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What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Mon Aug 29, 2011 9:17 am

1handclapping wrote:
Chan has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Chan.

Interesting. Sheng-Yen also said: "It should be remembered that the mind of the master is ever pure... and even if the master tells lies, steals and chases women..., he is still considered a true master as long as he scolds his disciples for their transgressions".
What's up with that?? :EEK:


Yeah, the weirdest things he ever said that I've heard! Too much Chinese mythology/culture there ... he got caught in it, at least temporarily, I think. We should make a collection here of cranky things good teachers have said! Would be interesting, and help to bring them all down to earth a bit, I think. :PP:
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Dan74 on Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:32 am

Too much Chinese mythology/culture there ... he got caught in it, at least temporarily, I think.


I suspect that it was rather due to his training in Japan.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Huifeng on Mon Aug 29, 2011 12:44 pm

Without seeing the Chinese that Ven. actually spoke (as opposed to the English translation), my thought would be rather simple: When he says "Chan" here, he simply refers to what we may call the "truth".

"Truth has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Truth."

This would accord with one of the many meanings of the term, and one which I have heard a number of Chan teachers use. A basic notion of "truth" is something that is universally and eternally so. For example, the common phrase in the sutras (where "Dharma" means "truth"):

"Whether the Buddhas appear in the world, or do not appear, this Dharma abides as such, it is the stability of Dharma. ..."
若佛出世,若未出世,此法常住,法住法界...

As Ven Sheng Yen himself says:
「因緣生滅法」,它即是具有永恆性及普遍性的真理
"The Dharma of arising and ceasing through dependent origination is an eternal and universal truth."

The word "Chan" doesn't mean "meditation" at all, in such a context (obviously, that would be kind of silly), nor does the word "Dharma" mean "teaching" in this context. These two terms, like many, are multivalent. In these contexts, they both mean "truth" or "principle", etc.

Elsewhere, Ven Sheng Yen writes: 正信的佛教必具永恆性、普遍性、必然性; this includes the notions of "eternality" and "universality". These definitions are such that I frequently come across them in the talks and writings of Chan teachers.

We don't have to put it down to Chinese (or Japanese, or any other) culture or mythology. Pretty much every period of time and every culture has a notion of some sort of eternal and universal principle or truth, ours is no exception.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Bob Skank on Mon Aug 29, 2011 3:01 pm

Carol wrote: We should make a collection here of cranky things good teachers have said! Would be interesting and help to bring them all down to earth a bit, I think.


What a good idea!

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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Mon Aug 29, 2011 5:49 pm

Huifeng wrote:Without seeing the Chinese that Ven. actually spoke (as opposed to the English translation), my thought would be rather simple: When he says "Chan" here, he simply refers to what we may call the "truth".

"Truth has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Truth."

This would accord with one of the many meanings of the term, and one which I have heard a number of Chan teachers use. A basic notion of "truth" is something that is universally and eternally so. For example, the common phrase in the sutras (where "Dharma" means "truth"):

"Whether the Buddhas appear in the world, or do not appear, this Dharma abides as such, it is the stability of Dharma. ..."
若佛出世,若未出世,此法常住,法住法界...

As Ven Sheng Yen himself says:
「因緣生滅法」,它即是具有永恆性及普遍性的真理
"The Dharma of arising and ceasing through dependent origination is an eternal and universal truth."

The word "Chan" doesn't mean "meditation" at all, in such a context (obviously, that would be kind of silly), nor does the word "Dharma" mean "teaching" in this context. These two terms, like many, are multivalent. In these contexts, they both mean "truth" or "principle", etc.

Elsewhere, Ven Sheng Yen writes: 正信的佛教必具永恆性、普遍性、必然性; this includes the notions of "eternality" and "universality". These definitions are such that I frequently come across them in the talks and writings of Chan teachers.

We don't have to put it down to Chinese (or Japanese, or any other) culture or mythology. Pretty much every period of time and every culture has a notion of some sort of eternal and universal principle or truth, ours is no exception.


Thanks for these observations. Some time ago Stuart Lachs wrote to me about this quotation from Master Sheng Yen. At first I didn't believe he said it ... but he told me where it was, in which book. I looked it up and there it was. Unfortunately, I've lost the email and cannot remember where it was, but I did look and did find it.

