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By Bimal Matilal

Dr. Samuel Johnson attempted to demonstrate the existence of a stone by kicking it. G. E. Moore, in his Cambridge lectures, raised his hands and said, "Here is one human hand, and here is another. Therefore two human hands exist. And therefore, two physical objects exist." Both Johnson and Moore were concerned with a very persistent philosophic problem: When we are said to be seeing an external thing, do we perceive what it is that we think we perceive? One may ask further whether the external things are at all what we tend to believe that they are, and further whether there are any external things at all. These problems exhibit themselves embarrassingly in almost every discussion which is philosophic in nature. My purpose here is to discuss some theories of Indian philosophy concerning them.

Modern philosophical studies of perception have often centered around a controversy over what are called "sense-data." The sense-datum theory had its heyday in the past decades, although, much like logical positivism, it is now on the decline. But a reference to it can hardly be left out in any modern discussion of perception, and what I will have to say about the views of Indian philosophers here may, from time to time, be reminiscent of points made by both the sense-datum theorists and their critics. This happens because sense datum theory, like positivism, reacted against a form of idealism. The positivist, for example, has tried to imagine an ideal "protocol language" which is evidentially prior and hence forms the basis of scientific empiricism. Most Indian theories of perception were also attempts to combat a radical form of idealism which the Maitreya-Asa.nga-Vasubandhu school presented. The fact that the two versions of idealism differ, as I have noted elsewhere,[1] does not always cause a corresponding difference in the philosophies of the anti-Idealists. Moreover, perception, illusion, and hallucination are global enough to form a common ground on which philosophers of different persuasions and traditions may converse and debate.

It is difficult to find an exact counterpart of the term "sense-datum" in Sanskrit, although it is true that Indian philosophic reflection on perception and knowledge began as it did in the West, with questions about the reliability of the senses. The main problem these questions lead to is that of justification of our belief in the existence of the external world, although in the Indian context it takes on a slightly different shape with some different underpinning. But first let us see how the notion of sense-data was introduced in the Western tradition.

From the basic idea that perceiving involves sense-experience, using many complex and involved arguments, of which the "argument from illusion" is the most important one, it is shown that there exist disparities between the way things appear and the way they are. In this way it has been claimed that we do Bimal Matilal is Spaulding Professor of Eastern Religions at Oxford University not perceive a physical object, like a table, but that what we perceive is a different sort of "thing" altogether (for example, on various occasions, various sizes and shapes of a table), which they call sense-data. With the introduction of this new term the sense-datum philosophers introduced a way of approaching problems of perception which has generated a good deal of modern philosophic literature.

The meaning or connotation of the term "sense-datum" has not remained unchanged in the hands of modern philosophers. What is generally agreed is that a sense-datum is "not a physical reality." But while for G. E. Moore and his followers a sense-datum is the immediate object of perception which may or may not be identical to a part of the physical object, for C. D. Broad and others it is the immediate object in perception, taken to be nonphysical.[4] The denotation of the term, however, includes, in any case, such items as the elliptical appearance and the circular appearance of a penny, as well as such things as mirage-appearance in the desert or the double-moon appearance.

What the Sanskrit philosophers call pratibhaasa (appearance) is not strictly a sense-datum in many respects, for they did not pay much attention to the variability of the shapes or appearances or components in the perception of the same physical object, although they felt that the problem of explaining non-veridical perceptions, hallucination, and error was one of the central focuses of their philosophy. In a perceptual illusion, say a mirage-illusion, they noted the duality or disparity between what appears in a perceptual experience (that is, a pratibhaasa) of water, and what we are confronted with in the situation, the interplay of hot air and the sunray.[5] This appearance of water in a mirage-illusion may be a sense-datum, but the perceptual consciousness here already involves a judgment, an interpretation of the datum. The philosophic motivation for introducing the sense-datum or even the "appearance" language was the Cartesian search for certainty, for the data are supposed to be incorrigible and indubitable. They are also called "the given" because they are felt to be independent of our judgments. They are self-evident and our beliefs, to fulfill their claims to be knowledge, must be based upon them in some way or other. But the pratibhaasa (appearance) is not an indubitable datum, for the Indian epistemologists argue that as long as it is describable in language it becomes the datum interpreted, or taken to be something F (for example, water). So our "F-appearance" in a state of (perceptual) consciousness implies that something is being identified as an F, or the property of being an F is attributed somewhere. If what we seem to cognize on a particular occasion is expressible in language as "this is F" or "this is an F" then the cognition in question is said to have an "F-appearance." The dispute among the Indian philosophers centered, to a great extent, on the exact (ontological) status of the "F-appearance," mainly the "F-appearance" of what we call a non-veridical perceptual experience (such as a mirage-illusion of water).

