Wholesome Fear - Introduction

Transforming Your Anxiety About Impermanence and Death


160 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861716302

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By Kathleen McDonald

The Buddha told his listeners not to blindly believe what was written in any sacred book or spoken by any holy person, including himself. He said we should always use our own intelligence to check everything out for ourselves and determine for ourselves what is true and false, right and wrong, useful and not useful.

I am writing this introduction a few weeks after the death of my mother. Her death was a difficult experience for me—of course it’s always painful losing someone you love, someone important in your life—but it was also beautiful and inspiring. My mother was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer in early December and died at home three weeks later. I feel very fortunate that I could stay with her during those last weeks of her life, until her last breath. She was completely accepting of her illness and impending death, was not unhappy or afraid, and instead was peaceful, loving and caring toward others, and even cheerful.

I believe her life and death were an illustration of the main theme of this book: how we die depends on how we live. If we wish to be peaceful and positive at the time of death, we need to develop and live those qualities as much as we can in our life. My mother’s ability to be serene, content, and positive as she neared death was the result of a life of faith, gratitude, optimism, goodness, and kindness to others.

The subject of death makes a lot of people uneasy. We as a culture don’t like to talk, hear, or even think about death. If something related to death comes up in a conversation, there is an often uncomfortable silence—and then, more often than not, we quickly change the subject. Part of our anxiety is because we just don’t know much about death, what to do about it, how to prepare for it. We don’t have courses on “Death Management” at our local community college or adult-education center. This problem has been somewhat remedied over the last forty years or so, thanks to the hospice movement and writers such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Stephen Levine. Death and dying have come out of the shadows, as it were, and are now more acceptable topics of conversation—but there is still a long way to go.

Death is a very important subject in Buddhism. There is a great deal of information on what death is all about, why it happens, how we can prepare for our own death, and how we can help others who are dying. In this book, Lama Zopa Rinpoche shares with us the wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition on this subject. Some readers may not be familiar with Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism, so in this introduction I will explain some basic Buddhist ideas about life, death, and what happens after death.

The Buddhist World View

There are different ideas about where we come from, why we are here, and what happens to us when we die. Some people believe in a creator who gave us life, intelligence, free will, and a soul that will live forever after death. Other people believe that we are nothing more than a collection of biological substances and processes, and that our life simply ceases when we die, like a flame going out.

The Buddhist explanation is that we are part of a universe in which there are myriad worlds and living beings, continuously coming into existence and going out of existence. This situation is known as samsara, or cyclic existence. There is no beginning to this process and no creator. The driving force behind everything that happens— in the universe as well as in our individual lives—is karma, the law of cause and effect. More will be said about this later, but in brief, karma means that we experience the results or effects of our actions. It means that in an important way we are the creators of our own experiences.

Cyclic existence is not a perfect, delightful situation, but rather an imperfect, unsatisfactory one. We are born, age, and die—again and again, across moments and across universal spans of time. Between each birth and death, we experience many difficulties: sickness, loss, relationship problems, disappointment, depression, irritation, worries, and all the rest. Of course, not all of our experiences are bad— we have pleasant ones as well, but even those are unsatisfying: they don’t completely free us from our problems, and they don’t ever last.

This may sound depressing, and in fact Buddhism is often misinterpreted as being pessimistic, but the Buddha did not teach only about problems and suffering; he also explained that there is an alternative to samsara: nirvana, or liberation, the state of perfect peace, bliss, and freedom from all problems. Moreover, there is the state of complete enlightenment, or buddhahood, the attainment of which enables us to be of benefit to all beings everywhere. These states are attainable by each and every one of us. In fact, according to Buddhism, that is the ultimate purpose of our life: striving to attain either nirvana—self-liberation from the cycle of birth and death—or enlightenment, in order to help all beings become free. But we don’t have to wait until reaching nirvana or enlightenment for things to improve. In fact, as we progress any distance along the spiritual path, we will experience less suffering and more happiness, and our ability to benefit others will likewise increase.

