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Role of Intention (Cetaana)
in Buddhist Ethical Doctrine of Kamma
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

It is no denying fact that the Buddha for the first time in history of thought has laid stress on the importance of intention or volition (cetanaa) in performing an act ethically. Cetanaa "refers only to the self-centred, goal-directed and result-oriented volitional disposition which impels the worldly individual (puthujjana)."[1] Ethical good (kusala) or bad (akusala), merit (pu~n~na) or demerit (paapa) leading to their perspective ethical consequences will be depended on the level and quality of intention (cetanaa) of the ethical agent. If the intention of performing an act is present in high level, the result (vipaka) definitely bears the corresponding high level. If it is absent, the result is lessened in quality of bearing fruit or may not bear any fruit. Similarly, if the quality of intention is ethically good, the acts having good intended intention bear wholesome consequence; while the acts having evil intended will, bear unwholesome consequence. This interpretation, however, should not be confused with the statement that the Buddha’s theory of kamma is of utilitarian type in the sense that it lays stress on the consequence. It should be noted here that Buddhist ethics can be considered as cetanaa-utilitarianism, which emphasizes the agent’s intention (cetanaa) over the consequence of actions performed by him.

The famous definition of kamma attributed to the Buddha is read as: "Cetanaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami; cetayitvaa kamma"m karoti kaayena vaacaaya manasaa,"[2] literally means "Monks, intention or determinate thought,[3] I say, is kamma. When intention is manifested, one acts by physical deed, speech or thought."[4] This definition is reflected in the first twin-verse of the Dhammapada, where it runs: "Mind is the fore-runner of all mental states [and deeds] (dhammaa). All mental states [and deeds] have mind as the command chief as well as their maker. If one acts or speaks with an evil mind, dukkha follows him just as the wheel follows the hoof-print of the ox that draws the cart . . . Similarly, if one acts or speaks with a good mind, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him."[5] These two statements are of the same emphasis that the taming and understanding the mind or intentional motive is necessary to the ethical agent if moral practice and mental training are to be cultivated in order to attain higher spirituality or perfect enlightenment. It is, however, of great controversy in giving interpretation to the above-mentioned definition. Before proceeding to analysis of the relation between kamma and cetanaa, it will be worthwhile to look at the interpretation given by scholars then to turn briefly to a consideration of their use in the context appeared.

Most of the Pali scholars are inclined to define "kamma as exclusively cetanaa" (kammaha"m cetana"m vadaami). McDermott, thus, writes: "In contrast to the Sarvaastivaadin opinion on this point, the P li schools consider all kamma to be cetanaa. Mental acts are pure intentional impulse. Acts of body and voice are intentional impulses which put the body and voice in motion, and not simply the actions ensuant upon volition."[6] He further points out the common translation of kamma as cetanaa that, "the Buddhist understanding of kamma is what usually translated as ‘volition,’ namely cetanaa."[7] Poussin is perhaps the first thinker, who interprets kamma as exclusively cetanaa: "Karma is volition and voluntary action,"[8] and "Karma is twofold: (1) volition (cetanaa), or mental or spiritual action (maanasa), and (2) what is born from volition, what is done by volition."[9] His reductive interpretation of kamma into cetanaa is seen clearly when he writes: "Buddhism, on the contrary, teaches that there is no Karman without consciousness and even premeditation."[10] In another passage, he does so when stressing the importance of the concept of cetanaa coined by the Buddha: "we must consider this definition, ‘Karman is volition, and bodily or verbal action which follows volition,’ as one of the steps in the history of the Indian thought."[11] Halbfass is appeared to identify kamma with cetanaa though he considers correctly the former is primary while the latter secondary in nature: "a notion of agency which defines the act as rooted in, or even as essentially identical with, volition and decision (cetanaa) and interprets its vocal or physical implementation as a secondary phenomenon."[12] The discussion of Krishan, in this regard, is found precisely similar, "The Buddha for the first time propounded that moral karma is essentially mental in its nature."[13] Karunaratna is, in his scholarly article on cetanaa in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism,[14] of the view that cetanaa and kamma are synonymous in denoting the idea of moral action in Buddhism. Thus he writes: "The all too brief definition states expressly, precisely and concisely that cetanaa and kamma are equivalent, and therefore, interchangeable as terms denoting the essential meaning of moral action,"[15] or "Thus, cetanaa becomes one with kamma creating consequences which serve to feed the further intensification of the self-centred activity of the will."[16] On the basis of this equation, he concludes that the path leading to the cessation of kamma is identical with the path leading to the cessation of cetanaa and saaakhaaraa.[17] Von Glasenapp, in this regard, strongly claims that ". . . the Buddha and the other sages have declared that not the action itself, but exclusively the intention, the conscious willing of the person acting (cetanaa), are of decisive significance."[18] Unlike Nyanatiloka[19] and others, Payutto carefully defines kamma as cetanaa-kamma, rather than exclusively cetanaa, when he writes: "Etymologically speaking, kamma means ‘work’ or ‘action.’ But in the context of Dhamma we define it more specifically as ‘actions based on intention (cetanaa)’ or ‘deeds willfully done.’ Actions that are free of intention are not considered to be kamma in the Buddha’s teaching."[20] In his well-known book, the Buddha and His Teaching, Narada has already stated this interpretation earlier:

