An Elephant-Sized Farewell

I was promised that there would be fifty-one elephants at the Keralan Festival near Kollam on Friday. When I arrived I was too overwhelmed by all of the gold-bedecked pachyderms, the banging drums, clashing cymbals, dancing men and smiling faces to get a firm count on the promised fifty-one but I can assure you that there were plenty of elephants on parade.

Elephants are sacred to Hindus and closely associated with the elephant-headed god Ganesha – Lord of Success and Destroyer of Obstacles. I think we could all use some assistance, now and again, from an obstacle-destroying elephant. So thank you, Ganesha.

Keralans seem especially fond of elephants and there is much to be fond of: five tons of beautiful animal, their strong, sly trunks, thick eyelashes, and surprising toenails (five toenails on each front foot, four on each back foot). They fill the roads with prodigious quantities of elephant-sized shit and elephant-sized piss from their elephant-sized lingams. (Suggesting comparison here to a flesh colored fire hose gushing the warm yellow would not nearly do them justice.)

The parading elephants, wearing gold-plated crowns and jewels and ridden by men in white robes with brightly colored parasols, lumbered down the road accompanied by their private orchestras – men clanging cymbals and beating drums to create what I came to think of as each elephant’s personal theme music.

Managing all of these elephants in one small-ish town involves some creative, if not always pleasant, institutions. The thick chains wrapped round and connecting the elephants ankles don’t look comfortable – a constant reminder that despite being so beloved and bejeweled, these enormous, intelligent creatures do not belong in captivity.

At least the official “SPCA Elephant Squad” was on hand, patrolling the streets in their “Emergency Elephant Care Unit,” a green ambulance-like truck, ready to provide elephant first-aid if called.

And we all know about the dangers of drunk driving. But what about drunk elephant driving? The local police are on top of that, too – conducting sobriety tests on the elephant mahouts (drivers). The mahout pictured at right seemed surprised and amused when he and his elephant were pulled over. Fortunately for all, he passed the blow test.

I am happy to point out now that I was wrong when I wrote that Kerala and the South of India aren’t as stimulating as the North. Kerala is more touristy and it took me a little longer to scratch the surface, but I have found just as much color, joy and life here as I did in Rishikesh and Varanasi, which is saying a lot. In my years of travel in over 40 countries, I think India may be the most engaging and rewarding place I have visited yet. I have sometimes felt, in the past two months, like India is the place I was searching for during all my previous travels and that somehow, whether through self-manifestation or simple luck, I have found everything I was consciously seeking in India as well as some things I didn’t know that I was looking for in myself.

I don’t know if this will be as hard for you to accept as it is for me and I don’t know how to break it to you any more gently. This is my last day in India. As the sun sets I leave the elephant festival and all too quickly I am on my last train, sipping my last masala chai, tearing my last warm chappati, clinging to my last swerving auto-rickshaw, boarding my flight, wheels up and up and though I am miles above India, the cymbals and drums are still ringing in my ears, fifty-one elephants.

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Feel Embraced

At least ten other passengers – mostly foreigners and a few Indians – were already crossing the bridge to Amma a.k.a “The Hugging Mother’s” ashram, when I stepped off the Backwater ferry. I shouldered my backpack and followed them toward the ashram gates.

The first things I noticed when entering the ashram – along with the looming pink apartment buildings I’d seen from the river – were the hum of activity and the diversity of people. There was no hushed silence of prayer here, but the giggles of children, the chatting of people at work, and warm smiles all around.

My previous experience staying at an ashram in Rishikesh was mixed. Although I found ashram life very peaceful and I began to understand the appeal of the structure, ritual, and relative simplicity of a renunciant’s life within such a community, the irrepressible skeptic in me and my Western independence and desires – my ego, perhaps – made it difficult for me to accept what I often see as a cult of personality around the guru. When I began to hear rumors of corruption, hypocrisy and impropriety at the ashram in Rishikesh, though totally unconfirmed, I wondered, does it always have to turn out like this? Is it just our nature? Arriving at Amma’s ashram, I wondered now if things might be different under the leadership of a female guru.

