Taoism, Part 2:
The P’u Way

by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
October 13, 2002

SCRIPTED READING: Piglet is Just the Right Size for an Important Escape
From A. A. Milne (author of all italicized passages, with edits un-italicized).

As found in The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff.

Titled and adapted into a script for Children's Worship by Jaco B. ten Hove.

Reading Characters:

NARRATOR (who also reads short phrases in [brackets])

NARRATOR (to audience, especially kids):

I believe it’s important to help other people when you can, and often being helpful can be as simple as just being who you are. If you’re a big person, say, like me, or a smaller person, like you–sometimes one or the other might be just the right size to be helpful.

My wife and co-minister Barbara often needs my help because I’m a fair amount bigger than she is. She’ll call to me: "Come here and be tall for me, please." So I’ll reach up for something that was hard for her to get at. But also, as a big person, I think it’s especially cool when small people are the right size to help, sometimes in ways that big people just can’t.

Take, for instance, a situation we had right here last Sunday. Both of these overhead spotlights were out, so it was too dark up here on stage, and we needed some help to get them replaced after the service. A few of us considering this job–pretty big folks–were just not interested in going way up that high on a ladder twice to replace the bulbs.

So guess who was the right person for this important job, who really helped out? Yep, a smaller person, who could perch herself lightly way up on the ladder and trade the burned out spotlights for new ones. We’re grateful that one of the smaller adults in our congregation–Marija Miovsky–was just the right size to help out this way. Thank you, Marija!

And now for another story along these lines, featuring some characters you may know, whose voices will be portrayed by me and a couple friends (the Worship Associates for today, Jennifer Grant and drex andrex).

How many of you know Winnie the Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood? Piglet and Owl are also in this story, in which Pooh and Piglet are walking along in a brewing storm, trying to make their way to Owl’s home in a nearby tree, but the breeze was really picking up…

The wind was against them now, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours until he got them into the shelter of the Hundred Acre Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the treetops.

PIGLET:"Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"

POOH:"Supposing it didn’t," [said Pooh after careful thought].

NARRATOR: Piglet was comforted by this, and in a little while they were knocking and ringing very cheerfully at Owl’s door. And soon thereafter they were all three having tea in the tree that was Owl’s home–but it was amid quite a storm. And suddenly, there was a loud cracking nose.

POOH: "Look out!" [cried Pooh]. "Mind the clock! Out of the way, Piglet, I’m falling on you!"

PIGLET: "Help!" [cried Piglet].

NARRATOR: Pooh’s side of the room was slowly tilting upwards and his chair began sliding down on Piglet’s. The clock slithered gently along the mantelpiece, collecting vases on the way, until they all crashed together on what had once been the floor, but was now trying to see what it looked like as a wall.

Everything was Everywhere, and for a little while it became very difficult to remember which direction was really the north. Then there was another loud crack… Owl’s room collected itself feverishly… and then there was silence.

In a corner of the room, the tablecloth began to wriggle. Then it wrapped itself into a ball and rolled across the room. Then it jumped up and down once or twice, put out two ears, and Piglet reappeared.

There was a disturbance behind the table in the other corner of the room, and Owl was with them again.

OWL: "Ah, Piglet," [said Owl, looking very much annoyed]; "Where’s Pooh?"

POOH: "I’m not quite sure," [said Pooh].

OWL: "Well! This is a nice state of things! What are we going to do, Pooh? Can you think of anything? …Because we can’t go out by what used to be the front door."

PIGLET: "But how else CAN you get out?" [asked Piglet anxiously].

OWL: "That is the problem, Piglet, to which I am asking Pooh to give his mind."

NARRATOR: Pooh sat on the floor which had once been a wall, and gazed up at the new ceiling which had once been another wall, with a front door in it which had once been a front door, and tried to give his mind to it.

POOH: "Could you," [he asked Owl], "fly up to the letter box with Piglet on your back?"

PIGLET:? "No," [said Piglet quickly]. "He couldn’t."