The Buddha told his listeners not to blindly believe what was written in any sacred book or spoken by any holy person, including himself. He said we should always use our own intelligence to check everything out for ourselves and determine for ourselves what is true and false, right and wrong, useful and not useful. And indeed we can know these things for ourselves. Our minds have unlimited potential; the very nature of the mind is clear, pure, and endowed with many positive qualities. This clarity and purity is only temporarily clouded by obstructing factors such as our delusions, our grasping, our fear, as well as past karma—the very things that keep us stuck in samsara. These factors can be purified gradually through spiritual practice, so that the pure, clear “buddha-nature” of our minds can become manifest.

The attainment of enlightenment does not happen instantly. It happens gradually over time, as we engage in spiritual practice, step by step on the spiritual path. And one of the first steps in this process is acknowledging the reality of impermanence of all things, including ourselves and those we love. And this means deeply acknowledging the reality of death.

The Importance of Remembering Impermanence and Death

The Buddha frequently spoke about impermanence: that things are not fixed and static, but transitory, changing moment by moment by moment. This is true of people and other living beings, everything in nature, and all creations. Nothing will last forever; everything will inevitably die or pass away.

The Buddha said:

All collections end up running out,
The high end up falling,
Meeting ends in separation,
Living ends in death.

The Buddha also recommended that we accept, contemplate, and remain aware of impermanence and death, rather than denying or avoiding this reality. He said:

Of all ploughing, ploughing in the autumn is supreme.
Of all footprints, the elephant’s is supreme.
Of all perceptions, remembering death and impermanence is supreme.

Without remembering death and impermanence, we may imagine we will live forever; we may imagine we don’t have to prepare for death. Or we may think that the only purpose in life is to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. Then, with such attitudes, we may become careless about what we do and fail to do what is really important with our life. Unmindful of death, we may act in ways that are selfish, dishonest, or even cruel—harming both others and ourselves. And then in the end, if we live in such a way, we may die with regret and fear.

On the other hand, awareness of the transitory nature of everything leads us to be careful about what we do, and stimulates positive attitudes and behavior. People who have near-death experiences confirm this. These are people who have a close encounter with death, but then have a second chance at life. They come back with a strong sense of the importance of being loving and caring toward others, of the insignificance of materialistic pursuits, and of the crucial importance of having a spiritual dimension in their life.

Fortunately, we don’t have to have a near-death experience to realize these important truths; being consistently mindful of impermanence and death will have the same wholesome effect.

Death Is Not the End of Everything

According to Buddhism, our present life is just one in a series of lives that stretch far back into the beginningless past, and will continue far into the endless future, until we attain liberation or enlightenment.

A person is a combination of body and mind. The body consists of all the physical aspects of our being: skin, bones, blood, organs, cells, atoms, and so forth. The mind, on the other hand, is nonphysical; it is not made of atoms, cells, or any material substance. The mind consists of all of our conscious experiences: thoughts, emotions, perceptions, memories, dreams, fantasies, and so on. Yet it is not a fixed, static phenomenon, but an ever-changing stream flowing moment-to-moment with experiences. One moment there’s a happy thought or feeling, the next moment an unhappy one. We are loving at one moment, angry at another. Memories of the past and fantasies of the future flow in and out amid perceptions of the present moment. The mind, like a river, is never the same from one moment to the next.

While we are alive, our body and mind have an interdependent relationship: what happens in our minds affects our bodies; what happens in our bodies affects our minds. Even so, the mind-body relationship is transient and ends with death. Death is the point at which the mind separates from the body. Death is not a final end, but rather a gateway to another life. However, what passes from this life to the next is not a fixed, personal identity or soul, but rather the impersonal, ever-changing mind-stream, carrying with it imprints of all we have done in our life: seeds planted in the past that will grow and come to fruition in the future. These imprints determine our future experiences.


Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means “action.” Each time we do an action, an “imprint” is left on our minds that will bring results in the future when the right conditions come together.

Karma can be divided into actions of body, speech, and mind. We create karma with our physical actions, our words, and even with our thoughts. Also, in a general way, karma can be divided into positive and negative, or wholesome and unwholesome. The main factor that determines whether an action of body, speech, or mind is wholesome or unwholesome is the motivation behind it. We create positive karma when we act with the wish to help and not harm others, and when we act with our minds free of delusions such as anger and attachment. The future results of such actions will also be positive, will also be wholesome. On the other hand, when we are motivated by a negative attitude such as anger or attachment, and do actions such as hurting someone, stealing, or being dishonest, we create negative karma. Negative karma will always give rise to unpleasant experiences.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, used to say that we don’t have to wait until our next life to observe how karma works. Even in this life, in this one day, we can see that our attitudes and behavior at one point in time affect our experiences at a later point; if we look closely, we can see how our past affects us even now.