In a country that still holds close to traditional definitions of male and female roles, I was a little surprised to find an ashram led by a woman. As Jane Lahr and Val King observed in their comments though, Kerala is relatively progressive in its acceptance of female leadership, which might also explain why Kerala has the highest Human Development Index rating, most literacy, and least corruption in India. This is not to imply that things are easy for women in Kerala, as can be seen in Amma’s story.

Within ten minutes of arriving at the ashram, I was checked-in and assigned a dorm room. It was obvious from the efficiency and warmth of the reception that the ashram is well practiced at welcoming new arrivals – sometimes as many as 60-70 people a day. Although my bed and meals would cost me only 200 Rupees (about $4) a night, it was also becoming clear that this community might be as much a business venture as a spiritual one. I also learned that, unfortunately, Amma was not in residence that week but on an extended tour of South India, giving her blessings to followers and admirers from around the world, as she does for much of the year.

After getting settled, I joined the other newcomers for an orientation and tour of the ashram, which began with a brief video about Amma, touting her impressive accomplishments beyond the founding of this 2,000 member community. Amma’s organizations have been responsible for administering or donating over $60 million in the past decade to victims of the 2004 tsunami and other natural disasters, as well as large scale housing, educational and medical projects. Spiritual community, business venture, and now international aid and development organization: Amma’s portfolio continued to grow in my mind.

The video gave only a brief history of Amma and the ashram but I was able to fill in some gaps during conversations with a few long-time residents. The current ashram sits in the same place where Amma was born and raised and still includes the barn where she received her first disciples. Amma heard a spiritual calling at a young age but, from what I was told, her family and the community did not accept the legitimacy of her calling and repeatedly tried to arrange marriage for her. Though I don’t know the entire story, I understand that it was a struggle for Amma to win acceptance even from her own family and that it took many years for what started as a small gathering in her barn, where she comforted the poor and grieving with hugs, to grow into the dominant spiritual, social, and economic presence in her community and eventually a complex and growing international organization. It’s an amazing human story, though one that by now seems somewhat shrouded in myth and mysticism.

Amma and her community espouse three main values: love, compassion, and selfless service. It’s hard to argue with these and, in my short time at the ashram, it was apparent that members and visitors took these callings seriously.

After morning Archana (the chanting of the 1,000 names of the Divine Mother) and meditation (starting at 5:00 AM) and before evening Bhajans (devotional songs) and meditation, selfless service is built into the daily lives of community members during 2-3 hour blocks of time in the morning and afternoon devoted to Seva (Service). For long time residents of the ashram, this looked much like a full time job – staffing an office or shop, working in the kitchen or giving tours. For visitors, it could mean peeling carrots at a long table in the dining hall, binding copies of Amma’s newsletter (available in 15 languages) or helping with the laundry. For me, it meant a couple of hours walking the streets of a nearby village picking up litter with a group of students from Amrita University. (Yes, Amma has a university too, with an ayurvedic college and schools of business, medicine, engineering, science and the arts.)

I enjoyed being put to work performing Seva and it was apparent that others did, too. This required service was obviously good for the community and for the business of the ashram. But it also seemed to me that these acts of service were conceived as much for the benefit of the individuals as they were for the good of the community.

I was especially interested in the many small, often entrepreneurial projects geared toward creative and practical communal living: the building dedicated to experimenting with growing plants in the infertile local sand and soil; the incredibly popular milk and juice window and western style snack bar; the little signs everywhere with directions for newcomers for living in this intricately designed and evolving community. These details and small touches reminded me at times of one of my favorite books, Mating by Norman Rush, in which an inspired Westerner builds a community designed to empower women in Botswana as part of an experimental development project. The novel also tells a beautiful love story and has been thought-provoking and complex enough for me to inspire several re-readings. At the ashram, it was exciting for me to be in a place where I could see and feel this kind of social, environmental and entrepreneurial experimentation happening and I could tell that many of the people performing Seva took pride and pleasure in having these outlets for their energy.