NARRATOR: Owl tried to explain about the Necessary Dorsal Muscles. He had explained this to Pooh and Christopher Robin once before, and had been waiting ever since for a chance to do it again, because it is a thing which you can explain twice before anyone knows what you are talking about.

POOH: "Because you see, Owl, if we could get Piglet into the letter-box, he might squeeze through the place where the letters come in, and then climb down the tree and run for help."

NARRATOR: Piglet said hurriedly that he had been getting bigger lately, and couldn’t POSSIBLY, much as he would like to, and Owl said that he had had his letter-box made bigger lately in case he got bigger letters, so perhaps Piglet MIGHT, and Piglet said,

PIGLET:?"But you said the necessary you-know-whats WOULDN’T,"

NARRATOR: and Owl said,

OWL: "No, they won't, so it’s no good thinking about it,"

NARRATOR: and Piglet said,

PIGLET: "Then we’d better think of something else," [and began to at once].

POOH: "Owl, I have thought of something else.

OWL: "Astute and Helpful Bear," [said Owl].

NARRATOR: Pooh looked proud at being called a stout and helpful bear, and said modestly that he just happened to think of it, which was this:

POOH: "If you tie a piece of string to Piglet, and you fly up to the letter-box with the other end in your beak, and you push it through the wire and then bring it back down to the floor, and you and I pull hard at this end, then Piglet goes slowly up at the other end. And there you are."

NARRATOR: Yes, there you were. Unless, as Owl pointed out, the string should happen to break…

POOH: "It won’t break," [whispered Pooh to Piglet comfortingly]. "because you’re a Small Animal, and I’ll stand underneath, and if you save us all, it will be a Very Grand Thing to talk about afterwards, and perhaps I’ll make up a Song, and people will say, ‘It was so grand what Piglet did that a Respectful Pooh song was made about it.’"

NARRATOR: Piglet felt much better after this, and when everything was ready, and he found himself slowly going up to the ceiling, he was so proud that he would have called out…

PIGLET: "Look at ME!"

NARRATOR: …if he hadn’t been afraid that Pooh and Owl would let go of their end of the string to look at him.

POOH: "Up we go!" [said Pooh cheerfully].

OWL: "The ascent is proceeding as expected," [said Owl helpfully].

NARRATOR: And soon it was over. Piglet opened the letter-box and climbed in. Then having untied himself from the string, he began to squeeze into the mail slot, through which in the old days–when front doors WERE front doors–many an unexpected letter that Owl had written to himself had come slipping. He squeezed and he squoze, and then with one last squooze he was out.

And so, Help and Rescue were soon accomplished, thanks to small Piglet, who was just the right size for this Important Escape.

Friends, you can often be helpful just by being who you are, with all your own particular gifts–which sometimes may not seem like a lot to you, but chances are, you’re a very important character in a story coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Being helpful can be easy, especially when we just have to be who we already are, including being small.

It's good to share who we are with each other, which goes both ways: To you I give. Together we share and from this we live.

Sing #402: From You I Receive


Taoism, Part 2:
The P’u Way

by Jaco B. ten Hove

In my previous sermon–Part 1 in this short series on Taoism–I presented another story about Winnie the Pooh and his friend Piglet, featured in the marvelous 1982 book by Benjamin Hoff called The Tao of Pooh. This small and delicious explanation of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism was so popular that Hoff was convinced to write a sequel: The Te of Piglet, which contains today's story…

…In which we discovered that Piglet was just the right size for an important mission: small! He could help when the others couldn't, simply by being fully who he was, nothing more, nothing less: small! The Taoists relish that what is seen as lowly is often elevated. They "regard the small as great; the few as many" [Tao Te Ching, Ch. 63].

Piglet emerges as the helpful hero by being only what he is–but fully so. It is his true inner nature to be small, and to the delight of generations now, he remains eternally so in the pages of A. A. Milne's evocative and memorable storybooks.

Many scenarios involving Milne's wonderful characters are again contained in this second effort by Benjamin Hoff, which is longer and more opinionated than the first treatment, and certainly a harder title to say, The Te of Piglet, but it is also even more ambitious. It attempts to illuminate the meaning of that short middle word in the title of the primary Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching. (And with this usage, the translated T's are pronounced in English as D's.)

