Humility

I am not sure that Buddhism will ever again see the kind of glory that it saw in the heyday of the Silk Road. And unfortunately some of the most spectacular and humbling sites from that era have been destroyed. The most recent of these is the Buddhas of Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban in March of 2001.

Yet throughout Asia there are astonishing places that show a reverence and devotion to the Buddha that make one take pause and reflect on the enormity of the Buddha’s accomplishment and the subsequent reverence for that accomplishment. There are many of these remote and remarkable sites. There are the Ajanta Caves in India. There are the Caves of Dunhuang in China. And there are the Mysterious Caves of Mustang (pronounced “moo-STAHNG”) in Nepal. In all of these places remote mountain caves are the repositories of beautiful Buddhist art that bows to the great accomplishment of the Buddha, his reverence for life, and his compassion for all beings.

In the West we live in a secular society. We do not like to bow to the accomplishments of greater beings. We do not like to bow at all.

But what the Buddha did was enormous. It is beyond our greatest comprehension. Our opinions and ideology in the face of that accomplishment are trivial, like mice nipping at the heels of great elephants.

I have been to so many retreats where people of arrogance and haughtiness question the teachings of the Buddha. They think that their opinions are greater than what the Buddha experienced directly.

I think this is where we can all use a lesson in humility. Do we really think that we know more than the Buddha? Of course, it is very un-Buddhist to accept doctrine simply because someone tells us. We have to see it for ourselves. But the Buddha taught a path that does just that. He taught a way of living that lets us see. And if we are diligent enough and sincere enough then we can see what he saw. That is the transcendent, universal nature of existence.

The path of laziness is to bow to our opinions, to bow to our arrogance, and to bow to our self-absorption. The path of wisdom is to bow to our ignorance, to selflessly and diligently follow the path that the Buddha taught, and to realize it for ourselves. This is the path of compassion, love, and wisdom.

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Rebirth and the Thicket of Views

I am writing a book on rebirth and the Buddhist cosmology. Rebirth is quite a hot topic in Western Buddhism. I think that it is safe to say that most Western Buddhists do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. That is fine. It does not have to be a hindrance to practice at a certain point. To be honest, I did not think about rebirth much for about the first 15 years of my practice.

But beyond that certain point it does become important. And this is where we have to confront our opinions, our cultural conditioning, and what the Buddha called “attachment to views.”

In the Buddha’s teaching, attachment to views is one of the great hindrances to Awakening. We often hear that clinging is one of the causes of suffering, but the Buddha was specific about what types of clinging lead to suffering:

Bhikkhus, when a Tathāgata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of all kinds of clinging: he describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. – [MN 11.14]

The types of clinging to which the Buddha referred are:

  1. Sense pleasures
  2. Views
  3. Rules (“Rites”) and observances (“rituals”)
  4. A doctrine of self

In modern parlance we might refer to the attachment to views as opinions. Opinions are what we have when we don’t know something.

I was very blessed to have a career as a software engineer because when I was young I had a lot of opinions. But computers, as I like to say, are coldly indifferent to your opinions. Something either works or it doesn’t. So despite my stubbornness, I was forced to (mostly) adopt a fact-based view of life. This is very helpful in Dharma practice.

Sadly, in our modern society we have elevated opinions to deified status. I read earlier this year that an ESPN executive said that they specifically hire people for their opinions, not for their ability to be objective or report facts. Wow.

I even know someone – and this is an intelligent, educated person – who says that everyone has an opinion about everything. He thinks this is a good thing.

But sadly it gets worse, and this is a phenomenon that all inward looking people should know. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have studied and identified what they call “backfire.” This is when someone is presented with facts that refute their opinion. Instead of having the wished for effect of loosening their opinion, they actually become more adamant and deeply entrenched:

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.” – [“How ideas backfire”, Boston Globe, July 11, 2010]

So how does this relate to us as Buddhist practitioners?

As Westerners we come to the Dharma with a lot of cultural conditioning. Most of us believe that God created the heavens and the earth, that when we die we go to heaven or hell for eternity. Or, if we are philosophical materialists, we believe that when we die, we die, and that is all there is.