And finally there is, of course, the hugging: Amma’s signature blessing. The community calls it Darshan (Blessing) and it seems to be what they look forward to most.

Amma is a hugging machine. She estimates that she has given over 29 million hugs and sometimes goes on 20-hour hugging marathons. As you can imagine, after all this practice she has tremendous hugging form. The video introduction we watched included several hugging montages from which I began to analyze her style. As you come close to (or, as some report, are shoved toward) her, an arm will dart out, like an octopus grabbing its prey, and next thing you know, you are nuzzling in one of the Mother’s ample shoulders, while she bestows gentle cheek kisses and, if you’re lucky, a nose nuzzle or two.

One of my roommates in the ashram dorm, a French man around my age, told me about a couple of the eight times he has received Darshan from Amma.

“The first time isn’t really nice,” he recalled. “You don’t know what to expect, you’re nervous, and it goes too fast.” But one of his most recent Darshans was more pleasurable. “She had me in the hug and then she started talking to someone behind me and just kept me there for about a minute,” he said glowingly.

I am sorry that Amma wasn’t there so I could get a hug and tell you all about it myself.

Even without a hug it was heartening for me to see this community in action – living and practicing the values of love, compassion and selfless service that it espouses. Perhaps it does take a woman’s leadership to bring these ideals closer to the reality of our lives.

(Note on the photographs: Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the ashram. The last two photos were taken just outside the ashram. The first two photos are of the sunrise and moonrise over the nearby Keralan Backwaters.)

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I have been waiting to comment on Kerala until I’d been here at least a week – the minimum in my experience to get a feel for a place.

People told me before I came to India that I would find South India, and Kerala in particular, like a different country than the North, where I’ve been for the previous seven weeks. And it is true: warmer, calmer, wealthier – the South has an entirely different climate, landscape, people, history, and economy. With its rice paddies, beaches, better infrastructure, embrace of technology, and vibrant commerce yet slow pace of life, Kerala feels to me closer to Southeast Asia than North India. And there’s hardly a sadhu, beggar, or holy cow to be found.

My first few days in the South were both a relief and a let-down. It felt good to relax into the warmth after so many freezing nights in Rishikesh and Varanasi, to feel my muscles loosen and my skin soak up the moisture in the air. But my senses also felt deprived of the constant stimulation of the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the North.

Kerala is more touristy than the places I’ve been until now and it’s easy enough to relax into the less chaotic pace of life here. As I wrote this, sitting on the balcony of my luxurious hotel room ($20/night!) overlooking a very blue ocean in Varkala, a dolphin surfaced nearby and I took a deep breath, inhaling a lungful of fumes from the garbage burning next door. It is still India after all.

I hadn’t had a drink or eaten meat since I arrived in India on December 1st last year but it didn’t take me long to lapse here with my first piece of Kingfish and a cold Kingfisher beer on the beach the other day. Seven weeks with no alcohol and no meat – especially no meat – was definitely a record for me. I don’t feel any different physically but I do wonder if the mental clarity I have been experiencing recently is connected to this simpler diet. Eating any meat other than fish still holds no appeal for me right now, though I am sure I will lapse further when presented with something special back home. I doubt I will ever eat meat as regularly as I once did though. One of the many small changes and living experiments that I foresee in my future, inspired by the past year of travel.

But I digress. I spent my first few days in the South in Forth Kochi, an old spice trading port on the Arabian Sea, before moving south into Kerala’s famous Backwaters. In Allepi, I rented a rice barge that had been converted to a house boat and spent a day cruising through the Backwaters – an immense system of interconnected salt water canals, rivers and lakes filled with picturesque Chinese fishing nets, waterborne commerce, and handsome white-headed fish eagles soaring over green rice paddies.

Later that evening I paddled a canoe down a narrow, lily-pad and leaf littered canal, and came to a cluster of small villages and homes where children were walking or paddling home from school, people were preparing dinner, having a bath and waving to me from the banks.