(1) The Paali term kamma, literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as kamma. It covers all that is included in the phrase, ‘though, word and deed.’ Generally speaking, all good and bad actions constitute kamma. (2) In its ultimate sense, kamma means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deed, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most important factor in determining kamma, is absent.[21]

While partially agreeing with the first part of his definition, that kamma is any intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical, I do not think the second part of his definition is tenable. For him, any action without intention does not bear its fruit. Such an interpretation proves somewhat unsatisfactory in analysis of kamma as mere cetanaa. The reduction of kamma into exclusive cetanaa can not be accepted because the Buddha does not deny the existence of unintentional actions (acetanaa-kammaa) rather than he stresses the important role of cetanaa in directing and determining human ethical actions. Moreover, it should be noted here that "not only the intentional stimulus, but the action itself is also significant from the Buddhist point of view."[22]

Thus, the interpretation of kamma as mere cetanaa by modern scholars is unsatisfactory. This interpretation is in fact rooted from the commentary literature, especially in the Visuddhimagga and the Dhammasa"nga.nii A.t.thakathaa of the great Pali commentator, Buddhaghosa. It is relevant here to take note on his analysis on the Buddha’s statement. Quoting the Buddha (Cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami), Buddhaghosa identifies kamma as exclusively cetanaa.[23] He inserts that "kamma means consciousness or intention of the good and the bad, merit and demerit."[24] This finds support in the Atthasaalinii, where kamma is defined as cetanaa and the mental states associated with it.[25] He however comes very close to the point, when he claims intention is the source of physical deed, verbal deed and mental deed . . . mind is the door of mental action."[26] In this direction, it is believed that Harivarman’s interpretation of the same is more relevant to the statement of the Buddha, and therefore agreeable. For instance, in his Satyasiddhi'saastra,[27] he appears to claim that kamma is not only cetanaa but the action manifested from it as well. This logically follows that action manifested from intention would include physical, verbal and mental deeds, and those actions unassociated with or not originated from intention including unintentionally physical, verbal and mental deeds. On the same page, he stresses the importance of the mind, when he writes, "ethical qualities, good and evil, are controlled by the agent’s mind,"[28] or "without the presence of the mind, ethical good and evil is impossible."[29] He points further out that "actions whether ethical good or bad depends on the state of the mind."[30] He sees that unintentional action certainly produces its fruition, though it is ethically lessened, when he stresses that "the non-intentional kamma is not great sin."[31] This gets support from scriptural passage, where it is stated "he [Naa.taputta] acted unintentionally (asa~ncetanikam) and hence it is not a great sin or crime."[32]