The Buddha famously rejected both of these views. As for philosophical materialism, he said this:

Here, Sandaka, some teacher holds such a doctrine and view as this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realised by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. A person consists of the four great elements. When he dies, earth returns and goes back to the body of earth, water returns and goes back to the body of water, fire returns and goes back to the body of fire, air returns and goes back to the body of air; the faculties pass over to space. [Four] men with the bier as fifth carry away the corpse. The funeral orations last as far as the charnel ground; the bones whiten; burnt offerings end with ashes. Giving is a doctrine of fools. When anyone asserts the doctrine that there is [giving and the like], it is empty, false prattle. Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist.’ – [MN 76.7]

This is a nihilistic view, and includes a belief that our actions do not have consequences. However, increasingly science, which is often at the root of philosophical materialism, is at odds with itself on this issue:

In his latest book, Return to Life, due out this month, Tucker details some of the more compelling American cases [of rebirth] he’s researched and outlines his argument that discoveries within quantum mechanics, the mind-bending science of how nature’s smallest particles behave, provide clues to reincarnation’s existence.

“Quantum physics indicates that our physical world may grow out of our consciousness,” Tucker says. “That’s a view held not just by me, but by a number of physicists as well.” – [“The Science of Reincarnation”, Virginia Magazine, Sean Lyons, Winter 2013]

The opposite view is probably more common, and that is the view that when we die we live forever. This is what the Buddha called “eternalism”:

When he attends unwisely in this way, [this] view arises in him…

‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ – [MN 2.8]

The Buddha went on to say famously:

This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. – [MN 2.8]

So where does this leave us?

It would be very un-Buddhist to ask anyone to accept a doctrine just because the Buddha said it. In fact, I cannot think of anything more un-Buddhist. Buddhist practice is all about experiencing truth for ourselves. That is the whole point of the training. The Buddha himself said as much:

If any recluses and brahmins, without knowing the past and without seeing the future, yet claim: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being,’ they can be reasonably confuted. – [MN 80.16]

He then went on to say this:

Rather, let the past be, Kaccāna, and let the future be. Let a wise man come, one who is honest and sincere, a man of rectitude. I instruct him, I teach him the Dhamma in such a way that by practising as instructed he will soon know and see for himself: ‘Thus, indeed, there rightly comes to be liberation from the bond, that is, from the bond of ignorance.’

The Buddha often emphasized the importance of honesty. I first heard this many years ago, and since that time I have come to understand what the Buddha meant by honesty in a different way. Honesty has, I think, at least the inference of being open to the truth. Inwardly this means being open to the truth about yourself. And I think that in general meditators do this very well, at least after some practice. It is very hard to sit on the cushion hour after hour and lie to yourself about yourself.

But it also means being open to the ultimate truth of how things are. This requires humility. And that is a quality that is in very short supply in our culture. We love our opinions, and we hate to be wrong.

But “being wrong” is also a way of learning and growing. If we think of it in this way we can embrace it.

When the Wright Brothers were discouraged by their experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1901, they went back to the drawing board. They did 100-200 experiments on wing designs in a wind tunnel of their own design. They painstakingly created lift tables that are so accurate that it was not until the 1960’s that they could be bested, and then only by some trailing decimal points. And by the way, it was their sister Katherine who stubbornly would not let them give up. Sometimes being stubborn is a good thing.

This is how to make “being wrong” a good thing. The Buddha taught many things that are counter-intuitive. But in my personal experience it is worth considering them as possibilities, and then diligently practicing so we can see them for ourselves. But if you refuse to even consider them, even in some subtle way such as feigned agnosticism, you can never realize them for yourself.

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The Journey

I have just finished a week in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado in which I have visited what are now called “ancestral Puebloan sites.” As I have lived in the southwest, I have increasingly adopted a Native American view of life.

That is not to say that what the Spanish and Americans brought here is totally negative. Today I visited Mesa Verde. This has to be one of the great wonders of the word. I am challenged to think of places in the world that compare. The pyramids of Egypt? Angkor Wat? Machu Picchu? It is certainly among those. It is awe inspiring.