"Tao," as you may recall, means "way" or "path," and "Ching" is a word meaning "book" or "classic." But the middle word "Te" can be translated roughly as "virtue" or "power" or, as I and some scholars prefer, "integrity," So, an accepted translation of The Tao Te Ching would be "A Classic about the Way of Integrity."

Those two common letters combined, TE (pronounced "deuh"), are almost as significant to the understanding of Taoism as the Tao itself. "Integrity" here refers to that true inner nature of every creature. It is also the sum total of any human being's actions, good and bad. And a significant purpose of the Tao Te Ching is to improve the odds that one's actions will more often serve the good, especially the good of the whole.

Today, I hope to illuminate for you some aspects of this very Eastern philosophy, of which I am merely an intrigued student. This past July, I provided daily morning chapel services during International Affairs Week at Star Island–a UU conference center off the coast of Portsmouth, NH. The overall theme for this week was China, so I delved into Taoism then, and I continue to try to understand it, with all its challenges to my Western conditioning.

One helpful image is that the Tao–the eternal harmony and natural balance that pervades all existence–is like an expansive sea, on which float many individual boats of individual integrity, or Te. Our own unique life-craft is powered by the integrity with which we live, and the extent to which we can center ourselves in our own true inner nature.

One enduring genius of A. A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood is that each of the characters there–Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Tigger, Christopher Robin, Kanga and Roo, etc.–responds to the adventures and dilemmas of their world by being only who they are–and fully so. They act out of their own integrity, their own true inner natures, and collectively they represent a broad spectrum of personality styles, with which many of us–of all ages–can identify. In so doing, these delightful figures, especially Pooh and Piglet, provide an accessible glimpse into the otherwise rather inscrutable philosophy of Taoism.

It is not easy for me to grasp the decidedly Eastern approach to life promoted by Taoism, but I still feel that it is a very helpful resource for those of us who seek to live increasingly out of an awareness of our fundamental oneness–our interdependence–with all of life. That is the direction–toward oneness–that I seek to sail my individual life craft of personal integrity, and Taoism, for all its elusiveness, provides a chart.

But the Tao Te Ching immediately throws an Eastern curve at my Western stance, by stating very clearly that:

The person of superior integrity does not insist upon their integrity.
For this reason, they have integrity [Ch. 38].

This is why Winnie the Pooh is an epitome of Taoism. He has integrity without insisting on it. His wise innocence is just what the Tao proposes. He is not ignorant–he can devise fairly elaborate rescue methods–but he is so much involved in each moment, so fully present to the world right before him, that it all seems brand new, and he brings his own true inner nature to bear (!) on each situation.

On another trip, to bring a pot of honey to Eeyore as a birthday gift, Pooh notices a little hunger coming on and just sits down and polishes off the contents. (It is certainly part of his true inner nature to eat honey.) But then: "Let's see, where was I going?" Oops! So the container itself becomes the gift–"a Useful Pot." And Pooh's life goes on, happily flowing with the Tao.

The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet are great ways for Easterners to learn about Taoism, but "A Classic about the Way of Integrity"–the Tao Te Ching, an ancient manuscript–is rich with paradox and mysterious metaphor. Thus it can be interpreted endlessly, and many translations exist. It consists of 81 short, pithy chapters, the first of which begins with another challenge:

The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way.
The names that can be named are not the eternal names [Ch. 1].

Later, another verse [Ch. 32] is more precise:

The Tao is eternal, nameless, the Uncarved Block…
Once the block is carved, there are names.

The Tao Te Ching is full of such lessons, written in rather timeless prose and poetry, so that today it still has impact, even if its often indistinct messages are hard to grasp. This would be somewhat akin to the Buddhist "koan"–a teaching riddle used to challenge students, who meditate on the messages contained in the riddle rather than trying to solve it, per se.