Stuart ... who was a student of Master Sheng Yen's for a number of years ... told me that he had had a discussion with Master Sheng Yen about it at the time that the book was being readied for publication in English for the English-speaking reader. As I recall Stuart's email to me, Stuart said to him "You can't say that to Westerners, especially now," or words to that effect. I believe the book was published shortly after one of the flare-ups about Eido Shimano's misconduct that was known to Lachs and Master Sheng Yen at the time, and there were other well-known sex and money scandals rocking Western Buddhism that were also becoming known. Master Sheng Yen was not willing to modify the English translation based on those concerns, according to Lachs. Of course, I cannot vouch for Lachs' accurate memory. Lachs may very well not have understood where Master Sheng Yen was coming from, or what he meant. But I do think the criticism is important ... and great care needs to be taken.

I think it is an important question ... whether transmitted "enlightened" teachers ... in any lineage ... are beyond human fallibility in what they say and do. And whether the expectation that they are or should be is just as foolish as some of the things they may say or do. I'm not talking about gross abuse, here, which I hope most of us can agree just isn't acceptable in anyone holding him/herself out as a Dharma teacher. But I am talking about the personality flaws, occasional arrogance, thoughtlessness, blind spots, and ongoing karma working itself out.

One challenge that Westerners bring to Buddhism is "questioning authority" -- and I think this is very healthy -- which is embedded far more in our culture and education than in most Eastern cultures. On the other hand, that very "rugged individualism" can be a huge impediment to seeing through "self-clinging" which is absolutely necessary for spiritual practice.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Mon Aug 29, 2011 6:03 pm

Dan74 wrote:
Too much Chinese mythology/culture there ... he got caught in it, at least temporarily, I think.


I suspect that it was rather due to his training in Japan.


I was thinking it was Confusian. Master Sheng Yen did go to Japan for six years and received a doctorate in Buddhist literature from Rissho University and he also Japanese practice places and monasteries. He said of this,

"During this period I visited various masters of Zen and esoteric Buddhism. I received the greatest influence from Bantetsugu Roshi, a disciple of Harada Roshi. I attended several winter-long retreats at his temple in Tohoku. Being in northern Japan, the temple had a very harsh environment. Moreover, the master seemed inclined to give me an especially hard time and constantly had his assistants beat me. Of the people there I had by far the most education, and he would say, 'You scholars have a lot of selfish attachments and vexations. Your obstructions are heavy.' "

A brief biography is here

But he was first and foremost deeply steeped in Chinese tradition and culture and Buddhist teaching, and wanted to transmit this to the West ... as reading his books makes this clear, especially Orthodox Chinese Buddhism. (This may have been the book Lachs was referring to.)
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Linda Anderson on Mon Aug 29, 2011 6:17 pm

Seems like this quote about no outside points to the impermance of it all... the paradox of holding both sides... and the teaching suited for the student at various points. I don't see it discounting teachers.

What is the zen koan that says, I didn't say there was no zen...? only no teacher.

even when a teacher speaks, someone has to hear... but is it in the teaching or the hearing? those boundaries dissolve...

the misconduct quote challenges to the depth, what if he's right? It doesn't have to discount our ethical practices, yet... Who would distinguish big and little faults?
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not this morning;
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby 1handclapping on Tue Aug 30, 2011 5:36 am

Re: the misconduct quote--I think "right" is in the eyes of the beholder. Just because something has been traditional for centuries, doesn't make it right. Just because a master says it's right doesn't make it right, IMO. I'm not interested in studying with a teacher who doesn't model the behavior he requires of his students. There's no free pass for supposed enlightened masters. If there wasn't for the Buddha, why should there be for anyone else? Wasn't it the Buddha who originally said to judge teachers and holy men by their actions?
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Tue Aug 30, 2011 5:40 am

I've never heard of any misconduct by Ven. Master Sheng Yen. Have you, 1hand?
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby 1handclapping on Tue Aug 30, 2011 6:02 am

No, that's what mystifies me about the quote in which he seems to say misconduct is ok for enlightened masters. I think that type of belief opens a Pandora's Box. Do you think possibly that is due to influence from his studies of esoteric Buddhism in Japan? Chan also has an esoteric tradition.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Huifeng on Tue Aug 30, 2011 6:50 am

Carol wrote:
Huifeng wrote:Without seeing the Chinese that Ven. actually spoke (as opposed to the English translation), my thought would be rather simple: When he says "Chan" here, he simply refers to what we may call the "truth".

