Difficult ethical question regarding killing

It is a very nice observation that I wholly agree with. Very well said! :anjal: However, there are still some things that bother me. First, there is a big difference between eating food and taking antiobiotcs, as we know exactly how antibiotics work and indeed take them with the intention to kill some specific living beings, whereas when eating we have a different intention altogether - any death occurring in that case is akin to the death of insects, accidentally trumped down by Ven. Cakkhupala. Certainly, not equating life with sentience could be a reaonable explanation. Second, you are absolutely true when you say that the actual reaction in a real-world encounter with violence is difficult to predict and will be based on the character of the mind. On the other hand, we are not trying wo figure out how one will act, rather how one should act.


You didn’t mention suffering here, only the presence of a ‘living being’. So, you have to define ‘living being’ and then tell me why felling trees and vegetarianism are still acceptable, given these examples of the destruction of life.

(I notice that the Buddha didn’t institute a Rains retreat on his own for the sake of living beings, but only in response to lay concerns. So much for deontology…)

Life simpliciter is not the measure; the presence/absence of dukkha is the measure.

One should assess the situation with calm mindfulness, then proceed with suitable actions founded on Right Intention.

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So, let us try to develop a nuanced approach and figure out when a protective requires intervention, this is exactly what I was hoping for :slight_smile:

This may be true to an extent, but Five, Eight, Ten or more precepts do define what is forbidden and what permissive, they are normative. A reasonable way would be to establish the limits of the normativeness, so why don’t we try to do it?

Let us discuss a more specific case. Last year my neighbour went to have a smoke in front of the dormitory and was very nearly attacked by a group of wild boars who were running through our student village. If he would have been attacked and I have seen it, how should I have acted considering I have taken my Five Precepts? It is not to say it should be absolutely binding for everyone, but taking at least a preliminary stance can be quite beneficial for your later assessment of an actual situation.

A nice suggestion. I think the presence of dukkha is equal to the presence of sentience, as an insentient being cannot experience it. How can we find out whether a being experiences suffering?

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I agree, the realization of the cattari ariya saccani is the ultimate goal and everything contained in the BuddhaDhamma is contained in it’s elephant footprint. Nibbāna is said to be the highest happiness which sounds very utilitarian. Considerations of the greatest happiness for the greatest number: “For the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of gods and men.” However, the realization of those four truths/realities is a direct knowledge and vision, one said to not easily be seen.
The precepts are a taking on of rules/obligations not for their own sake which would be deontological, but to train virtue, which is ultimately required to see the reality of the goal. That is why I would say the heart of practice is in virtue, consequences are not necessarily easy to see clearly (they are acinteyya - unconjecturable AN4.77). I think it could even be said that another way of stating the goal is the absence of vices (lobha, doha, moha, kāmāsava, bhavāsava, avijjāsava, micchādiṭṭhi, etc).

This is probably a question to ask a monastic. Imho, there are two sides to consider, the death/harm of the microscopic beings and the harm to yourself for not taking them. Human beings are said to be the only form of life capable of awakening so that may be another important consideration. In the case of a deadly bacterial infection like sepsis, meningitis, etc I think the answer is rather clear-cut. If on the other hand, someone downs a cup of antibios everytime they feel a cold coming on they’re clearly acting in a kind of careless way, in the least their detrimental contribution to antibiotic resistance for the rest of humanity. So the point is to act in a caring and careful way, guided by conscience and prudence.
Practicing in this way, I think the answers become clearer.
Buddha has said that a trifling, evil action done by one who is well-developed on the path does not have near the severity of the effect on one not well-developed AN3.99. So again the focus is developing and cultivating virtue, and that would lead less worry, even about mistakes and hypotheticals.


the precepts formula uses the word sikkhapada as in

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

that is a training rule and as such not an absolute inviolable imperative like one of God’s commandments, and sometimes rules get broken and for reasons not under our complete control, but it’s possible that these rules should actually encourage their follower, who doesn’t like breaking them, to modify his/er lifestyle in such a way so as to secure conditions most conducive to their maintenance


I feel that intention should be the guiding force in each of the first three dilemmas.