The word "aalambana" is a flexible term in Sanskrit. It is not the sense-

datum, but rather the "foundation" or "support" of a (perceptual) sensory experience. The Buddhists call it a pratyaya (causal condition) on which the arising of a state of perceptual consciousness depends. For example, a visual perception depends upon what may be called the visible (ruupa). And this is enough for the Buddhist to call it a sort of "causal" dependence.[6] But it is not depended upon in the way the visual organ (the eye) is depended upon for the arising of a visual perceptual state. It is depended upon by way of being its object (vi.saya), to use, again, an already problematic term. The Abhidharmakosa gives the following distinction between a vi.saya and an aalambana.[7] A vi.saya is the potential object of a perceptual consciousness, in the sense that when a cognizing state arises it has to select its vi.saya. For example, the eye consciousness has to select the visible (ruupa). But a particular aalambana is actually depended upon; it is a ruupa which has been causally responsible, whenever a particular state actually arises. For all other practical purposes, the distinction between them may be suspended.

My perception of red-color depends upon red-color as its aalambana (objective ground), and my perception of the table depends upon the table as its aalambana. But if my perception of red-color is a product of some hallucinogenic drug, would I still be justified in calling the red expanse its aalambana-its objective support? And if the perception of the table is due to some neuro-physiological trick in the brain would it still have an aalambana? Apparently a class of Indian philosophers was inclined to say yes! As long as there is an appearance (pratibhaasa) (for example, red-appearance or table-appearance) it must be rooted in an aalambana (objective ground). In fact, they put forward the following thesis: aalambana = pratibhaasa. In other words, aalambana and pralibhaasa are only two ways of referring to the same thing. The implications of this doctrine are manifold, as we shall see presently.

The pramaa.na theory of the Indian philosophers, much like the sense-datum theories of Western epistemologists, seeks to ground human knowledge in a mode of experience that is Immune to such failures as error, illusion, and hallucination. If there were an indisputable way of distinguishing veridical perception from the non-veridical ones, the problem of knowledge would be easily solved. But in view of the embarrassing lack of an agreed-upon device, the idealists argue (and in fact Vasubandhu has argued)[8] that error, hallucinations, and dreams provide paradigmatic examples in which an "object" (vi.saya or artha) appears but is not "out there." The "object" in all such cases is at best located in the mind, and at worst is nonexistent (asat) as external reality. From this point, it is further argued that what appears in every state of our consciousness is likewise mind-dependent or internal to consciousness itself, there being no justification to suppose that it is rooted in an external object (aalambana). Thus, Vasubandhu reached his philosophic conclusion which was devastatingly simple: The so-called external world is only a creation of the mind; the "stuff" of the world is made of consciousness only (vij~naaptimaatrataa). What is emphasized mainly here is the essential dependence of what "appears" in a state of consciousness upon that consciousness itself. And this finally leads to a radical form of idealism (from which a short step would be solipsism): The world around us is the world within us.[9]

This is one extreme where aalambana (objective ground) is not distinguished from the pratibhaasa (appearance). There is another extreme view of a different kind where again aalambana is not distinguished from the pratibhaasa. Embarrassed by the persistence of non-veridical perception, the realistic wing represented by the Prabbhaakara Miima.msakaa wanted to combat skepticism, idealism, and solipsism--all in one blow--by denying completely the possibility of error of illusion or even hallucination. According to them, all perceptions are veridical; it is an error to think that there could be any error. The so-called perceptual error is explained by them as a fusion or confusion of two different and distinguishable cognitive states: one is a memory state while the other is a perceptual state. In the usual mirage-illusions, the appearance of water actually belongs to the memory state (for we have already experienced water on many previous occasions), while the appearance of "this" or "there [it is]" belongs to the perceptual state. Thus, pratibhaasa is also the aalambana here, for the water-appearance in memory is rooted eventually in the actual water experienced. This was the position of the Praabhaakara Mimaa.msakas, who were realists or anti-Idealists. They cut the Gordian Knot of idealism and solipsism in this amazingly simple way. Let us go back to the Yogaacaaras. The philosophic argument of the Buddhist Idealist is something like this:

A cognition or a state of consciousness does not need a ground or aalambana external to itself (witness either hallucinations or dreams). What is possible in one case must also be possible in every other case, for they are merely states of consciousness in essence. Thus, the thesis about the external world is: the external world does not exist, or if it exists we have no way of knowing that it exists.

It is instructive to understand the Sautraantika Buddhist position in this context. For the Sautraantika seemed to have allowed the possibility of the external world which the Yogaacaara Buddhist was unwilling to allow. In this connection we have to discuss also what is known as the Buddhist theory of atomism, paramaa.nuvaada. Atoms were posited as something like the data of sensory perceptual consciousness. If it is the datum of eye-consciousness based upon visual perception, it is given the blanket name ruupa (the visible). Similarly the data of other sense-experience are identified: smell, taste, touch, and sound. The material object, under this view, is a fictional construction out of these sensory "atomistic" data. This view seems to be somewhat close to phenomenalism in the West, although caution is necessary in order not to forget its peculiarities. The data (the atoms) are, as a Sautraantika would put it, "substantially real" (dravya-sat), whereas the material objects, such as the pot or the table, are only imagined to be real (samv.rti-sat). This can be compared with the acceptance of basic units or primitives in logical atomism, out of which the rest of the world can be constructed. This system is basically phenomenalistic in the sense that the basic units, these atoms, are phenomenal elements rather than physical elements. The atoms are not, one must note, the material atoms of the Vai‘se.sikas. And, of course, the claim is that these basic units are "obtainable" or "perceptible" individuals, in the sense that they cause perceptions and are cognitively immediate. This claim is probably indicative of an underlying philosophical attitude, a desire to show that nothing beyond the phenomenal need be countenanced in order to explain everything including the physical things--a further desire to show that if the first claim is successfully substantiated the so-called physical world, as we commonly understand it, can at best be dispensed with as non-ultimate or non-final, and hence it does not merit the importance or value we usually attach to it. Very few Western phenomenalists would, however, make such a value judgment about the physical world. The choice of a phenomenalistic basis is usually argued for in the West, as far as I know, on the ground that the phenomenal by its very nature comprises the entire content of immediate experience and therefore all knowables must eventually be explicable or analyzable in terms of phenomena. But analyzability or expicability of a complex concept can hardly be a criterion of its falsity or even comparative unreality. Rather, what is claimed is epistemological priority or proximity and immediacy for the phenomenal and consequently its indubitability over the other, that is, the set of constructed elements. The Sautraantika argues that the important difference between these two classes of entities, the substantially real atom and the gross object, is that the function of causality is assigned to the first but not the second. An entity which is only imagined to be real cannot really cause anything. We cannot ride an imagined horse.

The atomicity of the Sautraantika sensory data, I repeat, should not be confused with that of the material atoms of the Vai’se.sikas. These data are called "atoms" most probably because of two reasons: (1) their subtlety and uniqueness to each occasion, and (2) their un-analyzability into further data. The Sautraantika also admit that these atomic data are in perpetual flux. Moreover, although each atomic datum is coordinated to some sense-organ, it is by no means the content of any sense-experience; rather it is said to determine causally the content of such experience. Thus, it would probably be a mistake to assimilate the Sautraantika view into a form of phenomenalism (as has sometimes been done).

Let us ponder again over the relation between the Western sense-datum and the atomic datum of the Saurtraantika. Most sense-datum philosophers agree that sensing is a form of knowing, and that a sense-datum is what we know immediately. It is also argued that a sense-datum in some sense must "belong to" a material object and it is a central problem of epistemology to determine or explain in what manner this takes place. The "causal theorists" (like Russell and others) claim that we make a causal inference and are thus led from sense-data to material objects. The phenomenalists, such as Mill, would regard material things as permanent possibilities of sensations. Yet H. H. Price has argued that a phenomenalist must hold that sense-data are neither mental nor physical, and that they are not caused at all and they are not even real in the ordinary sense of the word.[10] Price continues:

According to him [the Phenomenalist] we must simply take the sense-given continuum as a going concern. There it is, and all statements in which material things and events are mentioned, are ultimately statements about it about the manner in which it does or could develop itself, whether now or in the past or in the future.