"Truth has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Truth."

This would accord with one of the many meanings of the term, and one which I have heard a number of Chan teachers use. A basic notion of "truth" is something that is universally and eternally so. For example, the common phrase in the sutras (where "Dharma" means "truth"):

"Whether the Buddhas appear in the world, or do not appear, this Dharma abides as such, it is the stability of Dharma. ..."
若佛出世,若未出世,此法常住,法住法界...

As Ven Sheng Yen himself says:
「因緣生滅法」,它即是具有永恆性及普遍性的真理
"The Dharma of arising and ceasing through dependent origination is an eternal and universal truth."

The word "Chan" doesn't mean "meditation" at all, in such a context (obviously, that would be kind of silly), nor does the word "Dharma" mean "teaching" in this context. These two terms, like many, are multivalent. In these contexts, they both mean "truth" or "principle", etc.

Elsewhere, Ven Sheng Yen writes: 正信的佛教必具永恆性、普遍性、必然性; this includes the notions of "eternality" and "universality". These definitions are such that I frequently come across them in the talks and writings of Chan teachers.

We don't have to put it down to Chinese (or Japanese, or any other) culture or mythology. Pretty much every period of time and every culture has a notion of some sort of eternal and universal principle or truth, ours is no exception.


Thanks for these observations. Some time ago Stuart Lachs wrote to me about this quotation from Master Sheng Yen. At first I didn't believe he said it ... but he told me where it was, in which book. I looked it up and there it was. Unfortunately, I've lost the email and cannot remember where it was, but I did look and did find it.

Stuart ... who was a student of Master Sheng Yen's for a number of years ... told me that he had had a discussion with Master Sheng Yen about it at the time that the book was being readied for publication in English for the English-speaking reader. As I recall Stuart's email to me, Stuart said to him "You can't say that to Westerners, especially now," or words to that effect. I believe the book was published shortly after one of the flare-ups about Eido Shimano's misconduct that was known to Lachs and Master Sheng Yen at the time, and there were other well-known sex and money scandals rocking Western Buddhism that were also becoming known. Master Sheng Yen was not willing to modify the English translation based on those concerns, according to Lachs. Of course, I cannot vouch for Lachs' accurate memory. Lachs may very well not have understood where Master Sheng Yen was coming from, or what he meant. But I do think the criticism is important ... and great care needs to be taken.

I think it is an important question ... whether transmitted "enlightened" teachers ... in any lineage ... are beyond human fallibility in what they say and do. And whether the expectation that they are or should be is just as foolish as some of the things they may say or do. I'm not talking about gross abuse, here, which I hope most of us can agree just isn't acceptable in anyone holding him/herself out as a Dharma teacher. But I am talking about the personality flaws, occasional arrogance, thoughtlessness, blind spots, and ongoing karma working itself out.

One challenge that Westerners bring to Buddhism is "questioning authority" -- and I think this is very healthy -- which is embedded far more in our culture and education than in most Eastern cultures. On the other hand, that very "rugged individualism" can be a huge impediment to seeing through "self-clinging" which is absolutely necessary for spiritual practice.


I just realized that you were more focusing on his claim that

"It should be remembered that the mind of the master is ever pure... and even if the master tells lies, steals and chases women..., he is still considered a true master as long as he scolds his disciples for their transgressions".

whereas I was only looking at the other statement,

"Chan has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Chan."

I already covered the second statement above, but as for the first statement, on "... master is pure ...", it is not something I have often heard. I've never heard my own Shifu say that, to the best of my memory. But I have heard other teachers say this once or twice. And when they did say it, they weren't using it as an excuse for their own behavior. They were using it to avoid being overly critical of others in situations when we don't have a clear picture of what really happened.

I think that the root idea for this is neither Japanese nor Confucian, but stems back to the notion of the skillful means (upaya-kausalya) of the bodhisattva, as they use methods to liberate sentient beings. Classic example would be Vimalakirti - he does things which externally appear to run contrary to Buddhist ethics, but they are just skillful means to help others. However, although Chinese Buddhism considers that this is definitely possible, it is considered one of those things that only the greatest and most advanced of bodhisattvas can actually do. So, if anyone but a very great teacher were to do such things, they would be censured by the Buddhist population at large (in light of their behavior in general).
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Tue Aug 30, 2011 9:41 am

Huifeng wrote:I just realized that you were more focusing on his claim that

"It should be remembered that the mind of the master is ever pure... and even if the master tells lies, steals and chases women..., he is still considered a true master as long as he scolds his disciples for their transgressions".

whereas I was only looking at the other statement,

"Chan has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Chan."