  1. Taking antibiotics is most always for the benefit of the afflicted, be it relief from suffering of the resultant symptoms and/or to prevent death. It could even be seen in many instances that people take these medicines reluctantly, as the full course of recommended antibiotics is often abandoned as soon as the patient feels better. The intention, then, would be more in the gray scale, neither bright nor dark.

  2. There are many ways to deter violence in ways that do not necessitate further violence. Bringing attention to the situation, for example calling the authorities, yelling “fire” to get the situation noticed so that the perpetrators give up the attack for fear of conviction (due to witnesses), and so forth. Otherwise, unless you actually see the rape occurring, then the damage has been done to the victim, so to speak, and ensuring the perpetrators are prevented from performing further acts via incarceration and hopefully rehabilitation, would be paramount. As for the child, I could see where more immediate action would be required, but I think it would still be necessary to take steps to ensure the attackers wold be brought to justice, but to definitely do what you can if the child were in imminent danger. In both instances, the intention is preventing further dark kamma, and doing what you can for the victim without resorting to violence. When the mind is still and powerful, the correct course of action would be made apparent without effect from the social conditioning of kill or be killed.

  3. You should not kill the tiger, but you should fire a few shots near the beast to scare it off from the attack. Yes, guns are meant as an instrument of death, but they are very powerful tools of deterrent, in both the human and animal kingdoms. Then, in both examples, no beings would need to perish, and the question of value of life would be rendered moot. I think that possessing such a weapon in the first place, and yes, I do own several (purchased pre-buddhism, for self defense and target practice), is dark kamma, so to avoid fulfilling the weapon’s intended purpose by utilizing it in a skillful way would serve to generate much brighter kamma in return.

  4. I have realized that trying to change another’s opinions, even with intentions of clearing the dust from their eyes that they may see the Dhamma, us ultimately futile and is based in intellectual and/or spiritual materialism. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink” is a saying which holds true in this instance. The best way to help others realize the value of Lord Buddha’s teaching is by being the best example you can be, being a calm, steady presence, and a kind, loving person. Then they will, if they are ready, be curious as to how you came to be such an inspiration, then their heart will be open to the Dammha you have to give.

The knowledge I have is the result of the efforts of my teachers (thank you Ajahns Brahm, Brahmali and Sujato! :anjal:), and any mistakes are my own.

Metta to all!


First of all, thanks so much for an interesting question, and to all participants for a fascinating, rich, and kind discussion!

If I may simply respond very briefly to your main questions as I understand them.

No. There’s no intention to harm sentient beings, but there is intention to preserve and foster life. (On the other hand, medically I believe it’s best to avoid them unless necessary, they are badly overprescribed!)

Try to stop the attack as best you can. There are many things that fall between “kill 'em all” and “run away and hide”. But it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this meaningfully outside of the specifics of actual cases. If we impose our pacifist ideas, we are liable to end up as ridiculous as the idiots who say that massacres would be prevented if only everyone had guns.

The critical thing is that you respect the life and welfare of the attacker(s), even as you loathe and try to prevent the attack. If you do cause harm in order to prevent a greater harm, this is a black & white kamma with black & white results. You have to accept the responsibility for that. It is not reducible to a purely good or purely bad deed. You can make an estimate, if you like, of the relative weight of the good and the bad, but at the end of the day, you just have to make the choice and live with it.

Again, try your best. If an ethical principle requires superhuman abilities, it fails. Try to scare off the tiger, if that fails, perhaps try to wound it, although that might make it worse; you may well miss, or enrage it. In Australia, we use a water hose for fighting dogs! If you do shoot the tiger to kill, this is your kamma, just as saving a life is your kamma.

On the whole, of course a human life is worth more than an animal life. While both are sentient, there are degrees of sentience. It’s impossible to make absolute or very fine grained distinctions, but on the whole, an animal is less conscious than a human being, and this justifies such an ethical distinction.

I must say I agree with you the Bhagavad Gita, I find it an extremely problematic text. There is no doubt that the overall purpose of it is to challenge the Buddhist idea of a universal dharma of right and wrong that applies to everyone, and replace that with the dharma of different duties based of caste and station in society.