According to Price, the phenomenalist is right in rejecting the idea that sense-data are causally dependent upon the thing, (that is, a table) as their "source." For if by "thing" we mean the "complete thing," then this complete thing is a combination of the family of sense-data and the physical occupant of the particular space, and thus it would involve the absurdity of saying that A (the sense-datum) is causally dependent upon AB (the complete thing, that is, family of sense-data and the physical occupant). If by "thing" we mean, however, the physical occupant only, then Price allows that the table or other physical occupant may well be the remote cause of the sense-data composing the family. And in the same view, it can be claimed that sense-data are also causally dependent upon the organism of the sentient. The atomic data of the Sautraantika, however, are stated to be independent of the mind or consciousness. They are not mental, and it would be also difficult to call them physical. But they are claimed to be "external" to consciousness. Certainly they are not caused by the material object, the table. Rather it is believed that they cause the so-called appearance of the false table, the "material object." Thus, the Sautraantika disagrees with an important part of the thesis of the Causal Theorists: namely, "M (a material object) is present to my senses" is equivalent to "M causes a sense-datum with which I am acquainted." Besides, the Sautraantika believes that the existence of the extra-mental reality, that is, the atomic data, is only inferable from the appearances (pratibhaasa) of the gross material object in our perceptual consciousness. For (a) the atomic data must have caused the arising of this perceptual consciousness; and (b) by so causing the perceptual consciousness to arise, they have also caused indirectly the appearance of a gross material object, which is a mere appearance, only imagined to be real.

If we have followed the Sautraantika argument so far, we would be in a better position to appreciate and understand Di.naaga's arguments in his Examination of the AAlambana, where he rejects the view that the aalambana is something external to consciousness. The opponent of Di.naaga, presumably a Sautraantika, has argued that these five kinds of atomistic data would act as the aalambana to give "causal" support to the five kinds of perception due to the five kinds of senses. This "atomist" (Di.nnaaga's opponent) concedes that what appears in consciousness, or what constitutes the appearance (pratibhaasa or aakaara) in consciousness, is different from these atomistic data. For, after all, a perceptual consciousness is described as that of a table or a pot (and so it refers intentionally to a pot or a table). The problem before the atomist is this: although a visual perception can be "causally" dependent (as its aalambana) upon the atoms of the visible (ruupa-parama.nu), the resulting cognition does not have atom-appearance, for the atomic data are impartial, discrete, and many, while what appears in consciousness is a unitary object, a table-also a gross object.

Di.nnaaga rejects this view on the following ground.[11]" An aalambana of a perceptual consciousness must fulfill at least two conditions: (1) It is "causally" responsible for the arising of that piece of consciousness (tat-kaara.na); and (2) it is also what constitutes the appearance (pratibhaasa) of that piece of consciousness. In other words, Dirinaaga supports the basic position to which I have already referred. What appears in consciousness is also non-distinct from that in which that piece of consciousness is objectively grounded (pratibhaasa aalambana). Now, the so-called atomistic data may fulfill the first condition, but not the second. Hence they cannot be called the aalambana of a piece of consciousness. The "phenomenal" objects, that is, the objects which are only "imagined to be real" (samv.rti-sat), such as a table, may constitute the appearance (pratibhaasa) of a piece of consciousness, but they cannot be "causally" depended upon (as a pratyaya) for the arising of that consciousness. For remember, you cannot get a sprout out of an imagined seed!

From Saantarak.sita (800 circa A.D.) we learn that Bhadanta ‘Subhagupta,[12] perhaps also a Sautraantika, tried to support the Buddhist "atomistic" theory by arguing as follows: A gross body, such as a table, may be thought of as an atom cluster. The Buddhist doctrine of momentariness requires that these atomic data emerge at one instant (moment) simultaneously and without gaps (and disappear at the next moment). Just as (a follower of Di.nnaaga agrees that) the instantaneous (momentary) object such as a pot-moment emerges and perishes instantly, making room for a new and similar pot-moment at the next moment, and thus, as a result, we seem to perceive a pot that is supposed to persist through time, similarly the data called the atom-visibles' (ruupaparamaa.nu) arise in space together and without seeming gaps, and this generates our seeming perception of the generic nature (saamaanya) of an object, that is, a gross physical body, a pot, that seems to have parts and hence is divisible (that is, extends in space).