Yes, I figured out what you were referring to after reading it a couple times. Thanks. 1handclapping brought up the "master is ever pure" quotation, so we had moved to discussing that troubling statement.

Huifeng wrote:I already covered the second statement above, but as for the first statement, on "... master is pure ...", it is not something I have often heard. I've never heard my own Shifu say that, to the best of my memory. But I have heard other teachers say this once or twice. And when they did say it, they weren't using it as an excuse for their own behavior. They were using it to avoid being overly critical of others in situations when we don't have a clear picture of what really happened.

I think that the root idea for this is neither Japanese nor Confucian, but stems back to the notion of the skillful means (upaya-kausalya) of the bodhisattva, as they use methods to liberate sentient beings. Classic example would be Vimalakirti - he does things which externally appear to run contrary to Buddhist ethics, but they are just skillful means to help others. However, although Chinese Buddhism considers that this is definitely possible, it is considered one of those things that only the greatest and most advanced of bodhisattvas can actually do. So, if anyone but a very great teacher were to do such things, they would be censured by the Buddhist population at large (in light of their behavior in general).


Interesting. Perhaps you are right. Thanks.

~Carol
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Tue Aug 30, 2011 9:44 am

1handclapping wrote:No, that's what mystifies me about the quote in which he seems to say misconduct is ok for enlightened masters. I think that type of belief opens a Pandora's Box. Do you think possibly that is due to influence from his studies of esoteric Buddhism in Japan? Chan also has an esoteric tradition.


What is so puzzing about it is that it contradicts the very strict morality that he taught, so I'm not sure what he meant. I don't believe, however, that he meant that "misconduct is ok for enlightened masters." Since he passed away in 2009, we cannot ask him.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Huifeng on Tue Aug 30, 2011 10:05 am

Carol wrote:
1handclapping wrote:No, that's what mystifies me about the quote in which he seems to say misconduct is ok for enlightened masters. I think that type of belief opens a Pandora's Box. Do you think possibly that is due to influence from his studies of esoteric Buddhism in Japan? Chan also has an esoteric tradition.


What is so puzzing about it is that it contradicts the very strict morality that he taught, so I'm not sure what he meant. I don't believe, however, that he meant that "misconduct is ok for enlightened masters." Since he passed away in 2009, we cannot ask him.


Would help to track down the context of when and where he said it, and to whom. For instance, there could have been some particular issue that had occurred in Taiwanese Buddhist circles at that time, such that everyone was talking about it, and he was giving this as a response. For example, he may have been implicitly supporting someone who had been accused of some sort of misbehavior.

One could also see what actual words he used. It is actually possible to trace down the terms and see the sources. A lot of Chan teachers - and other Buddhist teachers - use a very specific type of Buddhist lingo (or jargon, if you like). It's like "raising a gong'an". Then, looking back at the original story, what was the message there.

It strikes me that so much of this stuff - even very modern stuff - is so quickly taken out of context. This is even more so when it was originally given in another language, another culture, quite some distance away.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Tue Aug 30, 2011 10:20 am

Huifeng wrote:
Carol wrote:
1handclapping wrote:No, that's what mystifies me about the quote in which he seems to say misconduct is ok for enlightened masters. I think that type of belief opens a Pandora's Box. Do you think possibly that is due to influence from his studies of esoteric Buddhism in Japan? Chan also has an esoteric tradition.


What is so puzzing about it is that it contradicts the very strict morality that he taught, so I'm not sure what he meant. I don't believe, however, that he meant that "misconduct is ok for enlightened masters." Since he passed away in 2009, we cannot ask him.


Would help to track down the context of when and where he said it, and to whom. For instance, there could have been some particular issue that had occurred in Taiwanese Buddhist circles at that time, such that everyone was talking about it, and he was giving this as a response. For example, he may have been implicitly supporting someone who had been accused of some sort of misbehavior.