Karma is not something fixed, like words carved in stone; just because we have done something negative doesn’t mean we will necessarily have to suffer. We can purify our negative karma and not have to experience its suffering results. Karmic purification is a psychological process involving four steps:

1. Feeling regret for what we have done;

2. Relying upon helpful objects of refuge, such as the Buddha or another higher power who is wise, compassionate, and forgiving, as well as on cultivating positive attitudes such as love and compassion;

3. Doing something positive as a remedy to the negative action;

4. Resolving to refrain from repeating the action in the future.

There is no karma that cannot be purified by using these four steps.

Understanding and appreciating the reality of karma means taking responsibility. We realize that we are the creators of our experiences. We can’t blame anyone for our problems, and we can’t expect that someone else can make us happy.This understanding is crucial for our present life: if we want happiness and positive experiences, we must create the right causes; and if we don’t want unhappiness and bad experiences, we must likewise avoid creating their causes even now.

Understanding karma is also essential when we look ahead to the end of our life and after. The very experiences we will have as we are dying and those afterward are determined by our actions in this life. A positive, loving life leads to good experiences at death, while a selfish, destructive life leads to negative experiences at death. And the same is also true for each rebirth: wholesome karma leads to positive rebirths, and unwholesome karma to painful ones.

Aside from karma, another crucial factor that determines our experiences in rebirth is the state of mind we have at death. The reason for this is that most of us will arrive at the end of our lives with a vast collection of both positive and negative karma. Which of these karmic imprints will be the cause of our next life? That is determined by our state of mind as we die. A positive state of mind— accepting, calm, and loving—will activate one of our positive karmic imprints and propel us to a fortunate rebirth. A negative state of mind—non-accepting, clinging to people or possessions, or angry at what is happening to us—will activate one of our negative karmic imprints, propelling our minds to unfortunate rebirths.

From the Buddhist point of view, this is the main reason for aspiring to die with a positive state of mind.

The Precious Human Life

According to Buddhism, of all places of rebirth, the best from the point of view of spiritual practice is the human realm. The reason for this is that as human beings we have just the right amount of difficulties to be able to recognize the unsatisfactory situation we are in as unenlightened beings and to aspire to be free from it, but we are not so overwhelmed by problems that we are unable to do anything constructive. Most of the beings in the other realms either have too much suffering or too much pleasure to be able to develop these attitudes. This alone can give us cause for gratitude.

But even in the human realm, not everyone is in the best situation for spiritual practice, so Buddhism speaks of the “precious human rebirth.” This is a particular kind of human life in which we have all the ideal internal and external conditions in which to follow a spiritual path that leads out of suffering and dissatisfaction, to genuine peace, happiness, and enlightenment. These conditions include having access to spiritual teachers and to teachings that show the path to enlightenment, having sufficient faith in these teachings, wanting to learn and practice them, and being supported in our practice by other caring people.

A precious human rebirth does not come about by chance; it is the result of creating certain causes. The main cause of such a life is living ethically, which means refraining from harmful actions such as killing, stealing, lying, and other such clear ways of causing harm. Other important causes are generosity, patience, being energetic about doing wholesome actions, and making prayers for such a rebirth. We have such a birth now, and that means that if we have a precious human rebirth now, we must have created these causes in our past lives. And if we want such a rebirth next time, we need to create these causes now, in this life.

The usual way in which the precious human rebirth is discussed in the Buddhist teachings is in terms of recognizing that we are extremely fortunate to have such a life. This is because of the many meaningful and beneficial things we can do with this life, for ourselves and others, now and in the future. The precious human rebirth is rare and difficult to obtain, so while we have this opportunity, before it ends, we need to use it wisely and carefully.