Authorship of the Tao Te Ching is essentially unknown, like some other notable scriptures, but myths abound about a contemporary of the great Confucius, a fellow named Lao-tzu, who gets credit for putting down in writing some of the lessons that Taoism teaches. The first versions of this scripture were called "The Lao-tzu," later to become the Tao Te Ching.

Taoism emerged in the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE (Before the Common Era), in a time of chaos and violence in China, when competing systems of thought were trying to make sense of a dangerous world and provide a degree of order. Somewhat earlier, Confucius had offered a systematic approach based on elder worship and ceremonial duty, which Taoism then sought to counter with its more opaque emphasis on personal integrity within a greater Balance.

We have already seen how important it is in Taoism to respect the true inner nature of things. Winnie the Pooh's true inner nature is that of an uncarved block, fresh to each moment. This is the classic image of Taoist essence, and it may well be coincidental that the Chinese character which represents the uncarved block–more exactly translated as "wood not cut"– is spelled "p'u." This word is evidently not pronounced precisely as "Pooh" but it's pretty darn close. Thus my title this morning, "The P'u Way."

To bring the posture of an uncarved block into life is to move from an original simplicity–a naturally powerful spontaneity that accepts things as they are without trying to over-control any situation.

Taoism can take such simplicity to an extreme, where it becomes an important related principle, called the "Great Nothing." In the paradoxical realm of Taoism, Nothing is Something–and vice versa, meaning that often what people consider to be Something is really Nothing at all. This is similar to the Uncarved Block, but might be called Empty or Clear Mind, in contrast to Overstuffed Mind.

An example would be that "while the Clear Mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness Mind wonders what kind of bird is singing" [Hoff, Tao of Pooh, pg. 146].

Meanwhile, that Empty-Minded Pooh was walking along with (his Taoist mentor,) Christopher Robin, one day, when the boy declared that "what I like doing best is Nothing."

After Pooh had wondered about this for a while, he asked, "How do you do Nothing?"

"Well," his friend answered, " it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, 'What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?' and you say 'Oh, nothing,' and then you go and do it."

"Oh, I see," said Pooh. [pg. 141].

Back in China, the Yellow Emperor was returning from the Mountains and discovered he had lost the dark pearl of Tao. He sent Knowledge to find it, but Knowledge was unable to understand it. He sent Distant Vision, but Distant Vision was unable to see it. He sent Eloquence, but Eloquence was unable to describe it. Finally he sent Empty Mind, and Empty Mind came back with the pearl. [pg. 143].

The Taoists are convinced that Nothing Matters. From the Tao Te Ching [Ch. 11]:

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies.

Clay is molded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.

Cut out doors and windows to make a room, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.

Therefore, benefit may be derived from something, but it is in nothing that we find usefulness.

Another chapter [Ch. 48] goes right to the point:

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.

Wow, this really goes against my grain. I value my Knowledge, Vision and Eloquence, such as it is. So even though Taoism promotes an Empty-Minded simplicity, it's still a very challenging posture, a lot more complex than it looks on the surface.

And it gets even more inscrutable. Perhaps the most demanding principle that animates Taoism flows from the Uncarved Block and the Great Nothing. It's the call to "Do Without Doing"–in Chinese: "Wu Wei." This is paradox in action: do without doing. "Act through nonaction" [Ch. 63]. "Wu Wei."

It's not inaction or passivity, though. It's more of a refusal to interfere with the Tao–a posture that could appear to be passive in any given moment. But when the Taoist acts in accord with the eternal balance and harmony of the Way, this demands such centeredness, such humility, such awareness of the bigger picture that it often seems like inaction.

Truly embodied, however, Wu Wei offers a stance of ultimate strength. For instance:

Once a band of marauders rode into a monastery, and all the monks fled quickly into the hills–all but one, that is. This last monk stood silent and still in the courtyard as the marauders destroyed much of the facility.

Finally, their leader galloped up to the lone monk and confronted him arrogantly: "Don’t you know who I am? Why, I could run this sword right through you without batting an eye!"

The monk responded calmly: "Don’t you know who I am? I could let you run that sword through me without batting an eye." And the marauder backed away, respecting the strength of this attitude.