Amongst the modern scholars, Poussin, as I believe, rightly points out that the Buddhist definition of kamma as ‘intention together with the action,’ which follows upon it, to be one of the steps in the history of Indian thought.[33] The emphasis in Buddhist theory of kamma on goal-oriented intentional motive behind the action is to bring out the forceful importance of ethical orientation, and this in turn gives rise to deed-direction and tendencies, which affect or determine the future states and conditions of the ethical agent. What should be noted here is that by declaring "cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami," the Buddha fundamentally lays great stress on the importance of intention (cetanaa) behind the action as a major factor in producing an ethical act leading to moral consequence, good or bad. Having stressed the decisiveness of intention in determining the tendency and the fruition of an act, the Buddha does not, in this context, deny the existence of the other three kinds of kamma, namely unintentional acts of body (acetanaa-kaaya-kamma), unintentional acts of speech (acetanaa-vacii-kamma), and unintentional acts of mind (acetanaa-mano-kamma). Because from three main modes of kamma, viz., bodily act, verbal act and mental act, we can divide them into two sub-modes of actions, namely intentional actions and unintentional actions. Of the first group, there are intentional bodily action, intentional verbal action and intentional mental action, which bears greatly ethical result, good or bad. Belonging to the second, there are unintentional bodily action, unintentional verbal action and unintentional mental action, which bear lessened or minimized ethical result. The Buddha does not reduce all kammas to cetanaa-kamma, as the scholars did. The emphasis on the role of cetanaa no doubt is the Buddha’s contribution to not only the theory of kamma but also to the ethical tendencies as well its understanding leading to the specific ethical effects. Ch’en states that the stress on cetanaa was a significant point added by the Buddha to the prevailing views concerning karma.[34] McDermott impressively writes, "What is unique with Gotama and his followers is the importance which he places on the role of intention. Only in Buddhism could the intentional impulse (cetanaa) be defined as kamma."[35]

It is here of significance to observe that the Buddha’s statement "cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami" does not amount to the statement that "kamma is exclusively cetanaa" (kammaha"m cetanaa"m vadaami), because kamma is of ‘twofold category’ to which cetanaa or cetanaa-kamma as a variety of this twofold category belongs, and the other being acetanaa-kamma. The logical distinction between the subject, kamma, and the predicate, cetanaa, should not confuse the reader that they are mutually ‘identical.’ Employing the term ‘analytic statement and synthetic statement’ coined by Kant, we can accordingly put the Buddha’s statement in this way: (1) cetanaa is kamma; this is of the form of analytic proposition, like that of ‘'Si"m'sapaa is a tree’. Here cetanaa is a variety of kamma, and (2) kamma is purely cetanaa; it has the form of synthetic proposition, like that of ‘This tree is a 'Si"m'sapaa.’ Here the Buddha’s analytic statement "cetanaa is kamma" does not amount to the synthetic statement as misinterpreted by scholars that "kamma is exclusively cetanaa." In the context of the Buddha’s statement, the analytic proposition is meant that the subject cetanaa is contained in the predicate kamma. This statement does not discuss something new instead of repeating that cetanaa is a kind, the most important kind, of kamma. The repetition here, however, makes significance that is more ethical to agent’s will in performance of any action.

Furthermore, given the logically faultless inference form ‘a=b’ to ‘b=a’ we cannot proceed from the statement, ‘cetanaa is kamma’ to the statement ‘kamma is exclusively cetanaa,’ for the first is logically true while the second false. This wrong identification is sound similar to the statement ‘everything is identical with something’ mistakenly identified with ‘something is identical with everything,’ for the concept ‘everything’ is a greater category whereas the concept ‘something’ smaller, which should be contained in the former instead of being identified with the former. The same holds true with kamma and cetanaa.