Bodhichitta—the Aspiration to Attain Enlightenment

Enlightenment is a state we can all attain—but we first need to develop bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment in order to help all beings. With this motivation, everything we do—even ordinary actions like eating, sleeping, and working—becomes a cause for enlightenment. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that the best attitude we can have as we die is also that of bodhichitta. Therefore, generating bodhichitta and directing our energy toward enlightenment is the best way to use our human life and our death as well.

But this does not mean that we cannot help others until we are enlightened. Generating and practicing bodhichitta also means doing whatever we can to help others now, and when we do, bodhichitta adds another dimension to such actions. For example, when we give food to a homeless person or help our neighbor carry her groceries, if our long-term motivation is attaining enlightenment so that we can help all beings become free of all their suffering and attain the perfect state of enlightenment as well, then these simple actions bring us closer to enlightenment, and will ultimately become beneficial for all beings.

Doing activities with bodhichitta can simply mean being as kind as possible, with mindful awareness trying to help others and avoid harming them, and learning to be less selfish and more altruistic.

It is possible for all of us to develop full-fledged bodhichitta in this life and indeed there are various methods for doing so. These methods involve meditating on and making our minds familiar with certain wholesome thoughts and attitudes. The more our minds become familiar with these, the more bodhichitta will arise naturally and effortlessly.

One method is known as “equalizing and exchanging oneself with others” and involves contemplating five points:

The equality of oneself and others. All beings—I and everyone else—are equal in wanting to be happy and wanting to not suffer. There is no reason why my wish to be happy and free of suffering is more important than anyone else’s.
The faults of self-cherishing. The self-cherishing attitude (selfishness)—caring more for myself than for others—is the cause of problems, and is an obstacle to real peace and happiness.
The benefits of cherishing others. Unselfishness—cherishing others more than myself—is the cause of all happiness and peace up to enlightenment.
Exchanging oneself with others. By contemplating the faults of self-cherishing and the benefits of cherishing others, I realize that it’s better to be less concerned with myself and more caring toward others. Therefore, I resolve to work on changing my attitude from self-cherishing to cherishing others.
The practice of “taking and giving” (tonglen). This is a powerful meditation for transforming the mind from selfcherishing to cherishing others. Tonglen involves two steps: first, you meditate on compassion, the wish for others to be free from suffering, and then imagine taking their suffering into yourself, using it to annihilate the self-cherishing attitude. Second, you meditate on love, the wish for others to be happy, and imagine giving all your happiness, good qualities, and positive karma to others, making them happy. Lama Zopa Rinpoche presents a meditation on tonglen in section IV.

Fear as a Motivator

In this book, Lama Zopa Rinpoche discusses how fear of death can be transformed in a skillful and wholesome way to have a more peaceful, meaningful life, and to be better prepared for death when it happens. Some people have no difficulty recognizing and acknowledging that they are afraid of or anxious about death—which means they are not in denial over the universal fact of impermanence—but they may nonetheless have the problem of being so afraid or so anxious that they become paralyzed whenever they think of it, and then push it out of awareness. If we feel this way, we will never get the opportunity to face these fears and learn how to manage them. And if we don’t, when death does inevitably happen, or even when we learn that sometime soon it might, we panic, overwhelmed by fears. Fortunately, we can learn to deal with fear and even overcome it, and as a result we will be able to face death calmly, with acceptance.

There are other people who may think they have no fear of death. Some of these people are being honest, but some are in denial. I know, because I used to be like that. When I was in my teens I had a kind of flippant attitude about death, thinking, “Oh well, if it happens, it’s okay. Whatever. I’m not afraid.” That attitude changed when I attended my first meditation course in 1974 at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. I had heard teachings on death and the importance of meditating on death, but I did not take them very seriously. One night during the course, there was an earthquake as we sat meditating with Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It was not very strong, but we could hear the voices of people in the nearby villages, crying out in fear, and Rinpoche suddenly said in a serious voice,“Meditate on bodhichitta.” My immediate thought was “We’re going to die!” and my mind, instead of meditating on bodhichitta, went into total panic. I’ve never felt such fear in my life—and because we were sitting in meditation (or trying to, anyway) the contents of my mind were especially vivid to me, like a movie on a big screen. I was frozen with fear, unable to think of anything positive, anything helpful.