To "do without doing," Taoists compare themselves to water in a river, which from a distance, looks still. But its movement is most powerful. Think of the slow but effective process of erosion. Some of the most stunningly beautiful places I know on this earth are the result of soft water shaping hard rock.

The Tao Te Ching puts it this way:

The softest thing gallops triumphantly over the hardest. [Ch. 43]

Nothing is softer or weaker than water; and yet nothing is better for attacking what is hard and strong…

The defeat of the hard by the soft, the defeat of the strong by the weak–this is known to all, yet no one is able to practice it. [Ch. 78]


Last time, I emphasized how all things also tend to move into their opposites, how Ying and Yang qualities are opposed but always connected, in relationship. This movement toward reversal is part of the true inner nature of things, although we may be too close to see the larger balance in which this reality exists. Ultimately, this perspective teaches that "force defeats itself" [Ch. 30].

A deeper look at this Taoist principle includes what has been called "the relativity of all attributes" [A. Waley, The Way and its Power, pg. 51]. In other words, all things are described and understood only by standards of comparison. A story explains it better than these abstract definitions.

A cicada and a wren were chatting together, when a friend of theirs came by and declared that some birds fly hundreds of miles without stopping. The cicada and the wren looked at each other incredulously and agreed that such a thing was just impossible.

"You and I know very well that the furthest one can ever get even by the most tremendous effort is that elm tree way over there, and even that we can’t be sure of reaching every time. These stories of birds flying hundreds of miles are pure nonsense."

So, the assumptions one lives with help to define what is possible. If your imagination is no larger that that of the cicada and wren, you will limit your reach to only what you know, as you compare anything new to what is already part of your world. This is a natural tendency and it can be safe and comforting, but also stultifying. The reality is that any judgment depends upon the standard being used.

The early Taoists, 25 centuries ago, were first being exposed to other cultures beyond their own and to new inventions, like iron, all of which changed the very nature of their world and opened up broad new horizons, previously undreamed of. They were grappling with the loss of a set of absolutes that had guided their world for some time, an era during which all that they knew was what was close around them. But the absolutes they had relied on now no longer explained the universe effectively. They had to evolve new standards that included new realities.

The Taoist school of thought urged this process along by suggesting that everything is relative, anyway. It all depends upon your perspective, how big a picture you can hold in your mind. And circumstances can certainly change one's perspective rather swiftly. For instance, a Taoist writer [Lieh-tse, in Hoff, The Te of Piglet, pg. 109] offers this story:

A man noticed that his ax was missing. Then he saw the neighbor's son pass by. The boy looked like a thief, walked like a thief, behaved like a thief. Later that day, the man found his ax where he had left it the day before. The next time he saw the neighbor's son, the boy looked, walked and behaved like an honest, ordinary boy.

Or this story [same page]:

A generous person once dug a well by the side of a road. For years afterward, grateful travelers talked of the Wonderful Well. But one night, a man fell into it and drowned. Immediately, people avoided the Dreadful Well. Later it was discovered that the victim was a drunken thief who had left he road to avoid being captured by the night patrol–only to fall into what was then known as the Justice-Dispensing Well.

So it behooves the Taoist to look for the largest possible perspective, to more closely understand and reflect the harmony of the Tao in any given situation, and not be so sure that what appears in this moment is the final verdict. You never really know. This requires a degree of detached patience very foreign to those of us in the West.

But I have, for some time, believed that there is a larger balance to the universe than I can know, even though I stop short of giving that balance more than its due. "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao." Nonetheless, I can see how this ancient Chinese approach represents the fullness of nature and reality, balancing our individual integrity within an all-encompassing cosmic harmony.

And the Tao Te Ching provides some poetic and metaphorical, if enigmatic suggestions for how to "do without doing," how to respect one's true inner nature and that of other creatures, how to be a simple Uncarved Block and yet have strength from the Great Nothing. Actually, though, I'm not sure I'd be any closer to grasping all this paradoxical philosophy if it weren't for Pooh and Piglet, bless their little fictional hearts.

