Homage by an emperor: a Yung-lo embroidery Thangka: Amy Heller unveils an extraordinary, unknown 15th-century Chinese Buddhist silk embroidery, made as a gift from the Yung-lo Emperor to the Tibetan lama who was his personal teacher and mentor.
A long dedication inscription written in gold in Tibetan on the reverse of the thangka sets out a historic lineage of lamas and monks and concludes with acrostic verses in veneration of Shakya Ye shes (1354-1435), who was a monk of the dGe lugs pa order. The verses use the Tibetan version of the title given in homage to Shakya Ye shes by the Yung-lo Emperor. (2) The thangka can thus be dated to the emperor's reign (1403-1424). This argument is strongly supported by comparison with another embroidery thangka, representing Yamantaka, also associated with Yung-lo, as well as with other works of art bearing his reign mark. (3)
The thangka depicts the distinctive iconography of Hevajra as Kapaladhara, 'he who holds the kapala', a skull cup. (4) The deity stands on a lotus pedestal at the centre of the embroidery. His slender body is dark blue, he has eight beads of different colours and 16 arms each with a kapala containing symbols of planetary or animal deities. Hevajra embraces the black goddess Nairatma, who has a single head, her lips almost touching Hevajra's mouth. With a vajra chopper in the right hand and a kapala in the left hand, she lifts her right leg to clasp her consort. She wears a delicate bone apron draped around her waist and many gold ornaments, with threads of red and blue to represent inset rubies and sapphires. The couple dances above two small obstacle-creating deities (vigbna, bgegs) who dutifully hold their feet, while two other deities hold some of the skulls of the long garland draped around Hevajra. These deities gaze somewhat impassively at the enraptured Hevajra and Nairatma, who embody the bliss of the indivisible Buddhist union of wisdom (shes rab, prajna) and means to enlightenment (thabs, upaya).
This aspect of Hevajra and Nairatma has a long history of veneration within the Sa skya pa monastic school. This explains why mahasiddha Virupa, revered as the spiritual ancestor of the Sa skya pa teachings, is represented in the upper register, above Hevajra's right shoulder. He is also mentioned in the dedication prayer on the reverse of the tbangka. Virupa is shown in one of his characteristic aspects, in which he raises his hand towards the sun (Fig. 2). He has a massive, corpulent body. As part of his ascetic practices, his hair has been shorn, and he wears only a dhoti and a meditation belt, to restrain his leg. The long dhoti, which extends almost to his ankles, is patterned in horizontal stripes of alternating colours. On his head, above his short curls, he wears a ribbon adorned with small flowers. His left hand is raised towards the sun; his right hand is hidden behind his legs. The raised left hand is a reminder of the powers that Virupa acquired by his spiritual practices. Legend has it that he had no money to pay for drinks he had consumed in an inn. He vowed to stop the sun if the innkeeper did not forfeit his bill--and as he raised his hand, the sun came to a halt in the sky. The other clients in the inn were so uncomfortable that the innkeeper complied with Virupa's request. (5)
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Above Hevajra's left shoulder there is a Tibetan lama seated in meditative position, his hands in a variant of the gesture of teaching (dharmacakra mudra). He wears a red cloak above the Yellow monastic robes (Fig. 5). Above the lama's right shoulder is a lotus on which a vajra is placed, and above his left shoulder a lotus on which a bell is placed. The man appears to be middle-aged, as there are horizontal stitches to represent wrinkles in his forehead. His rather plump, round face has an emphatic chin and small features and his ears are relatively large. His hair is concealed by his black hat, which has three panels. There is an oval white medallion above the central panel; a seated human figure with hands over the heart in the centre of each panel probably represents a crowned Buddha. (6) According to the MingAnnals, the Yung-lo Emperor presented a black hat, a robe and a title to Shakya Ye shes when he left for Tibet in 1416. (7) It is probable, therefore, that this figure is Shakya Ye shes, depicted as he appeared upon his departure from the imperial court, when he was 61 or 62. (8)
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