It’s doubtful that you would convince someone who is deeply committed to such a religious text. But if someone is questioning, perhaps this approach would work.

Ask what it means to have a personal dharma. That is, what are we actually saying when we say that Arjuna is a warrior, and his duty, his place in life, is to fight and kill others, including his own family, on the battlefield? Is this really how the universe works? Are people placed in these situations because of some inscrutable divine cosmic order?

Or is it the case that people are placed in these situations because of choices made by themselves and others? Are conflicts and war generated, not because the universe requires them, but because of greed, hate, and delusion? If we look at the reasons for war, can we not see that it is promoted by very ordinary, easily understandable motives: economic gain, control over resources, or extending power? And is it not the job of war-mongering politicians to sell us on the idea that such base motives are in fact noble? Do they not constantly dress up hateful, stupid acts of violence as national pride, enforcing peace, or promoting democracy? If we support the notion that war and violence can be justified, are we not supporting those who, hiding in the fog of war, twist the conflict for their own ends?

Supporters of just war theory argue that it is practical, that we need a way to moderate behavior in the battlefield. But this is a false dichotomy. There is nothing problematic about saying both that all war is evil and also some war is more evil than others.

The real purpose of a just war theory, including that of the Bhagavad Gita, is to provide spiritual and moral aid and support for those who wish to wage a war. Instead of spending our time and effort to prevent war and ameliorate its losses, we spend it giving courage to those who would kill.

But the greatest moral fallacy of the Bhagavad Gita, in my view, is that it makes it all about Arjuna. It’s the prince, the noble, whose ethical dilemma is important, and his dharma that must be fulfilled. But what of the poor villager who is killed—is that his dharma? What of the woman who is raped—is that her dharma? Why does the universe seem to think that the dharma of being a victim of war should be allotted so disproportionately to people who are poor or who have dark skin?

The victims of war are not the princes, but those who are crushed, whose stories are not told. They are not fulfilling some great cosmic destiny. They’re just fodder for the dharma of great men.


Bhante, thanks a lot for your ideas, they are much appreciated! :anjal: I think you absolutely nailed it in the part about the ethical doubtfullness of Bhagavad Gita. I think I should learn more about Arjuna, somehow I feel that he is an ethically ambiguous figure just as so many other heroes in the ancient epos. Him being anything short of the absolute ethical ideal you cannot claim his anger, selfishness and delusion have not led to this battle on the Kuru field. If that is true, than your logic applies in its entirety.

As for your answers concerning fighting back attackers or animals, this is a more detailed and clearly formulated version of the argument I ultimately presented to the guy, so I can at least rest assured I did my best. As for the antibiotics problem, I think it is more of an ambiguous thing, somewhat similar to saving a child from a tiger, a good thing overall but inevitably generating some negative kamma as a result. The reason for this is that you actually have two intentions when taking antibiotics: the first, more prominent and important one, is to save a human life, the second is still, unfortunately, to kill specific living beings in order to save this person. As soon as you know about antibiotics killing bacteria, there should be some anger involved, however small it may be. To me, it sounds pretty much like a nuclear weapon officer who can at any moment launch huge intercontinental rockets and kill literally millions of people, all of whom will stay for him mere dots on his map. Of course, you can’t compare the scale, and certainly, the positive intention to save a life is great, but it will remain an ethically ambiguous action, however subtle the black hue in that black-and-white palette can be.


It’s interesting that in the Vinaya the line is drawn essentially at visibility. If you can see it, you shouldn’t kill it. The EBTs are well aware of the existence of countless forms of tiny living creatures, but it is held that, for monastic purposes anyway, we can’t be held morally accountable for them.

Like any legal or moral line, this one is dubious when you consider it carefully. What if I look through a microscope? Then I can see the bacteria: does it become wrong to kill them? Maybe you’d argue that artificial aids don’t count. Great, then all I have to do is take off my glasses and have at it!

Ethical principles can never be pushed too far, so we always need to take them lightly. Even the distinction between plant and animal, which is never questioned in the EBTs, is by no means hard and fast. In some ways, it seems as if the Jain idea that sentience pervades everything, even inanimate matter, may have some basis. Perhaps consciousness is not something that is limited to conventionally sentient beings. Still, whether or not we take such ideas seriously, we have to live in a world where imperfect choices must be made.