The next day I caught a public ferry going further south. About halfway through the Backwaters, on the way to Kollam, the ferry stopped at a quiet place in the river flanked by palm trees, with ocean-going fishing boats tied along the banks, and three immense, pink apartment buildings jutting incongruously out of the jungle on an otherwise remote stretch of coast. We had come to the Matha Amrithanandamyi Mission, an ashram led by ‘Amma’ Amrithanandamayi, also known as “The Hugging Mother,” one of India’s few female gurus, and from the look of her thriving compound, a very successful one.

While the ferry prepared to rejoin the river I wavered near the starboard gunwale, undecided whether to push on down river or stay at this community of “The Hugging Mother.” As the boat began to cast-off, I stepped ashore.

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Oh, Sweatered Goats of Varanasi

A team of internet marketing consultants in Bangalore, using sophisticated, proprietary analytic software, has confirmed that the single overwhelming force driving traffic to my blog – indeed, the main trend powering all commerce and entertainment on the interweb today – are photographs of goats wearing sweaters and dresses. People talk about the influence of Facebook and Google, but there is nothing like a well dressed goat to send your numbers through the roof.

So I proudly present to you the third and final installment of the clothed goats of Varanasi, India.

I’ve been on the look-out for goats of refined taste in Kerala, but I am afraid it might be too hot down here to get all dressed up. While I was walking along a seawall by the ocean the other day I thought I spotted a young Billy in the distance in black, ’70s-style short shorts. I was preparing to scale a wall topped with jagged glass and ford a narrow, though likely crocodile infested lagoon to get a photo of him, but on closer inspection I realized that it was not a bathing suit but the goat’s natural coloring and my eyes, or perhaps my heart, playing tricks on me.

As my father helpfully pointed out after my most recent goat posting, when the goats are starting to look this good it might be time to find a girlfriend. Or I could just buy a goat?

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The Neelachal Not-So-Express

I think the Ganga Benjamin-ji Express has delivered relatively well on the Ganga and the Benjamin-ji, but I haven’t said anything yet about an actual train. I’ve taken three train journeys in India so far: the Dehradun Shtbdi Express from Delhi to Hardiwar (6 hours), the Hw Hwh S F Express night train from Hardiwar to Varanasi (13 hours), and most recently a day and night adventure on the Neelachal Express from Varanasi back to Delhi (20 hours).

I showed up at the Varanasi train station an hour early, as every Indian insisted I must, only to find the train running an hour late. So I had ample time to wander the platform with my backpacks, taking pictures with my Canon G11 and discovering the diverse ecosystem of life and commerce at an Indian rail station.

The passing travelers come in all shapes, sizes and castes – from the young families sleeping on blankets near the entrance to the maharaja arriving with enough baggage and porters to supply a tiger hunting expedition. And then there were the tea and samosa stand attendants, the “Indian toothbrush” saleswomen, the officious platform security men, the track sweepers, track repairmen and track scavengers.

Booking a train ticket can be an adventure in Indian bureaucracy. Seats sell out weeks in advance and there is a complicated system of waiting lists, tatkal quota tickets, tourist quota tickets, and etc. I got my tickets a couple of weeks ahead of time. Knowing that it would likely be an over-long journey and not knowing how I would be faring, I opted for the highest class ticket available, in the A.C. Tier 2 cabin. There are at least 8 cabin classes on the Indian rails, from A.C. Tier 1 to Unreserved 2nd Class and the names don’t always make sense. A First Class seat is actually priced somewhere in the middle.

Although my train got off to a late start, and probably as a consequence was shunted off to a siding every hour to shudder as another train swooshed past, making us even later, the journey was a pleasure. The cabin I occupied was luxurious compared to the bare wooden benches further down the line. The train runs through the night, so in A.C. Tier 2 I had an entire bed.
I got lucky with a bottom berth facing forward with a long window beside it. I lounged back on a stack of wool blankets and watched the country-side roll by: endless fields of rice and crops, cattle, goats and pigs, small dusty villages, kids and young men playing cricket and an odd golf-like game. It was a Saturday.