In the lower register, further reference to the importance of Hevajra within the Sa skya pa monastic school is emphasised by three deities revered as principal protective deities of the Sa skya (Fig. 3): Mahakala in his aspect as Nag po chen po, 'the great black protector'; Jambhala as god of wealth; and Lha mo. Mahakala in this iconography is linked to the text known as rDo rje gur (its full title is Mkha' 'gro ma rdo rje gur gyi rgyud chen po, in Sanskrit Dakini-vajra-panjara-mahatantra), which is part of the Hevajra cycle of texts and immediately follows the Hevajratantra in the bka' 'gyur section of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. (9) Mahakala's role as protective deity of this cycle has given rise to an alternative name for this aspect of him, gurgyi mgonpo, an abbreviation of rdo rje gur gyi mgon po, meaning 'protector of the Vajra-panjara tantra'. (10)
Mahakala's appearance is indeed great (maha) and black (kala), as his name implies. He holds a stick, a kapala and a gri gug chopper in front of his fat belly as he stands straight in his characteristic pose, with knees bent and heels turned in. Lha mo in this aspect rides a mule, with a sword in one hand and a trident in her upper hands, a skull cup and what may be a strand of beads (it is indistinguishable at present). She is a member of the entourage of Nag po chen po. At the centre is Jambhala on his lion, to ensure the auspicious nature of the offering of a gos sku, or 'silken image'.
According to the lineage recorded by the thangka, the Hevajra teachings were transmitted to Shakya Ye shes by Bla ma dam pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan, 14th Abbot of Sa skya and de facto ruler of Tibet 1343/5- 1347/9. He stands in a lineage of lamas given in the inscription (see Appendix 1). Each lama is a holder of the lineage of transmission of the teachings of meditation on Hevajra, starting with the Buddha and culminating with Shakya Ye shes.
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Shakya Ye shes was not the first lama to visit the Yung-lo Emperor Cheng zu. The Hevjara initiation was first bestowed on a Chinese emperor in the mid 13th century, when the Sa skya lama Phags pa consecrated the Yuan Emperor Qublai, so making him a cakravartin (universal sovereign). (11) Cheng zu had received his first Hevajara initiation in 1407 from the 5th Karmapa lama, bDe bzhin gshegs pa. In 1411 the emperor had a vision of himself as a Buddha bearing the marks of a cakravartin; subsequently he appears to have considered himself to be such a consecrated Buddhist ruler. (12) Having received another initiation of Hevajra teachings from the Sa skya hierarch Kun dga' bkra shis, (13) he invited Tsong kha pa, the dGe lugs pa hierarch, who refused the invitation and sent Shakya Ye shes in his stead.
[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]
Shakya Ye shes arrived at the court on 3 February 1415, and gave the emperor initiations for the mandalas of Hevajra, Vajrapani and Samvara, as well as other teachings and long-life initiations. (14) The preparations started in February and the rituals began on 20 March, continuing for three months. (15) Tibetan sources describe the miraculous apparitions that accompanied the performance of these ceremonies, such as rainbows and flowers raining from the sky, as well as auspicious dreams enjoyed by both Shakya Ye shes and Ming Cheng zu of the deities for whom the mandala rites had been performed, helping the lama and his imperial disciple to develop a strong personal relationship.
On 11 May 1415, Cheng zu bestowed upon Shakya Ye shes a distinctive title, which may be translated as 'Annointed Son of the Buddha of the Western Heavens who spreads goodness, and great national preceptor (who is) wonderfully enlightened, universally penetrating, wise and compassionate, all responsive, (and who) supports the nation and reveals the doctrine'. (16) As Elliot Sperling, a specialist in Tibeto-Chinese relations during the Ming period, remarks, 'This is a longer and far more grandiose title than any given by the emperor to other Tibetan religious figure (with the exception, naturally, of De bzhin gshegs pa and Kun dga' bkra shis)', for those two lamas had been personally invited by the emperor, whereas Shakya Ye shes had been dispatched by Tsong kha pa as his substitute in response to Cheng zu's invitation to the latter. This special title is explained by the great role played by Shakya Ye shes in the court's religious life and the relationship developed during the mandala initiations.