As far as I know the Buddha never said stones or plants are not sentient. The idea of rudimentary sentience as a propery of all matter is very attractive for me as a big fan of David Chalmers. If you are interested, please check out his papers on the philosophy of mind, they are brilliant.

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Well, I can’t recall an explicit statement to that effect, that’s true; but it does seem to be assumed throughout the suttas. There’s no notion of rebirth as a stone or a tree, something that is fundamental to Jainism. But perhaps there is some wiggle room!

And thanks, I will check out David Chalmers’ work when I get a moment.

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The Buddha mentioned the animals, so we can safely assume you can be reborn as an animal. However, if you think about it, it becomes very difficult to define a ‘rebirth-compatible’ animal when you descend into the more primitive realms of life. Why is amoeba somehow ontologically more privileged than a tree? If we assume that a living being can be reborn as a bacterium, rebirth in the animal realm sounds like a pretty harrowing perspective. Moreover, it makes the Buddha’s words about the extremely high value of a human rebirth sound like a not mere simile but a pretty accurate estimation: how many bacteria are there and how many human beings? This alone makes me extremely grateful for my chance to practice Dhamma. Anyway, I am starting to drift off into unrelated topics. Thanks so much for your help again, bhante! :anjal:


@Vstakan Agree with most everything you said but I don’t think this is accurate:

Human beings are said to be the only form of life capable of awakening so that may be another important consideration.

Beings in realms higher than humans are capable of reaching awakening in that state.


Ah yea, my mistake. Otherwise those attained to noble distinction and reborn in higher realms wouldn’t be able to progress to final nibbāna.

Anyway, it’s a good thing devas didn’t get complicated into these moral scenarios lol.

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i do acknowledge the appendix of “On the whole” but still would like to point out that humans are potentially more harmful than animals thanks to the intellect and many due to their insidiousness are worse than animals, especially the innocuous ones, which lack the ability to cause premeditated deliberate harm and damage and thus are excusable, so if we measure worth of life on the basis of inherent value of a sentient being, certain humans would be in a disadvantage against animals

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A thread on that sort of panpsychism as well as emergentism, etc., and on what sort of orientation to these issues the Dhamma supports… it could be interesting.

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Bhante, if you do not mind, I will put in my final five cents. I was thinking about these question the whole day today and I came to the conclusion that we all made a mistake by conflating two overlapping but by no means identical systems: let us call it ‘ethics’ and ‘virtuousness’. The latter one is easier to define: it corresponds to the kammic law and operates with such notions as ‘skilfulness’ or ‘unskilfulness’ of an action. An unskilful action generates unwholesome kamma, i.e. leads us further from Nibbana, and may be defined as a conscious action involving greed, hate and delusion. This system has attaining Nibbana as its highest goal, and since Nibbana is a square peg in the self-contained Samsara, it may go contrary to our social expectations. The ethical system serves the normal functioning of a society and as such is a product of a given culture and society, and is therefore much more utilitarian.

An action can be unskilful and ethical, e.g. killing someone attacking a child. It can also be skilful but unethical in the modern society, e.g. living your own family the way the Buddha did or not trying to fight oppression in a violent way. In the same vein, it can be ethical and unskilful, e.g. drinking alcohol as long as it doesn’t prevent you from conforming to social norms and expectations. Taking precepts means increased focus on the opposition of wholseome-unwholesome as the guiding principle for your actio culminating in monkhood. A monk should wholly focus on the kammic principle, which is, as we have all seen discussing these questions, a much tougher one in comparison to the ‘worldy’ ethics. A monk will follow the worldly ethics only as long as they do not contradict the Vinaya, e.g. he cannot be drafted as a soldier, even though protecting your country from a violent attacker is an ethical thing to do. Besides, this explains why some Vinaya regulations seem to be so unjust, e.g. when a monk or a nun who is a victim of rape, expresses or even feels consent at any moment during the violent accident: a rape victim doesn’t do anything unethical, but accidental feelings of lust or almost inevitable feelings of anger towards the perpetrators are still unwholesome. This sad truth even exacerbates the rapist’s guilt as he or she does not only commit an unwholesome act themselves but also have other people feeling unwholesome mind states.