The trackside is also a favorite place for many to take their morning constitutional. Maybe they find the trains inspirational? Perhaps they like to put on a show for the moving audience? Either way, it did not go unappreciated by me as we passed a disproportionate number of people – at least 20 that I noticed – squatting in the dust beside the tracks taking a shit.

By the time the train pulled into the New Delhi station, five hours late, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I was sleeping soundly in my berth. The conductor drew the curtain to check I was awake and it was actually with some reluctance that I prepared to detrain, ending that last, long Indian rail journey. Though, I will admit, I wasn’t displeased to be on the way to the airport to catch my flight to Kerala instead of the 46 hour train ride south.

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The Way of the Bodhisattva: Working Calmly for the Happiness of Others

I hesitate to comment on the Dalai Lama’s teaching this week in Sarnath. I was under the impression that supreme enlightenment would be granted to me as part of the price of admission and was bitterly disappointed to find that this was not the case. After reading The Way of the Bodhisattva and listening to the Dalia Lama speak for three days I may be enriched but I am, unfortunately, far from enlightened. With that disclaimer I will try to share some of my experience.

The atmosphere at the teaching was carnival-like – a dusty, joyful, spiritual, Tibetan carnival. Which makes sense when you think of it as both a religious teaching and a community gathering for Tibetan Buddhists from around the world – thousands of Tibetan exiles from India, Europe and America, pilgrims from Tibet – and hundreds of non-Tibetan Buddhists, seekers and curious tourists like me.

During the teachings, which lasted for about two hours each morning and afternoon, the Dalai Lama sat on a high dais at the front of a vast tent filled with maroon robed monks and pilgrims of every description sitting cross legged on the ground. As the Dalai Lama entered, the sessions would begin with a blessing, a deep throated Tibetan chant, and the monks and pilgrims would make their prostrations – standing with hands in prayer, touching their hands to their heads, to their hearts, bending at the waist, kneeling to the ground, and finally, touching their heads to the ground before His Holiness.

The Dalai Lama’s teaching style could be described as conversational. He was full of analogies and anecdotes and often related a lesson through a story of someone he has met during his decades of service and travel. His tangents might bring him to a discussion of the practice of Chogdu (liberation through sexual union, I think…) or George W. Bush, both of which he seems to disapprove, though, of course with much subtlety and diplomacy. (The DL on the GW: “A very straightforward man and a good friend of mine. But when it came to Iraq, he did not consider all the effects of his actions on other people.”) At another time, the Dalai Lama pointed out that Americans are generally a straightforward people: we get too excited when something good happens to us and too depressed when something bad happens to us. Meditating on the impermanence of everything in this world might help even things out, he advised. It was hard to tell if these asides were planned or spontaneous. Often, usually when speaking of himself, he would punctuate a comment with mirthful, contagious laughter.

Listening to him speak, I got the sense that the Dalai Lama, as a man, embodies a seamless blend of modern sensibility and ancient wisdom and perhaps that is part of what draws so many to him. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get close enough to him to feel the gentle, inspiring presence that others have described to me. That distance was increased by not actually being able to listen to him speak directly. He taught in Tibetan for the benefit of the mostly Tibetan audience while a simultaneous translation to English was available via radio.

The main topic of the teaching was the The Way of the Bodhisattva, which was first recited by the Buddhist monk Shantideva in the 8th century. It’s a lovely text of four-line verses, poetic and often profound in their depth and acuity. Though I am definitely not one for the casual reading of 1,200 year old spiritual verses, I was surprised to find The Way of the Bodhisattva engaging and often even enjoyable as I sat with it over pots or chai, bundled up in a cold café in Varanasi last week.

The Dalai Lama’s teaching consisted of reading passages from the text and offering comments along the way. The main message (and again, I hesitate to distill ideas that sometimes appear simple but are incredibly complex) is that to attain enlightenment one must not only achieve the “wisdom of emptiness” but must simultaneously work to deliver all beings from suffering. Okay, maybe that’s not so simple, but Shantideva sometimes makes it seem so:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

(Chapter 8, verse 129.)