Shakya Ye shes is frequently designated in later Tibetan sources by a title Byams then chos rje (literally 'Great Compassionate Master of Dharma') a Tibetan rendition of the title Da zi fa wang (literally 'Great Compassionate King of Dharma'), bestowed on him by the Xuande Emperor, whom he visited much later in his life, in 1434-35, shortly before his death.
This title does not appear on this thangka, where the inscription repeats several elements of the title given by Ming Cheng zu in 1416. As Sperling has remarked, even if the Xuande title is often used by later sources, 'all sources, Chinese and Tibetan, attach far more importance to Shakya Ye shes' relationship with Ming Cheng zu than to his association with the Xuande Emperor'. (17)
After the mandala series, Shakya Ye shes continued his teachings to Cheng zu, bestowing initiations of Amitayus to ensure the emperor's longevity as well as tantric inititions, again accompanied by miraculous phenomena. (18) On leaving the court to return to Tibet, on 5 June 1416, (19) Shakya Ye shes was presented with 'an imperially ordered composition praising him' as well as Buddhist images and scriptures, gold and silver vessels, indicative of Ming Cheng zu's great esteem for his teacher. When he returned to Tibet, Shakya Ye shes settled in a hermitage at Sera. In 1419, Tsong kha pa died and Sera was formally consecrated as a monastic foundation, with Shakya Ye shes as the first abbot. In the same year he received presents of silks, books and images from Ming Cheng zu.
The appearance in the inscription on the thangka of the title that Ming Cheng zu bestowed upon Shakya Ye shes suggests that it was made either for Shakya Ye shes' departure from Beijing in 1416 or that it was one of the presents sent to him by the emperor in 1419. The dedication closes with several verses of homage to Shakya Ye shes: 'Homage to the one who came into the presence of the cakravartin, he gave me great merit, Homage', which may be understood as a special expression of gratitude to Shakya Ye shes for his personal teachings and numerous initiations bestowed upon the Yung-lo Emperor in his capacity as cakravartin. (20)
Support for this argument is provided by the thangka's style, which shares many characteristics of the art of the Yung-lo reign. (21) Most notably there is the distinctive shape of the slightly pointed arch that surrounds Virupa, Shakya Ye shes and the three protective deities of the lower register; an arch of the same shape also surrounds Hevajra and Nairatma, although adapted to allow for the inclusion of pilasters and the makara (a mythical aquatic beast). This arch is characteristic of the Yung-lo period and may be seen for example in one of the outstanding sculptures bearing the Yung-lo reign mark (Fig. 6), depicting the Buddha in an aureole of fire (prabhamandala). The flames of the sculpture and the embroidery share distinctive swirl motifs that are also characteristic of the period. The vajra border that encloses the entire thangka is emphasised in the successive sections of the sculpture's prabhamandala.
In terms of iconography, the pilasters of Hevajra's arch are very similar to those on a slightly larger embroidery of Yamantaka in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also has a similar portrait of Shakya Ye shes and has been attributed to the Yung-lo period (Figs 7, 8 and 9). (22) I am most grateful to Jacqueline Simcox for the following observations, which indicate that the two embroideries may very well be products of the same imperial atelier. The background navy-blue silk is of excellent quality and finely woven, and in both embroideries the silk has been turned on its side in order for the thangkas to hang smoothly. Among other shared techniques are the use of flat gold thread and z-wrapped gilded paper; horsehair under the embroidery to give a raised effect; encroaching satin; and fancy couching over satin stitches. (23)
[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]
The historic, iconographic and stylistic data presented here indicate that this embroidery thangka of Hevajra and Nairatma is a highly significant work of art of the Yung-lo period. Its unique dedication inscription is a gesture of imperial gratitude to the lama Shakya Ye shes, in recognition of his role as teacher and mentor to the Yung-lo Emperor.