Moreover, one should pay attention not only to the first part of the Buddha’s statement "cetanaaha"m bhikkhave kamma"m vadaami," but also to the second part of the statement following the first "cetayitvaa kamma"m karoti kaayena vaacaaya manasaa,"[36] which makes the context more ethical clearly. Here the Buddha does confirm not only that intention (cetanaa) is a special kind of kamma in moral judgment, tendency and ethical performance, but also link it with the bodily action (kaayakamma), verbal action (vaciikamma), and mental action (manokamma) to make significantly the role of intention. According to the most popular threefold classification of kamma[37] made by the Buddha into acts of body (kaayakamma), acts of speech (vaciikamma), and acts of mind (manokamma), each of these acts produces consequences: "All kamma whether good or evil bears consequence. There is no kamma, no matter how small, which is void of consequence."[38] However, among these three kinds of kamma, mental kind is the most important, as it is stated in the following passage: "Listen, of these three kamma classified by me, I say that mental kamma (manokamma) has the heaviest consequences for the committing of evil deeds, for the existence of evil deeds, not action s of the body or speech."[39] It is clear that, according to McFarlane, "the emphasis on the psychology of intentions in traditional ethical teaching and spiritual practice should not lead to the undermining of physical behaviour and actual consequences." He further explains that "It would be incorrect to say that the intention or will to perform an unwholesome act, which was not actually carried out, would produce the same effect as the actual performance of such an act."[40]

In reality, there are actions, which are not sprung from intention or devoid of motive proved, harmful or beneficial to the ethical agent as well as to others. Both the doer and the recipient are to experience its fruition, more or less suffered or pleasant through unwitting actions performed. Take an example the case of being shot death by mistake. The deceased, who has no intention or willing to be died, is certainly suffered as a result of wrong identification or mistake by unintentional agent. The unintentional shooter without motive of killing anyone is responsible for his carelessly ethical action, say wrong shooting, being produced in the court and then to be put in prison. Because of being in the prison, he may loose his job or stopped his habitual work unwittingly. An encounter example can be seen in the case of a person who keeps away scraps of food without any intention to give it to anyone.[41] But then a hungry dog comes by and has a delicious meal out of it. His scraps of food were helpful and beneficial to the life of the dog. When the time to come for that unintentionally helpful kamma to mature, he will enjoy its fruit, even ethically lessened comparatively to that of intention feeding the dog, say being helped by someone incidentally, as it has been happened in the real.

This idea would be clear with the help of the following analysis. Actual murder with evil intention no doubt has greater effect; with no evil intention still has effect, though ethically minor; and even the mere thought of murder unaccompanied by any performance is ethically wrong, from the Buddhist standpoint. That is to say, mental action unaccompanied with outward performance and that the performance of the physical deeds, either accompanied with intention or not, is considered to produce specific kammic effects, at least on two respects, namely on the planning-doer himself and on the recipient. So far as the part of the ethical agent is concerned, even the ‘mere’ intention, whether wholesome or unwholesome, will give some effect, say disturbing the peacefulness of the mind of the planning-doer, who plans to make his intention possible. With respect to the recipient, let us say for instance, the destructive intention may either give rise to the feeling of being disturbed by intentional violence of the planning-doer, or even he is facing death due to being killed unintentionally by the evil-doer, respectively. In the Buddha’s statement, there is obviously intention (cetanaa). On the other hand, there is crucially also ‘what is born from intention,’ namely bodily action (kaayakamma), vocal action (vaciikamma) and mental action (manokamma). If kamma were merely cetanaa there should be no other actions named bodily action (kaayakamma), vocal action (vaciikamma) and mental action (manokamma).[42] In fact, these actions obviously exist. The reducing identification of kamma as exclusive cetanaa is, therefore, untenable.

In the teachings of the Buddha, the relationship between the levels of intention and performance of that intention should be suitably acknowledged. As the motive force or guiding manager, intention is conductive to performing an act after having conscious choice of objects of preference by the nature of an awareness-mind. Where there is intention, there may be tendency to make it possible. Similarly, where there is an increase of intensity of mental activity or intention to an unbearable level, the tendency of performance of something would be transformed into external activities, namely, either bodily action (kaayakamma), vocal action (vaciikamma) or mental action (manokamma). In other words, not every intention will lead to the actual performance. Depending on the levels of intentional motive, some dynamically become physical or verbal activities while some remains mental activities only. In the case of being mental activities, the effect of the intention on both the planing-doer and the recipient is ethically lessened or minimized,[43] whereas with regard to intention having transformed into outward performance, the effect is ethically serious. Take the ‘initial thought of destroying life’ and the ‘ actual act of destroying life’ as an example. The intentional thought, ‘I want to kill A’ is unwholesome thought in nature. This may produce some unfortunate result, if the intentional doer is not remorseful or till in hoping so doing. In the case of someone wishing to kill A with the plan of murder, the effect of being unfortunate here and hereafter is more serious. If the murder is actually happened after having evilly willed with careful planning and acting, the effect becomes most serious comparatively with the first two cases.