As I said, it was published in one of his books ... I believe it probably was Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, but I don't remember. I once had a copy, but cannot find it any longer.

Huifeng wrote:One could also see what actual words he used. It is actually possible to trace down the terms and see the sources. A lot of Chan teachers - and other Buddhist teachers - use a very specific type of Buddhist lingo (or jargon, if you like). It's like "raising a gong'an". Then, looking back at the original story, what was the message there.

It strikes me that so much of this stuff - even very modern stuff - is so quickly taken out of context. This is even more so when it was originally given in another language, another culture, quite some distance away.


Yes. That does happen. See my post above about Stuart Lachs' communication to me about his conversation with Master Sheng Yen about this statement. I believe it caused Stuart to leave Master Sheng Yen, after 19 years as his student, and set him on the trajectory of criticism of Zen Masters that we have seen ... much of it quite justified.

Whatever the case may be, it was Master Sheng Yen's brief essay "What is Chan?" posted above that caused me to first go to Dharma Drum Retreat Center about 5 years ago. Although I never had the opportunity to study with Master Sheng Yen, he was ill and no longer travelling to the US, I have attended retreats led by 3 of his dharma heirs. I have not been disappointed. Quite the contrary. I appreciate the very down to earth and methodical way they teach. My retreat time there has been most precious, perhaps some of the most precious time in my life. I've been very lucky. As my health is not so good anymore, I may not be able to return for the very strenuous retreat schedule again. But I still practice as I was taught there ... and the fruits continue to develop. I sometimes imagine that when I am dying, I will remember to practice as I was taught there, and will not be frightened as my breath leaves and does not return.

Gratitude and deep bows.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby fragrant herbs on Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:54 pm

When I read a book on Sheng-Yen's life he mentioned how one of his teachers brainwashed him. Wonder if this quote of his was from that time? Does he really believe it? It turned me off him.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Dan74 on Tue Aug 30, 2011 1:11 pm

The full talk containing the quote is here:

http://chancenter.org/cmc/2011/08/15/selecting-and-studying-under-a-master/

It's from 1984.
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Bob Skank on Tue Aug 30, 2011 2:02 pm

Dan74 wrote:The full talk containing the quote is here: http://chancenter.org/cmc/2011/08/15/selecting-and-studying-under-a-master/ It's from 1984.


Thank you, Dan. I can't cite the source but in one of his essays in Chan magazine Sheng Yen said that there had been no fully realized teacher since Shakyamuni.

But as for "winking" at the transgressions of lesser teachers, I doubt this advice would be well received by some of the students of Shimano, Tendzin, and Baker.

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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby 1handclapping on Tue Aug 30, 2011 2:47 pm

Has anyone read the essay Dan74 provides, that gives the context of Sheng-Yen's comment? He says students shouldn't be concerned with the master's behavior and morality in selecting a teacher, only with his teachings. Students aren't qualified to evaluate a master's behavior, he says. Then he ridicules students' attempt to evaluate a teacher, by providing a little anecdote about students being shocked that a master would actually eat, and have other human bodily functions. This doesn't sound at all like the same person others have described here. His advice goes contrary to all instructions on how to select a teacher that I've ever heard. I wonder, did he have in mind the traditional context in China and Japan, where students are mostly, if not exclusively, male? I'd think women students would have to be concerned with a teacher's morality, for safety reasons. Is it just me, or does this essay seem really off-kilter?
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Re: What Is Chan? Master Sheng Yen

Postby Carol on Tue Aug 30, 2011 3:12 pm

1handclapping wrote:Has anyone read the essay Dan74 provides, that gives the context of Sheng-Yen's comment? He says students shouldn't be concerned with the master's behavior and morality in selecting a teacher, only with his teachings. Students aren't qualified to evaluate a master's behavior, he says. Then he ridicules students' attempt to evaluate a teacher, by providing a little anecdote about students being shocked that a master would actually eat, and have other human bodily functions. This doesn't sound at all like the same person others have described here. His advice goes contrary to all instructions on how to select a teacher that I've ever heard. I wonder, did he have in mind the traditional context in China and Japan, where students are mostly, if not exclusively, male? I'd think women students would have to be concerned with a teacher's morality, for safety reasons. Is it just me, or does this essay seem really off-kilter?


A very naive view. But he had only been in the US a few years at that point. He may have learned better over the years.
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