After a few moments (which seemed like ages) the earth stopped shaking, the people stopped screaming, everything again became calm, and I thought, “Whew! We’re not going to die. Thank goodness!” That experience was immensely valuable because I realized just how fragile life is, and how it can be lost in a moment. More importantly perhaps, I also realized that I was in fact afraid of dying and completely unprepared for death. And I felt certain that when death did happen, I did not want to die in such a state of panic. I wanted to have a peaceful, positive state of mind. So that experience gave me a lot of energy to work on my mind, to learn how to keep it peaceful and positive. Now, when I hear people say “I’m not afraid of death” or “Death is no big deal, we don’t need to talk about it or meditate on it,” I wonder how well they know their own minds.

All of us need to check our minds carefully and—above all—honestly to see whether or not we are afraid of death. How do you feel when you are almost in a car accident? What is your reaction when a friend or relative is diagnosed with a terminal illness or when you attend a funeral? In such situations, is your mind calm and relaxed or is there tension, stress, and fear? Are there knots in your stomach? If there is fear of death in your mind and you deny that fear, you will probably have difficulty later, at the time of death. But, if you can acknowledge the fear now and learn to deal with it, you are better prepared to face death calmly.

How can we deal with fear? A general method is simply to look into the fear and try to understand what it’s all about. What exactly are you afraid of? And once you figure that out, ask yourself: is there anything I can do? If there is something that can be done, do it!

For example, you may be afraid of pain. This fear is to some extent unnecessary because not everyone has pain when they die, and for those who do have pain, medication is usually available. If you don’t like the idea of medication, you can learn methods such as meditation for dealing with pain. If you are afraid of separating from your loved ones and possessions, you can start to work on overcoming attachment (there are many methods in Buddhism that help you to do that). When I examine my own fear of death, I find that it’s not so much death that I am afraid of, but my reaction to death. I’m afraid of being overwhelmed by disturbing emotions, and unable to stay calm and clear-minded. So, to counteract that, I am learning how to deal with my mind, how to keep it positive and free of disturbing thoughts.

That is what Lama Zopa Rinpoche is saying when he speaks of having a wholesome fear of death. He is saying that if we never think about death and always avoid the subject, we will not recognize our fear of death. And if we don’t recognize that fear, we will not do what we need to in order to be free of fear, and then we won’t be prepared for death. Thus a certain amount of fear of death is appropriate and even, in a way, wholesome in that it encourages us to really work with the true source of our fear.

What we should fear is not death, but dying with an uncontrolled mind, and dying without having done anything positive in our life. And the way to avoid such a death is to train in spiritual practice— Dharma—during our life. Therefore, remembering death, especially the fact that it could happen any moment, is a powerful incentive to engage in spiritual practice.

You may ask, isn’t fear inherently or necessarily negative? It all depends on what we are afraid of, on whether the danger is real or imaginary, and on how we deal with and respond to our fear. If there is a real danger, and we deal wisely with our fear, it will motivate us to avoid or somehow address what we are afraid of. For example, fear of being in a car accident motivates us to drive safely. Fear of sickness motivates us to eat well and follow a healthy lifestyle. Fear of the painful consequences of negative actions motivates us to avoid them and to do positive actions instead. Fear of an uncontrolled mind at the time of death motivates us to learn how to keep our minds positive, free of disturbing, negative thoughts. These are constructive ways of working with fears that are realistic. On the other hand, fear can be negative if it is imaginary or exaggerated, or if we do not deal with it wisely but let ourselves be overwhelmed or immobilized.

From a Buddhist perspective, the reason that we have fear is because we have ignorance that sees everything—our self, others, and all things—in an incorrect way. Ignorance is the basis for other delusions such as attachment, wishing never to separate from loved ones and cherished possessions, and aversion, wanting to be distant from unpleasant people and experiences. Any time we examine one of our fears, we will most probably find one or both of these delusions behind it. So from this point of view, we can say that fear is negative and something to be overcome. One of the qualities of a Buddha, an enlightened being, is freedom from all fears. But until we reach the state where we are free from fear, it is best to acknowledge and work wisely with our fears.


The subject of meditation is vast, far beyond the scope of this book, but a few words here might be helpful to readers who have little experience of it.