Thus, in the Buddha’s teaching generally and in the context of the Buddha’s statement particularly, kamma can not be exclusively identified with cetanaa because if it were so, the effect of ‘wishing to perform something’ and the ‘actual performance of that something’ is one and the same thing.[44] Then there should be no enlightenment at all because no one is absolutely pure and perfect in his intention-history; or one may have at least once thought of unwholesome deed.[45] Similarly, there should be no need of moral practice and spiritual training for enlightenment, for the mere wishing of becoming enlightened would be enough to make it possible.[46] These statements are found irrational, just because ‘intentional thought of doing something unwholesome’ is exclusively mistakenly identified with the ‘sin of performance that act,’ and in the same manner, ‘wishing to be enlightened’ with ‘enlightenment’ or moral practice and mental development for attaining that enlightenment, respectively.

In the Nikaaya, we do find passages supporting the idea that not only intention is responsible for determining kamma-vipaaka, the action, physical or vocal, as well: "If one does not think (ceteti), nor arrange (pakappeti), but dwell on (anuseti) [something], this become a cause for the persistence of consciousness . . . [And] in the future birth and death, sorrow, lamentation, suffering, grief and tribulation arise."[47] This is so because, one is responsible for his ignorance,[48] as McDermott comments "although a misdeed done in ignorance is not as serious in its effects as a deed done intentionally, it is nonetheless not without efforts of its own, for man is culpable for his continued ignorance."[49]


[1] EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 86b.

[2] A. III, 415.

[3] This render is first used by E.M. Hare in his GS. III. 294.

[4] Here quoted are different translations made by scholars. Payutto translates this as "Bhikkhu! Intention, I say, is kamma. Having willed, we create kamma through body, speech and mind." Payutto (1993): 6. Narada renders it as "I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition (cetanaa) is kamma. Having willed one acts by body, speech and thought." (196). McDermott also renders it similarly "I say, monks, that cetanaa is kamma; having intended (cetayitvaa), one does a deed by body, word or thought." (1984: 26). McFarlane renders cetanaa as choice translating the sentence as "It is choice or intention that I call karmađ mental workđ for having chosen, a man acts by body, speech and mind." (1994: 27).

[5] Manopubba"ngamaa dhammaa/ manose.t.thaa manomayaa/ manasaa ce padu.t.thena/ bhaasati vaa karoti vaa/ tato na"m dukkhamanveti/ cakka"mva vahato pada"m. (Dhp. 1). Translation is adopted with modification from Tin (1990): 1-2.

[6] McDermott (1984): 12-3. For argument on this point, see Poussin (1927): 124-5.

[7] McDermott (1984): 26.

[8] Poussin (1982): 57. This book was first published in 1917.

[9] Poussin (1982): 68.

[10] Poussin (1982): 67.

[11] Poussin (1982): 70.

[12] Halbfass (1998): 214-5.

[13] Krishan (1997): 62, 209.

[14] EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 86-97.

[15] EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 89a.

[16] EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 91a.

[17] EB. IV. s.v. cetanaa: 92b.

[18] Von Glasenapp (1963): 29. Emphasis added.

[19] BD. s.v karma: 91-4.

[20] Payutto (1993): 6.

[21] Narada (1973): 195. Numbering added.

[22] McDermott (1984): 28.

[23] DhsA. 88.

[24] kamma naama kusalaakusalacetanaa. Visuddhimagga, p. 614. This sentence literally means kamma is the name of moral and immoral intention or consciousness.

[25] Asl. p. 88.

[26] cetanaa kaayakamma"m naama . . . cetanaa vaacikamma naama . . . cetanaa manokamma"m . . .citta"m manokammadvaaram naama, p. 96.

[27] Satyasiddhi'saastra 3. 100.

[28] pu.nya"m paapa"m sarva"m cittaadhaaniiam.