APPENDIX 1: The historic portion of the dedication inscription (24)
In the lineage of lamas on the thangka, each individual transmits the teachings of meditation on Hevajra, starting with the Buddha and culminating with Shakya Ye shes:
Homage To Vajradhara, Homage to Nairatma, Homage to Mabasiddhas: Virupa, Nagpopa, Damarupa, Avadbutipa Homage to Translators: Gayadhara, Brog mi Shakya Ye shes (dies 1074) Se ston Kun rig (1030-1118) Sa chen Kun dga' snying po (1092-1158) Bsod nares rtse mo (1141-1182) Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1147-1216) Sakya Pandita ( 1182-1251) Chos rgyal 'Phags pa (1235-1280) Zhang kun mchog dpal (born 1250) Na bza' brag p hug pa bsod nares dpal (1277-1350) Bla ma daam pa bsod nares rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po (1312-1375) Sbakya Ye shes (1354-1435)
APPENDIX 2: The dedication inscription and the Tibetan and Chinese titles of Shakya Ye shes
The Ming official historical documents record the tide as Miao jue yuantong huici puying fuguo xianjiao guanding gongshan xitian fazi da guoshi. This may be literally translated as wonderfully enlightened (miao jue), universally penetrating (yuan tong), wise and compassionate (huici), universally responsive (puying), supporting the nation (fuguo), revealing the doctrine (xianjiao), anointed (guanding), spreading goodness (gongshan), western heavens (xi tian), Buddha's son (fazi), great national teacher (da guoshi). (25)
In the dedication verses, there is an acrostic poem using the syllables of Shakya Ye shes name and citing certain specific terms of the Yung-lo title awarded to Shakya Ye shes. The first verse may be translated: homage to the protector of beings who is an honourable substitute (a reference to his role as substitute for Tsong kha pa), Shakya (Shakya rgyal tshab 'gro ba'i skyabs cig po la na too). (26)
The next verse: homage to the one who has the five wisdoms (Ye shes Inga Idan) and the four levels of the Buddha body in perfect accomplishment. Here the term Ye shes, 'wisdom', is immediately to be recognised as the second part of Shakya Ye shes' name. The phrase may also be understood to refer to the Chinese rifle's expression huici, 'wise and compassionate'.
[FIGURE 8 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 9 OMITTED]
The next verse: homage to the one who is the great precious lord of perfect understanding and great goodness (byams then mkhyen rlse'i [sic: brtse'i [mnga' bdag rin chen po che). The expression mkbyen rtse literally means 'the peak of understanding', which renders the Chinese expression 'wonderfully enlightened', while byams chen may be translated as 'great love, great goodness', thus rendering the Yung-lo tide's expression 'spreading goodness'. We may observe here a very subtle point of translation, for the typical Tibetan expression is mkhyen brtse, loving understanding, while the spelling used here is instead rtse, peak, i.e. the epitome of understanding. This same expression Byams chen is indeed the nickname of Shakya Ye shes, which is retained by later Tibetan historical sources, but in the tide Byams chen chos rje given by the Xuande emperor on 20 July 1434, the Chinese rank is da zu fa wang, 'king of dharma, great compassion' and the Tibetan expression is 'Master of Dharma' (chos rje), which is not the wording of the dedication prayer on the Hevajara thangka. (27)
The acrostic verses of the dedication refer to Bla ma dam pa bsod nams rgyal mtshan dpal bzangpo and Shakya Ye shes (lines 16-18): om a mtshungs reed chos kyi rje bsod nams zbabs la na mo/ on a dpal Idan bla ma dam pa la na tool mo/ om a amo gha shri bba Ira la na mo/om a shakya rgyal tshab 'gro ba'i skyabs cig po la na mo/ om a Ye shes Inga' Idan sku bzhi lhun grub/ om a byams chen mkhyen rtse'i (sic brtse) mnga' bdag rin chen po che la na mo/ om a chos kyi rgyal po zbal snga na la na mo/ om a bdag bsod rgyal gnang la na mo// ( This is followed by lines 18-23, of mantra verses.)
The Tibetan translation of the title awarded by Ming Cheng zu to Shakya Ye shes is as follows: thams cad mkhyen pa'i blo gsal ba/ 'gro kun skyob pa'i byams pa che ba/ rgyal khams mtha' dag bde la 'god pa/ kun gyi spyi bor dbang bskur ba/ nub phyogs sangs rgyas kyi sras/ chab srid bde zhing/ bstan pa gnas par byed pa'i bla ma chen po/ ta gu shri.