And these remarkable places have been preserved lovingly, respectfully, and with great care by people from non-Native American backgrounds. These people, who see beyond the narrowness of personal narrative, are true heroes.

But what most impresses me is not the buildings but the spirit of the people who lived here and continue to live here. This is Indian country… Ute, Navajo, Apache, and Hopi.

Along the way I heard an interview with a Hopi. He said that for them these sites are not ancient ruins, but a part of the continuation of the story of their people.

Our lives are like that, too. We are on a journey. We are on a personal journey. That is our path from lifetime to lifetime to lifetime.

Our journey is also part of a peoples’ journey. My peoples are German and Dutch. And I have been touched by the journeys of people from many pasts. Native American. India Indian. English. French. Irish. And recently Ecuador. So many people on so many journeys.

We are different, but we are one. Everyone has experienced joy and sadness, grief and happiness, despair and peace. And I hope that everyone has experienced humility in the face of life’s great challenges.

It is in our commonality that we aspire to greatness. It is in our commonality of experience that we should aspire to generosity, reverence for life, and respect for each other.

I feel great humility in the face of the greatness of the universe. I bow to the universe, and only aspire to give, and not to take. We may not all be Buddhas or Arahants, but we can all give. When we see a need, we can fulfill it. And in doing so, the graciousness of the universe can flow through us.

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The Greatest Carrot of All

As I have worked my way through the Little Books series and visited and revisited each topic, I have come to think of practice as having three levels:

  1. The worldly level, in which the goal of meditation is to ease the stress and suffering of ordinary life.
  2. The advanced level, where a skilled, experienced meditator attains jhāna.
  3. The transcendent level, where the meditator is one of the “four pairs of persons.” [MN 7.7] These are people who have either attained one of the four stages of Awakening or are working toward one of the stages of Awakening. The stages of Awakening are stream-entry, once-returner, non-returner and Arahant.

In the world of “Vipassana meditation” the vast majority of people fall into the first group. Just to be clear, this is not some inferior type of practice. Trying to become more skilled and happier in the world is much better than not doing that.

But this does explain why there can be tension in the Buddhist community. As I know from personal experience people in the second group can face a lot of hostility. Some years ago one of the Buddhist magazines did an issue devoted to jhāna and the letters to the editor in the following issue were disturbingly vitriolic. Yet anyone who has read the Buddha’s discourses knows the importance of jhāna in his teaching.

In the last year of t he Buddha’s life his teaching was almost entirely centered on “virtue, concentration, and wisdom” as the path. Notice that mindfulness is nowhere to be found. That is not to say that mindfulness is not important in Buddhist practice. Of course it is. It is the seventh factor of the path. But when the Buddha’s teaching matured into a final system, he organized it into virtue, concentration, and wisdom. And he defined right concentration as jhāna. So the importance of jhāna is clear.

(For more on this topic, read the paper “Jhāna in the Majjhima Nikāya” on the “Papers and Project tab.)

Then there is the transcendent level of practice.

It took me a long time to realize that one reason I do not fit well into conventional Buddhist groups – including one I started myself (!) – is because I want to attain stream-entry. This is not true for most people, at least in the Vipassana community. When I moved to New Mexico I had lunch with one of the senior members of the Albuquerque Vipassana Sangha. When I told him that I am working to attain stream-entry his response was, “Good luck with that.”

On the other hand, there are schools of Buddhism that emphasize Awakening to such an extent that they ignore the methodical, gradual way that the path must be developed. The Buddhist path is truly the journey of a thousand miles. The ground is generosity. The foundation is virtue. For lay people this is the Five Precepts. And the path is the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

I once had a member of a Shambhala group dismiss the precepts because they were “empty.” This is a nihilistic doctrine that the Buddha would dismiss as a “doctrine of fools.” [MN 76.7] You can’t just jump to Awakening. It’s not a board game where you get to skip 12 spaces and collect $200. It is more like building a wood ship model. The rigging has to be glued in place one string at a time.