A modern example would be that of a cinema show where distinct films of different postures of a horse running are run before our eyes fast enough to generate the illusion of continuous motion-picture of a horse running. The modern photography also provides a better example of spatial continuity or spatial extension, where discrete dots or points on the screen being put together without gaps creates the picture of an extended material object such as a table. ‘Subhagupta's argument may thus be rephrased as follows: Just as a follower of Di.nnaaga must accept the appearance of temporal continuity (temporal extension) of an object like a pot although he knows that it is an illusion, so also he should admit the appearance of the spatial continuity (spatial extension) of a pot in spite of its being an illusion. But the Yogaacaara Buddhist accepts the first and rejects the second.

The following account of the dispute between the Yogaacaara and the Sautraantika can be gleaned from ‘Saantarak.sita:


Yogaacaara: If the so-called atom-stimulants generate perceptual consciousness out of their own function, why do they not appear in consciousness (in other words, why do we not say, "I see atoms or atom-clusters," through paraamar‘sa)? And since this is not so, how can we say that they are perceived? The momentariness (lack of temporal continuity) of everything is established on separate evidence (pramaa.na), that is, the evidence of reason (compare anumaana), and therefore, we call the appearance of temporal continuity, that is, persistence of things through time, to be illusory. But what is the independent evidence for establishing the reality of such atomic data, the extra mental atom-visibles, such as the yellow stimulant or the white stimulant? If they cannot be established (independently), the appearance of the atom clusters as gross objects out there cannot also be established. Sautraantika: Here is an argument (evidence of reason) to prove that the atom stimulants are real. A gross object is always made up of a cluster of smaller or more subtle objects: witness a mountain range which is formed by a number of small mountains (hills) put together. Hence this gross pot that is visible must be made up of the cluster of the subtler, atomic, constituents. They are what we call the atom-visibles, that is, the visible atomic data. Yogaacaara: Your argument is faulty. The so-called grossness (sthuulatva) of the object is exactly in dispute here. Does this grossness really belong to the object out there? If so, then you have assumed already what you intended to prove originally, namely, the externality of objects, or the existence of objects "out there." For grossness to belong to the outside thing, you must first establish that there are outside things for such grossness to belong to. If, however, you say that grossness is that which appears as such invariably in the experience of all persons including the fools, the illiterate, and the educated, alike, then such appearance of grossness (sthuulatva-praribhaasa) is present even in a dream object (for example, a dream-elephant) or in errors like "this is a piece of silver."

Thus, just as the appearance of grossness in a dream-object (a dream elephant) cannot lead us to infer the independent reality of the constituent atomistic data (the atom-visibility) of such objects, similarly the appearance of grossness in an ordinary cognitive state cannot be used as a reason for establishing the constituent atomistic data as independently real.

The above is a good illustration of the philosophic dispute between the Sautraantika and Yogaacaara. But perhaps we are back to the old problem-the problem of finding a distinguishing mark that may serve to distinguish the class of veridical perceptions from that of non-veridical ones, such as dreams and hallucinations. As far as the pratibhaasa (appearance) is concerned, no distinction is possible, and to the extent an aalambana (objective ground) is to be identified with the pratibhaasa) it is impossible to find a distinction. Thus the Yogaacaara concludes that the aalambana is as much internal to a piece of consciousness as is the particular pratibhaasa of that consciousness. If there is any datum like the atom-visible, to act as the objective ground, it is internal to our perceptual consciousness, just as any pratibhaasa in that consciousness is also that in which it is said to be objectively grounded.