For me, not inclined to the spiritual, but more in tune with the philosophical and political aspects of any message, these passages could serve as the mission statement or campaign promise for something beautiful. These ancient instructions somehow seem novel and no less urgent today:

With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.

(Chapter 5, verse 55.)

Shantideva covers vast spiritual, philosophical and psychological terrain in about 1,000 such verses and I can’t begin to do them justice here. More thorough knowledge of Buddhism would certainly be helpful and for that I look forward to consulting my sister, Laura, who is a practicing Buddhist and a big part of my inspiration for coming to hear the Dalai Lama.

For now I will leave you with a few of my favorite themes and passages from Shantideva. Perhaps they will inspire you to pick up a copy. I liked the translation by Padmarka, published by Shambala, and Laura tells me that Pema Chodron has written a good commentary.

Before reading on, you might wish to grab yourself a cup of rich, steaming, salty butter tea. One of my favorite moments of each teaching session was when dozens of teenage monks would rush down the aisles and wade into the crowd to pour salty (morning) or sweet (afternoon) butter tea from large, long-spouted tin kettles into thousands of proffered cups and bowls, accompanied by another deep throat-chanting blessing for the tea, of course. I’m glad someone told me to bring a cup.

So, when your tea is hot and plenty buttery, here are some highlights from Shantideva.

On deep empathy, the “exchange of self and other”:

Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and other beings,
Should interchange the terms of “I” and “other,”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

(Chapter 8, verse 120.)

On the source of anger and its futility:

Anger, lust – these enemies of mine –
Are limbless and devoid of faculties.
They have no bravery, no cleverness;
How then have they reduced me to such slavery?

I it is who welcome them within my heart,
Allowing them to harm me at their pleasure!

(Chapter 4, verses 28-29)

On looking upon your enemies with compassion and at conflict as an opportunity for growth and purification:

Their weapons and my body –
Both are causes of my suffering!
They their weapons drew, while I held out my body.
Who then is more worthy of my anger?

(Chapter 6, verse 43.)

On loving and caring for others:

The goal of every act is happiness itself,
Though, even with great wealth, it’s rarely found,
So take your pleasure in the qualities of others.
Let them be a heartfelt joy to you.

Speak with honest words, coherently,
With candor, in a clear, harmonious voice,
Abandon partiality, rejection, and attraction,
And speak with moderation, gently,

And catching sight of others, think
That it will be through them
That you will come to buddhahood.
So look on them with open, loving hearts.

(Chapter 5, verse 77-80.)

And finally, a reminder for all of us who talk the talk:

But all this must be acted out in truth,
For what is to be gained by mouthing syllables?
What invalid was ever helped
By merely reading in a doctor’s treatises?

(Chapter 5, verse 109.)

For those of you who mostly check this space for photographs of goats in fancy dresses, my apologies for getting all heavy on you with this posting. I promise more goat antics coming soon. My travels tomorrow bring me far to the south for a much needed defrosting in Kerala, where I will spend my final three weeks in India.

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Sweet, Sweatered Momma Goat

You couldn’t get enough of my well clad goat mistresses last week so here is another installment, featuring the latest in goat maternity wear. I think I know what to get this hungry mother-of-two for Valentine’s Day.

You weren’t expecting the well-lathered man in the banana hammock though, were you? Consider it a bonus.

On a completely unrelated note, you might want to check out an article in this week’s New Yorker by everyone’s favorite Republican, David Brooks. It is thought provoking and overlaps with some of the ideas I have been reading and thinking about recently. I will probably have more to say on this later, but here’s an excerpt:

“Many members of [the Composure Class], like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most. The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be.”

I depart Varanasi this afternoon for Sarnath, a small town where Buddha gave his first sermon and the Dalai Lama is giving a teaching this week on Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, The Way of the Bodhisattva.

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