(1) I am grateful to Jose Cabezon, Leonard Van der Kuijp and Shen Weirong for discussions and bibliographic references in relation to Shakya Ye shes, his studies and his role as teacher to the Yong-lo Emperor.
(2) Elliot Sperling, 'Early Ming Policy Towards Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a "Divide and Rule" Policy Towards Tibet', Phd thesis, Indiana University, 1983, is the fundamental historical study of this period. See Chapter 4 for the discussion of the titles and relation of Shakya Ye Shes and Ming Cheng zu. See also Heather Kar may, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, Warminster, 1975, for an introduction to the historic and aesthetic context.
(3) James Watt and Anne Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997 (no. 62, Thangka with Yamantaka); statue of Shakyamuni on tiered throne with prabbamandala, British Museum, London, OA 1908.4-10.4, height 59 cm, and the statue of Shakyamuni on tiered throne with prabhamandala, reproduced here as Figure 6.
(4) For the iconography of different aspects of Hevajra and Nairatma, see Marie-Therese de Mailman, Introduction a l'iconograpbie du Tantrisme bouddbique, Paris, 1986, pp. 182-86.
(5) For a recent study of Virupa, see Rob Linrothe, 'The Tavern Customer' in Rob Linrothe, ed., Holy Madness, Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, New York, 2006, pp. 28-29.
(6) I thank Jose Cabezon, director of the Sera Project, for sending me a photograph of a statue of Shakya Ye shes in Sera in which he wears a hat with three panels in the front, each with a stylized mantra letter Om ah bum. The hat appears to have a gold vajra finial. According to Michael Henss, this is the hat given to Shakya Ye shes by the Yung-lo Emperor (see M. Hems, 'The Woven Image: Tibetu-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties', Orientations, vol. XXVII, no. 10, p. 37).
(7) Watt and Wardwell, op.cit., p. 204, quotation from the Ming Shi, vol. XXVIII, chapter 311, p. 8577 (see note 16 below for the title given in the Ming Shi).
(8) In the most recent study of two kesi of Kalachakra and Cakrasamvara attributed to the Yong-lo reign, Shakya Yc shes is represented wearing a similar black hat with three panels of Buddha in silhouette: see Erberto Lo Bue, Tesori de Tibet, Milan, 1994, p. 122, for the Kalachakra of the Potala Palace, and see lot 35, Cakrasamvara, The Arts of the Buddha, Sotheby's, New York, 21 September 2007. On a portrait madc during the reign of the Xuande Emperor, he is represented as a very gaunt, aged man: see Watt and Wardwell, op. cit., p. 204, fig. 88 mad p. 206, detail, cat. no. 62 for the portrait of a much younger lama, identified as Shakya Ye shes, a detail of the gos sku of Yarnantaka attributed to the Yung-lo period (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Shakya Ye shes' physical appearance, hat and costume on the Metropolitan gos sku and the Hevajra gos sku are extremely similar.
(9) H. Ui, M. Suzuki, Y Kanakura, T Tada, eds, A Complete Catalogue of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons, Sendal, 1934. The Vajra parajara tantra is text number 419 (Aryvajrapanjarama-hatantrarajakalpa). I thank Mireille Helffer for helpful correspondence on the relationship of the Hevajra cycle and the protector Nag po chen po in the aspect gut gyi mgon po, due to her studies of the liturgies and music for this protector in the Sa skya school.
(10) See the remarks of Giuseppe Tucci, Indo Tibetica, vol. IV, part 1: Gyantse and its Monasteries (English translation), New Delhi, 1989, pp. 124-130)
(11) Sperling, op.cit., pp. 140 and 143.
(12) Sperling, op.cit., p.132 and n. 109.
(13) Sperling, op.cit., p. 142, n. 29.