The Sautraantika develops the concepts of arthakriyaa-sa.mvaada (accordance with the function of objects) in order to distinguish the veridical perception from the non-veridical ones. What is this "accordance with the function of objects"? Well, perceiving a gem on the floor, I may rush to pick it up, but if it is a false perception (illusion), I will never be able to pick it up. In one case, there is accord with the "function of the object" (arthakriyaa, in another there is discord, and thus, a non-veridical perception is distinguished from the veridical one. But the Yogaacaara is unimpressed by such a "pragmatic" theory of truth. For, according to him, it begs the question. The argument assumes the externality of objects without really proving it. It is like the Johnsonian way of proving that a stone exists by kicking it. Or, even it resembles the Moorean way of waving a hand before the opponent to say that there exists a human hand, for otherwise what else can be waved?

The Yogaacaara, however, assimilates the concept of arthakriyaa into his own theory. For, if the concept means to be congruent or coherent (or the potentiality to be so) with the expected behavior pattern that invariably follows the cognitive state, then it is possible for a veridical perception to meet this requirement even if we do not assume that the object is external to consciousness. In fact, this is also the Yogaacaara answer to the question of a distinguishing criterion between a veridical perception and a non-veridical one the former has arthakriyaa, while the latter does not. The difference between a true perception of a gem and a (perceptual) illusion of it is much like the difference between a real gem and a fake one. In the latter case, you can trade only the real gem for money, not the fake one. The difference in what follows is accountable by reference to the causal history of the origination of the real gem and the fake one. Similarly, the causal ancestry of a veridical perception, as well as that of a non-veridical one, accounts for the differences in what follows in either case. There is congruence with the expected behavior pattern (compare arthakriyaasa.mvaada) in one case and the lack of it in the other.

If the real gem and the fake gem are so much alike that they agree in all conceivable patterns of behavior (for example, both can earn you a decent sum of money, both are equally beautiful), then the Yogaacaara will argue that there is little point in calling one real and the other fake unless we are already prejudiced with the idea that one of them is certainly real and the other is not. In other words, we disqualify ourselves to judge the real from the unreal, for we have prejudiced the issue. If however, we are already familiar with the causal ancestry of both which determined the issue, the issue has already been resolved for us, and we do not need any further arbiter of truth. We may just kick, with Johnson, the stone in front to prove that it is real.



1. B. K. Matilal, "A Critique of Buddhist Idealism," Buddhist Studies in Honour of I. B. Horner, ed. L. Cousins, A. Kunst & K. R. Norman (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 139-169.

2. H. M. Smith, "Is There a Problem About Sense-Data?" Aristotelian Soc. Suppl. 15 (1936): 84

3. George Edward Moore, "Some Judgements of Perception," in Philosophical Studies, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1922), pp. 231-232.

4. C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & CO., 1923), p. 244.

5. See Vaatsyaayana, Nyaayabhaa.sya 1.1.4.

6. For the Buddhist use of the term pratyaya as "causal condition" see B. K. Matilal, "Causality in Nyaaya-Vai‘se.sika school" Philosophy East and West 25, no. 1 (1975): 41-48. Also see Vasubandhu's Abhidharmako‘sabhaa.sya, Varanasi (ed. Swami Dwarikadas Sastri), 1971, pp. 279-282.

7. Abhidharmako‘sabhaa.sya, ibid.

8. See Vasubandhu's Vij~naptimaatrataasiddhi, Vi.m‘satikaa Kaarika, first verse.

9. The situation is not very different with the sense-datum theorists in the West, although very few philosophers today would go as far as Vasubandhu would ask us to go. Thus, W. H. F. Barnes criticizes, "... once the sense-datum theory is developed in the form stated above, it follows that even if physical objects exist, they are never present in perceptual experience; and it becomes an open question whether they have any existence at all." ("The Myth of Sense-Data," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society [1944-1945], included in R. J. Swartz's Perceiving, Sensing and Knowing (New York: Anchor Books, 1965), p. 142. Most modern philosophers would like to maintain a 'double-standard' that would enable them to eat their cake and have it. Thus, it is claimed that when I "directly see" the sense-datum, I also "see", in (to use Moore's term) a Pickwickian sense, the physical object.

10. H. H. Price, Perception (London 1932).

11. Di.nnaaga's AAlambanaparik.saa (Tib.) ed. with Sanskrit reconstruction by Aiyaswami Sastri (Madras 1942), verses 1-8.

12. ‘Saantarak.sita's Tattvasa.mgraha, ed. Swami Dwarikadas Sastri, (Varanasi).

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-3-2001

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