All that said, 1) taking antibiotics is ethical but mildly unwholesome;

  1. violently protecting a child or rape victim is ethical but unwholesome;

  2. killing an attacking animal is ethical or not, depending on your circumstances (e.g. killing a tiger attacking an antilope is only debatably ethical, killing a tiger attacking a butterfly is not ethical at all), but is always unwholesome

  3. even though no society can be guided by the kammical principle alone (there will always be violence and injustice, it should be opposed by the society), we should try our best to stick to Dhammic wholesome principles as much as possible. A war may be justified ethically but not dhamically, every person should be aware of it and have a free choice between doing an ethical but wholesome or ethical and unwholesome thing, no ‘social duties’ should be regarded as more important than this right. Not fighting because of cowardice is, on the other hand, both unethical and unwholesome :slight_smile:


Dear fellow seeker,

Krishna in the Bhagavad gita doesn’t merely say killing others is ok. He is trying to teach Arjuna the importance of intention in forming kamma, Just like the Buddha himself taught us that the same action done with different intentions yields different results. Intention is more important than action itself (mind precedes matter). From this light, we can see how it might be OK to kill someone on the battlefield, defending one of your own family members/friends/wife/children etc. and defending your country. Arjuna (as well as the Buddha) were both kshatriyas, and it was their duty to do so. Failing to do so according to Brahmanism is worse than asking enlightened questions regarding the moral consequences of killing.
In the Jatakas (the previous life stories of the Buddha), we find the bodhisatta committing murder on a ship only to protect the other travelers because he sensed through his super-normal power that that person is planning to murder everybody else, so he went and killed him and threw him off the ship, In my country we say “he had him for lunch before he has everyone for dinner.” This is not to say that because of his selfless act he won’t pay for the kamma he committed on that boat, if it was so, it wouldn’t not be selfless or heroic. it is only because he knew he is going to suffer when that kamma ripens, that his action can be said to be heroic & selfless, with only compassion as its’ seed. Accordingly, life will put us in situation where we have to make the choice whether to take on the kamma ourselves, or let others suffer the results of their own kamma. Life will also put us in situations where instead of killing, we offer ourselves to be killed or slaughtered, & Buddha did that many times as the bodhisatta. So what Krishna & Buddha are trying to teach us is that there ain’t no easy way out of some situations life puts us in. Sometimes we have to kill or offer ourselves to be killed for the benefits of all sentient beings. We should always keep in mind the quality of our intentions & volition, and not be so attached to the action itself. This should not give us license to do as we please, what it does is it gives us the choice to commit a certain kamma even though we know we are going to suffer the consequence, for the sake of helping sentient beings.
Another dilemma one faces on the path, should we eat meat or no? should we eat eggs/drink milk or no? and now for the first time I hear someone say should we take antibiotics or no? :slight_smile: I also struggled to come to terms with it, and my own personal opinion is this: If it suffers when u kill it, then don’t do it. According to this way, it is ok to drink milk, eat eggs for even though they have life they are not yet developed enough to suffer. Accordingly if we can prove bacteria suffers, then it would be wrong to take antibiotics. But actually it’s not unimaginable to live the whole life without taking antibiotics. We can abstain from taking medicine altogether and depend on natural treatments, but the thing is whether you like it or not, those bacteria are going to die whether you take antibiotics or not. That is Krishna’s point of view. Like he said to Arjuna those people are already dead, they have been taken up by the Lord of death and wait only for your arrow to send them on to their next destinations. It is also important to mention that having been born a human being there is no escape from committing minor killings (like stepping on creatures we don’t see) and having to kill animals when there is not enough vegetable options (like in Tibet). It naturally comes with our human birth that we commit actions that might or might not become kamma that we later have to repay. So that has to be accepted knowing that even the buddhas and bodhisattas have to close their 3rd eyes before they get to drink water, for they told us long before science did that there are living creatures in the drinking water, and I am sure they meant bacteria, but even they can’t give up drinking, nor should we.