(14) See Sperling, op.cit, p. 143, for a discussion of how Cheng zu sought consecration as cakravarlin through the rites of Mahakala and Hevajra. The inititation of Hevajra is clearly confirmed by the dedication inscription of this Hevajra embroidery. The biographies of Shakya Ye shes in Tibetan language, which are not contemporary with his lifetime, clearly delineate the numerous mandala initiations to Cheng zu. See Khetsun zangpo, Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, Dharmasala, 1973, vol. XII, for the biography of Shakya Ye shes, quoting Tshe mchog yongs 'dzin's 18th-century biography, Phrin las sna tshogs la mkhas shing gsal ba/ chos nyis dam pa mchog tu rgyal ba/shes rab rnam dag snang ba chen po /kun tu khyab cing/ royal khams skyobspa / bstan pa rgyas mdzad tab lu dge ba/ byams then chos kyi rgyal po, which specifies Guhyasamaja, Hevajra, Samvara, Kalachakra and Vairabhairava as the principal mandala initiations given to Cheng zu at this time. I thank Shen Weirong for kindly sharing his typescript of this biography with me in advance of his forthcoming study of Shakya Ye shes.
(15) Sperling, op. cit, p. 149.
(16) Speding, op. cit., p. 187, n. 73, citing the MSS 65, and the MS 331, 8877.
The Ming official historical documents record the title as Miao jue yuantong huici puying fuguo xianjiao guanding gongshan xitian fazi da guoshi. This may be literally translated as 'wonderfully enlightenend (miao jue), universally penetrating (yuan tong, wise and compassionate (huici), universally responsive (puying), supporting the nation (fuguo), revealing the doctrine (xianjiao), anointed (guanding), spreading goodness (gongshan), western heavens (xi tian), Buddha's son (fazi), great national teacher (da guoshi): I thank Professor Roderick Whitfield for kindly providing the literal translation and the Pinyin transcription.
(17) Sperling, op.cit., p. 151. I thank Professor Shen Weirong for confirming Speding's assessment, aShen Weirong, 'Notes on the four Tibetan situ conferred by the Ming Emperor Yongle in 1413', Zentral Asiaiische Studien, vol. XXXIV (2005), pp. 269-91.
(18) Speding, op. cit., p. 151.
(19) Sperlingo op.cit., p. 152.
(20) om a chos kyi rgyal po zbal snga na la na mo om a bdag bsod rgyal gnang la na mo.
I thank Professors Shen Weirong (Beijing) and Tshering rGyal po (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences) for long discussions on the translation of this inscription. I am grateful to bSod nams dBang Idan and Shar rgyan dbang 'dus of the Tibet Museum and Ven. Mtshan zbabs Rinpoche, Zurich, for discussion of the inscription's historic context.
(21) See Karmay, op.cit., for the sculptures and Heaven's Embroidered Cloths, exh, cat., Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1995, no. 25, Raktayamari embroidery, and no. 26, Mahakala brocade, both with reign mark. For inscribed textiles conserved in Tibet, see the Hevajra embroidery of the Potala and the Cakrasamvara of Tsethang museum, illustrated in Tibet's Kloster Often ihre Schatzkammem, Essen, 2006 (nos. 50 and 53); see also Henss, op. cit., fig. 9, Vairabhalrava and fig 10, Cakrasamvara, both embroideries with Yong 10 reign mark conserved in Lhasa.
(22) I thank Dr James Watt for kindly authorising the reproduction of this embroidery.
(23) Jacqueline Simcox, personal communication, August 2006. See Watt and Wardwell, op.cit., pp 206-07 for the technical analysis of the Yamantaka.
(24) See Cyrus Stearns, Luminous Lives, London, 2001, for historic dam on the Sa skya hierarchs.
(25) I am grateful to Professor Roderick Whitfield for the literal translation of each Chinese character in this title and the Pinyin transcription. See Sperling, op. cit, for the title in Wade-Giles and general translation cited above.
(26) I thank Jose Cabezon for his opinion that rgyad tshab refers to Shakya Ye shes in his capacity as the substitute for Tsong kha pa at the Yung-lo court.
(27) Sperling, op.cit., plx 150-151 on the wording of the tide by Xuande, citing the MSS 126-127, and see Sperling, op. cir., notes 73 and 76 on pp. 187-88.
Amy Heller is visiting professor at the Centre for Tibetan Studies, Sichuan University, Chengdu, and is affiliated with the Tibetan studies team of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Paris.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2008|
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