[29] na cittavyatirikta"m pu.nyam paapam astiiti.

[30] karma.na"m cittabalaat pu.nya paapa vibhaaga.h.

[31] asa~ncentanika"m karma na mahaasaavadyam. Satyasiddhi'saastra. 2. 84.

[32] Quoted in Krishan (1997): 64.

[33] Quoted from McDermott (1984): 29. Emphasis added.

[34] Ch’en (1968): 32f.

[35] McDermott (1984): 29.

[36] A. III, 415.

[37] See, for example, this division at A. III. 415; M. I. 206.

[38] J. IV. 390.

[39] M. I. 373.

[40] McFarlane (1994): 27.

[41] This is adopted from Indasara (1988): 18-9. I however disagree with him when he contradictorily says that the mistake in the example is only a kind of ‘kattaka-kamma’ bearing no fruit.

[42] Mental action (manokamma) is identified with cetanaa in some specific context. See, for example, the sentence "manasaa ce padu.t.thena" of twin-verse 1-2 of the Dhammapada. Cf. Tin (1990): 1 n.2.

[43] This is different from the spiritual state of enlightenment of an Arahat or the Buddha.

[44] Karunaratna is however of diverse point of view, when he give an interpretation on the passage of Budhaghosa as quoted below: "for instance the mere harboring of criminal intent to kill amounts to kamma, and that by ill-will, not by actual life-taking" (Manodvaare pana cadhakacetanaaya uppannamattaaya eva kammapathabhedo hoti, so va kho vyaapaadavasena na paa.naatipaatavasena. Asl., p. 90). Here he does not differentiate the mental act ‘ill-will’ with the bodily action manifested from ill-will, namely killing, in terms of life-taking. These two acts, in fact, can not be considered identical equally ethical wrong, and therefore their level of criminal can not be identified as the same. EB. IV. 94b.

[45] This argument is derived from the passage where the Buddha criticizes past-action determination (pubbekatahetuvaada) along with theistic determination (issaranimmaanahetuvaada) and accidentalism (ahetu-apaccayavaada) as immoral theories. A. I. 137; M. II. 214-222; Cf. Vbh. 367.

[46] This argument is derived from the passage where the Buddha addresses to the householders who want to gain longevity, status, happiness, rank and rebirth in heaven must observe the practice leading to the same. A mere wish or prayer will not work. A. III. 47.

[47] S. II. 65. Translation quoted in McDermott (1984): 28.

[48] Dhp. 1-2, 161.

[49] McDermott (1984): 28.


(The references to the Pali texts and their translations are to the Pali text society standard edition.)

Ch’en, Kenneth K.S. (1968) Buddhism: the Light of Asia. New York: Barron’s Educational Series.

Halbfass, Wilhelm. (1992). Tradition and Reflection: Explorations in Indian Thought. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Indasara,Wasin (1988a) Theravada Buddhist Principles, vol. I. Bangkok: Mah makut Buddhist University.

Indasara,Wasin (1988b) Theravada Buddhist Principles, vol. II. Bangkok: Mah makut Buddhist University.

Krishan, Yuvraj. (1997). The Doctrine of Karma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

McDermott, James Paul. (1984) Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

McFarlane, Stewart (1994) "Buddhism" in Jean Holm & John Bowker (ed.) Making Moral Decisions. London: Pinter Publishers.

Narada, Mahathera. (1973) The Buddha and His Teaching. Singapore: Singapore Buddhist Meditation Center.

Payutto, Bhikkhu P. A. (1993) Good, Evil and Beyond Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.

Poussin, L. de la Valle¨e. (1927) La Morale Bouddhique. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie Nationale.

Poussin, L. de la Valle¨e. (1982). The Way to Nirv ¤ a. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1st ed. 1917.

Tin, Daw Mya. (tr.) (1990). The Dhammpada: Verses and Stories. Sarnath: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1st Ed. 1985.

Von Glasenapp, Helmuth. (1963) Immortality and Salvation in Indian Religions tr. E.F.J. Payne. Calcutta: Susil Gupta India Ltd, Indian reprint.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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