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Hello dhammasamy! Thanks you for your detailed answer!

Why aren’t the monks allowed to kill under very specific circumstances like when trying to save someone’s life? My take on it is that killing always involves anger (pretty strong anger, I would say) and almost always selfishness, greed (because when you are fighting back on the battlefield you are first and foremost trying to ave your own life and not your family or country, just ask most of the veterans out there). Given the strong emotions we have when fighting, it is reasonable to assume your negative kamma will be pretty strong. Of course, you can say that you generate positive kamma as well, but to me the existence of the PTSD is one of the most tangible proves that the kammic law does exist and does not care whether we are fighting for good or for evil.

This is my biggest issue with Brahmanism. Take an ideology that is non-sensical enough, like that of ISIS, teach people their duty is more important than asking questions about killing, and here we go in a lorry in Nice. If you say you should kill only on the battlefield - well, that poor guy certainly was sure he was on the battlefield and all these people were already as good as dead and sent by Allah into the eternal damnation of the Hell. Saying your duty comes before unholesomeness of your action will inevitably lead to lots of innocent victims eventually, that was proven by Crusaders, Communists, Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, Buddhists in Myanmar, Western countries bombing Asian countries back into the Stone Age or having them plunge into an unending chaos like Lybia… It all ends the same: dead children, dead women, dead men, rivers of blood and tears and the pilot who dropped the bomb or soldier who pulled the trigger trying to numb the pain in their heart with alcohol or drugs. But he DID HIS DUTY! That is the important thing, isn’t it?

It is highly unlikely that the Jatakas are authentic stories of the Buddha’s past lives as you may conclude after reading this thread. They are just as Buddhist as the God of the Old Testament commanding to kill everyone in a certain city is Christian. Just look at some of the ideas in the Jatakas. Making your whole family to slaves just to practice generosity? Sure, that is what the Buddha himself would recommend to any lay supporter… or would he?

Still, you are right that in some situations it may be ethical to kill someone to save other people’s lives. My point is that it will still be unwholesome because the law of kamma doesn’t care what your purpose was. You experience anger, greed or delusion? Boom! Next, please!

Yeah, the purity of your intention can mitigate the negative consequences, like weighing less can mitigate your pain when falling from a high tree - but it will still hurt a lot. Of course, any modern soldier who would refuse to fight not because of his cowardice but for ethical reasons, will mostly likely be tried and executed, but doing so will still be a more wholesome and even, if you want, nobler thing to do so - just as selfless as trying to save other people’s life. In fact, it would be in some respect an attempt to save people’s life no matter how bad they may be.

Anyway, Krishna does not say anything about anger, greed, delusion, he just says: ‘Oh come on, they are already just living corpses, just kill all them bad people. That’s your duty, otherwise people will laugh at you’. What Krishna does in Bhagavad Gita bears peculiar similarity to the rhetorics of the modern Islamic terrorists.

I mean, what is the difference between this and the rhetorics used by the Islamic fundamentalists? That is not to say that people worshipping or revering Krishna are equal to terrorists, that is not true, the overwhelming majority of them are nice and virtuous people, they don’t even think about killing anyone, just like the - admittedly, rather less overwhelming majority - of the Muslims doesn’t support ISIS. But I can see how it might take only a sleight of hand to make the ideas in the Bhagavad Gita to a dangerous, terrorist ideology, and maybe it has already been used in such a way.


the difference is profound, Islamic fundamentalists have political agenda of spreading Islam and subjugating or exterminating all infidels depending on the degree of their infidelity or willingness to submit, to which killing is simply a justified means, whereas Hinduism let alone the Krishna Bhakti movement has no such agenda

Arjuna found himself in a situation where he had to participate in a war, which was a honest face to face battle, and was reluctant to go ahead, he hadn’t sought to engage in a war
So Krishna offers him the best consolation possible in given circumstances where backing off from performance of one’s duty as a kshatriya isn’t permissible, a consolation based on vedantic philosophy

one may force the Bhagavad Gita’s narrative to underly a philosophy of a just war, but not terrorism

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