This is not to promote some kind of Buddhist chauvinism where one of these levels of practice is superior to another. Like many people I started at level one. I was very unhappy and meditation proved to be a wonderful gift, a way out of suffering at a time in my life when I really needed to find a more skillful way of living.

But over time life got better for me. This was mainly due to the Dharma. And as life got better for me, I began to see other possibilities.

This path does take incredible persistence. It not always a straight line. In fact, progress is hardly ever a straight line. But there is a carrot out there somewhere on the horizon. It is freedom from stress and suffering, transcendent wisdom and skill, and unimpeachable joy and happiness. It is at least worth considering that this is possible for you.

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Dukkha

Sharon Salzberg tells this story about her time in India. She was really struggling with her practice, and when all you are doing is practicing, that is quite a struggle. I remember when I was at my first silent retreat I had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it through the first day. And Sharon was in India. She was very young and thousands of miles away from home. I think most meditators have these kinds of experiences, and they can be brutal.

So she went to her teacher for a private interview and explained what was going on. She expected that he would give her some magical advice on some new meditation practice, some antidote for her condition. But all he said was, “That’s dukkha.”

It is a funny thing that Buddhism is so often characterized as being pessimistic. That is because of the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Dukkha/suffering/stress. But the Buddha never said that life is suffering. He was simply stating a fact about life, that it inevitably has dukkha. He never defined the term, but he did give us examples. Not having what one wants is dukkha. Having what one doesn’t want is dukkha. Clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha. Sickness, old age, and death are dukkha. Even birth is dukkha.

Denying the truth of dukkha not only denies one of the most fundamental realities of life, that denial is a way to make the reality of dukkha worse. I have recently had a number of conversations with dear friends, all of whom are having very difficult times. One friend has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s. Another has two sisters-in-law who had to go into assisted living. One of them has kidney failure and needs dialysis every three days. Another dear friend is having cancer surgery on Monday. And so it goes. We all have our laundry list of woes. I have mine and I am sure that you have yours.

I suspect that for almost everyone, one reason that we suffer unnecessarily is because there is some part of our brain that says, “It shouldn’t be like this.” “This should not be happening.” “I don’t like this and I don’t want it.” And the extreme form is “Why me?”

But if it really shouldn’t be that way it wouldn’t be. And sometimes it is very helpful to simply acknowledge that this is the way life is. Dukkha is what binds us together in experience. Sometimes it is really good to simply say, “That’s dukkha.”

Of course, the Buddha did not stop there, thank goodness. The first Noble Truth is simply the diagnosis. The cure is the Fourth Noble Truth, the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Buddha said that there are two responses to stress and suffering. The first is confusion and all its related factors: anxiety, anger, fear, depression, and stinginess. The second response is faith that there is a way out.

And my sense and my experience is that if you can recognize that dukkha is just what it is, that you can even learn to smile at it. Dukkha just does what dukkha does. You can acknowledge it and press on. And it certainly is a strong incentive to practice because dukkha is never fun.

But one of the many beauties to Dharma practice is that it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The path itself is very beautiful. Generosity. Virtue. Serenity. Wisdom. It is noble. It is a gift that you give to yourself and others. Ultimately it is the gift of unshakeable freedom from dukkha.

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More Little Books

Books 4 & 5 of The Little Books on Buddhism are now available on the Books tab. Book 4 is The Little Book on Buddhist Wisdom. It is very similar to the same chapters in The Travel Guide to the Buddha’s Path. It covers the basic wisdom teachings of the Buddha, including The Four Noble Truths, causality (dependent co-arising), karma, and The Four Marks of Existence. The Four Marks are dukkha, impermanence, and non-self.

Book 5 is on mindfulness & concentration. Mindfulness is a particularly mis-taught topic, and the importance of concentration is usually over-looked in meditation practice. The Buddha said a number of times that the first seven parts of the Eightfold Noble Path act as a support for the eighth part, which is concentration.

As usual these books reflect the “coherent and cogent” (not my words) teachings of the Buddha from the Pali canon.

