buddhism views morality as part of a spiritual path which largely consists of cultivating a more wholesome character: by undermining moral/spiritual defilements and cultivating counteractive virtues. This process of--generally gradual-- transformation is seen to culminate in a state of liberation from all traces of greed/attachment, hatred and delusion, and their consequent suffering, through the experience of Nirvana. Such a vision assumes that people have no fixed, unchanging Self, but are capable of radical transformation, brought about by attention to the nature of one's mind and actions.

 Attention is given to actions out of a concern for: a) the happiness/unhappiness that actions directly bring to the agent and others; b) moral praise and blame, or sanctions within a monastic community; c) contribution to spiritual development, or its opposite; and d) the natural karmic effects that are seen to arise, in the future, for the agent.

 All of this entails that what one does, and how and why one does it, is of great import: for one's actions both express and shape one's character, and contribute to one's destiny. Much emphasis is put on the state of mind, and intention, lying behind any action--yet some actions are identified as always unwholesome to some degree, dependent on precise motivation. Consequently, it is good to not only seek to avoid such actions, but to formally vow to avoid them.

 Criteria are spelled out to identify, in as objective a way as possible, which action-intentions should be recognised as morally unwholesome or wholesome. In this, ignorance of ordinary matters of fact is seen as excusing what might otherwise be seen as an unwholesome action, but moral/spiritual ignorance is seen as compounding an action's unwholesomeness. That is, to perform an unwholesome action while claiming or regarding it as acceptable or wholesome is seen to be particularly perverse. In other words, it is held that some action-intentions--primarily those that deliberately cause harm to a sentient being--are wrong, and that it is wrong to deny this and to act on this denial, or from moral blindness.

 Such moral objectivism is derived from: a) the notion that we all have a natural sympathy for the plight of others, however much we try to ignore, or bury it; b) acting in accord with, and strengthening, this sympathy naturally leads to more happiness and less suffering for oneself and those one interacts with; c) no substantial, permanent Self or I exists, and actions selfishly rooted in the I-view or -attitude are out of accord with reality, so as to be both morally unwholesome and naturally productive of unpleasant karmic result.

 Of course, for Buddhism, an act is seen to have unpleasant karmic results because it is wrong; it is not seen as "wrong" because it happens to produce bad karmic results. A final point is that it is better to do a wrong action with compunction than without compunction (though subsequent guilt-trips are not encouraged, as they lead to an agitated, beclouded mind-state). Moreover, a key aid to moral development is the formal avowal of certain moral precepts, which are seen to strengthen one's moral vision and help to increase the momentum of moral development. In other words, it helps to have some moral "aims and objectives" that one agrees with and can happily affirm, even if one is not always so good at achieving them!


[1]. P.A. Payutto, Good, Evil and Beyond: Kamma in the Buddha's Teachings (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1993): 19. Return

[2]. E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959); cf. Khp.A.28-31. Return

[3]. Cf. Payutto, Good, Evil and Beyond: Kamma in the Buddha's Teachings: 62-65. Return

[4]. D. Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1992): 64 & 231-232. Return

[5]. M. Tatz, "Asa"nga's Chapter on Ethics", Studies in Asian Thought and Religion, Volume 4 (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen, 1986): 13; On vows (sa.mvara), see Abhidharma-Ko"sa 4: 43-51. Return

[6]. Tatz, "Asa"nga's Chapter on Ethics": 10. Return

Copyright 1995

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