In general, the purpose of practicing meditation is to transform the mind from negative to positive. The word for meditation in Tibetan, gom, literally means “to be familiar.” Meditation involves making our minds familiar with positive attitudes such as love, compassion, and wisdom, and “de-familiarizing” ourselves with negative ones such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. By practicing meditation regularly over a period of time, we will have fewer negative thoughts arising in our minds, and more positive ones.

There are many different kinds of meditation, but they can all be included in two categories: concentration meditation and analytical meditation. Concentration meditation involves focusing the mind on just one object, such as the breath or an image of the Buddha, without thinking about the object or anything else. In order to succeed in this practice we must learn to stop the “chattering” mind, and to cultivate a silent, still, clear state of mind. The purpose of this form of meditation is developing single-pointed concentration, an essential tool for traversing the spiritual path.

Analytical meditation, on the other hand, involves thinking and analyzing. It is used to recognize mistaken concepts and attitudes that we have—those that cause suffering to ourselves and others—and to familiarize ourselves with correct and beneficial ones. The ultimate purpose of this kind of meditation is to develop the wisdom that sees the true nature of things.

Most of the meditations included in this book are of the analytical variety. If you wish to practice them, sit in a place that is as quiet and free of distractions as possible. It’s good if you can sit cross-legged, but that’s not essential; it’s perfectly okay to meditate sitting in a chair. Whichever way you sit, keep your back straight; this enables your mind to be more clear and focused.

Begin the meditation with a few minutes of stilling your mind, letting go of all other thoughts and concerns. Focusing on and counting your breath can help you to do this. Once your mind is calm, generate a positive motivation for doing the meditation, for example, “I wish to practice meditation in order to decrease the negative energy in my mind and to increase my positive qualities such as love, compassion, patience, and wisdom. In this way, I will have more beneficial, positive energy to bring into my interactions with others, and to send out into the world.” Or, if you are comfortable with the idea of bodhichitta, you can think, “I am going to do this meditation in order to attain enlightenment so that I can help all beings attain that state as well.”

Then begin the actual meditation. If you do not know the points of the meditation from memory, you can have the book open in front of you. Read a portion of the meditation, then close your eyes and contemplate it. Feel free to bring your own ideas and experiences into your contemplation. The point is, as much as possible, to generate an actual experience of what you are meditating on. For example, the purpose of doing the nine-point meditation on death is to realize that you are definitely going to die, that it could happen at any moment, and that you must do some spiritual practice in order to be prepared for death and what happens afterward. The practice is to see and recognize these truths clearly. These realizations will have a powerful impact on the way you see yourself and your life, and on the way that you live your life.

However, don’t expect to have such life-changing experiences right from the beginning of your practice of meditation. It takes time to learn basic skills like sitting still, keeping your mind on the meditation-object instead of wandering away, and dealing with doubts and questions that might come up in your mind during the meditation. Meditation is not easy, and analytical meditation can be particularly tricky. It is ideal if you have access to an experienced meditator who can help you deal with whatever difficulties you encounter in your practice. Otherwise, trying to practice on your own without guidance could result in problems.

At any rate, if you do reach a point in your meditation where you have a strong experience of something such as the need to engage in spiritual practice in preparation for death, then it is best to stop the thinking and analyzing process and focus your mind on that experience as long as possible, even for just a few seconds. When the experience fades, you can return to the analytical process, or conclude the meditation. This method of combining analytical and placement/concentration meditation is how we actually bring about a transformation of our minds.

There is no fixed rule about the length of a meditation session. Initially, you could try meditating for fifteen to twenty minutes, but more or less is also okay. You can experiment with varying lengths of time to see what works best for you, according to your ability and schedule. Lama Yeshe used to say that even five minutes of meditation can be very beneficial. Quality is more important than quantity. A short session in which your mind is very focused, for example, is more worthwhile than a long session where your mind is all over the place.

When it is time to end your meditation session, make a positive conclusion to what you have thought about and experienced. For example, you might resolve to work on particular habits or attitudes you recognize as potentially disturbing to your mind at the time of death.

Finally, remember the motivation you started with and dedicate the positive energy you created during the meditation to that same purpose.


How to cite this document:
© Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wholesome Fear (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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