In tense times like these, we need lovable characters to help us keep perspective, and we need music–songs to urge us onward in hope. Our next hymn, "O Light of Life," #117, is such a piece, a plea for healing, for a release from fear, for joy and peace, for strength and salvation…

 Bonus material for web site sermon readers:

Speaking of Buddhism and Confucius, it is worth spending a moment comparing Taoism to its two great Chinese philosophical siblings.

There are, of course, many shades and complexities to Chinese philosophical development that will not enter into my very superficial portrayal today, alas. Suffice it to say here that the eventually dominant Confucianism and Taoism were preceded by significant cultural evolution and surrounded by many other schools of thought. Meanwhile, Buddhism came to China from India and slowly took root in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

An old allegorical painting called "The Vinegar Tasters" depicts the differences between these three giant philosophies, especially as they were active in ancient times. The faces of three figures express distinct and pertinent reactions to sampling the essence of life, as symbolized by the liquid vinegar.

Confucius, who sees that this life is out of step with the past, that earth is out of step with heaven, is upset and disapproves of how badly the people behave. They must conform to ritual ceremony and revere the ancestors. Upon tasting the vinegar, his face is sour.

The Buddha knows that life is full of suffering from attachments and desires on a revolving wheel of pain. This world is just an illusion anyway, to be transcended en route to Nirvana. Upon tasting the vinegar, his face is bitter.

Lao-tzu, the Taoist, believes that life reflects an eternal harmony, available to all, and all things have their own true inner nature, including vinegar. He tastes it, and smiles at its perfection.


Act through nonaction; handle affairs through noninterference; taste what has no taste; regard the small as great, the few as many; repay resentment with integrity.

Undertake difficult tasks by approaching what is easy in them; do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects.

All difficulties arise from what is easy; all great things arise from what is minute.

For this reason, the age never strives to do what is great. Therefore, the sage can achieve greatness.

One who lightly assents will seldom be believed; one who thinks everything is easy will encounter much difficulty.

For this reason, the sage considers things difficult, and therefore, in the end, is without difficulty. (TTC, Ch. 26/63) ("Yield and prevail.")


We have already seen how important it is in Taoism to respect the true inner nature of things, and a story from the Taoist writer Chuang-tzu will illustrate one more angle of this:

A merchant said to the master, "I have a large tree which no carpenter can cut into lumber. Its branches and trunk are crooked and tough, covered with bumps and depressions. No builder would turn his head to look it. Your teachings are the same–useless, without value. Therefore, no one pays attention to them."

As you know," replied the master, "a cat is very skilled at capturing its prey. Crouching low it can leap in any direction, pursuing whatever it is after. But when its attention is focused on such things, it can easily be caught with a net. On the other hand, a huge yak is not easily caught or overcome. It stands like a stone, or a cloud in the sky. But of all its strength, it cannot catch a mouse.

"You complain that your tree is not valuable as lumber. But you could make use of the shade it provides, rest under its sheltering branches, and stroll beneath it, admiring its character and appearance. It is useless to you only because you want to make it into something else and do not use it in its proper way."

One who assists with the Way does not use force of arms; such a course is likely to boomerang. (TTC, Ch 74/30)

Weapons are instruments of evil omen; creation abhors them. Therefore, one who aspires to the Way does not abide in them.…

The killing of masses of human beings we bewail with sorrow and grief; victory in battle we commemorate with mourning ritual. (Ch. 75/31)


"To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous."
—Chinese proverb


One Taoist writer (Ko Hung) declared that a prime benefit of such non-egotistical awareness is contentment, described in a masculine context thusly:

The contented man can be happy with what appears to be useless. He stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He leaves the jade in the mountain and the pearls in the sea. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he can be happy–he knows when to stop. He finds sheltering branches more comforting than red-gated mansions, the plow in his hands more rewarding than the prestige of titles and banners.

He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance. Many look at him, but nobody sees him. Calm and detached, he is free from all danger, a dragon hidden among people.

"…whereupon heaven and earth will be made right by themselves." (TTC, Ch. 81/37)

Read Part One of This Sermon

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