Those of you who frequent this site and these books know that the eBook versions are free, and the print versions are as cheap as the publisher will let me make them. But if anyone wants a print version of the book for free please let me know. My email address is ekvh@usermail.com.

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New Biography of the Buddha

For those of you who are wondering why there is such a long time between my posts it is because I am working on the seven-part series of “Little Books on Buddhism.” I am in the process of releasing book 3, which is a biography of the Buddha. You can now download the eBook version of the Little Book on the Life of the Buddha from the Books page. The print version is still being reviewed. The eBooks will eventually be available from the Apple store and Amazon, but it usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks for the books to work their way through the system. It also takes me a week or so to convince Amazon to distribute it for free. And I am never quite sure what Kindle Direct Publishing does with my files, so I recommend that if you have a Kindle that you download from this site. I have proofed these Kindle versions myself.

This was a very challenging project, unlike anything I have done before. The amount of information you have to work your way through is staggering. But it gave me an opportunity to delve into sections of the Pali canon with which I was not previously familiar. I spent a lot of time in the Vinaya (the monastic code), which surprisingly has some detailed chronologies, and a great deal of other biographical information. I also spent more time in the Jataka tales, a journey that began in The Little Book of Buddhist Virtue. (If you don’t read anything else in that book at least read the last chapter where the paramis are explained by using Jataka tales.)

I have come to love the Jataka tales, and indeed a lot of the mythical stories. Joseph Campbell said that in the West we have lost touch with our mythology. Myths often tell stories that have important messages, and they say them in ways that are more colorful and more memorable.

Now that I live in the southwest I am learning more about the myths of Native Americans. A few posts back I told one of these stories, the Comanche story about feeding the right wolf. It is a curious thing that American Indians, who were misnamed because Columbus thought he was in India, may have a lot in common with India Indians. When I was in India the distinction between myth and reality was very blurred. That is often true with American Indians. And for many generations in Asia lay Buddhists only knew about the Buddha’s teachings through the Jataka tales.

I would also like to give a shout-out to my daughter Rebecca who I hired to be my editor. She is currently in the MFA Writing program at the University of New Hampshire. It is a rare privilege to be able to work with your own daughter. Her writing is much better than anything of which I think I am capable. Of course, whatever problems are in the book are strictly my own fault, but I think it is much better because of her help.

I hope that you will enjoy the story of the Buddha’s life. I came to really love the people in the Buddha’s life and the wonderful stories. There are so many inspiring people from the Buddha’s time. The Pali canon gives us a rich, three-dimensional view of that time. Not everything the Buddha did worked out. That is life. And we are so fortunate to have this rich and detailed account of his life. It is an inspiring tradition, and we are extremely privileged to be a part of it.

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The View from Space

When my grandson was born I did some research into my family’s history. Unfortunately I lost track of that research, but as I recall I actually traced the ship that brought my family to Philadelphia from Germany in 1754. They were members of a pacifist sect during a time of religious wars. You can imagine that the circumstances must have been desparate. They were poor. Very poor. And to this day most of my family is poor. Even in my own direct lineage my grandparents were desperately poor. I have an ancestor who was listed in the U.S. Census as a “rag peddler”. Imagine that.

And now I live in New Mexico. Unlike what many people think, New Mexico is in the United States (!). We share a border with Mexico.  And even if we did not, that I live in the land of the Hispanic was brought home to me recently when I visited my daughter at the University of New Hampshire. “Where,” I thought, “are all the brown faces?” I have quickly become accustomed to the Spanish accents and the faces of the southern Mediterranean. The Hispanic people of New Mexico are uncommonly kind, friendly and generous.

When I lived in Vermont I used to ride my bike past a couple of local farms that were worked by migrant workers. Every few years the local newspaper would send some strong young intern out to work the fields with them. The experience was always the same. They could barely keep up. Typically they could do about half what the migrant workers could do.

And now we live in an age of fear and hatred toward immigrants, especially illegal ones. Donald Trump has been a master at harnessing that fear.

But imagine this. Your situation in life is so desparate that you are willing to risk every possible humiliation – even death – to enter the United States in the remote hope that you can find a better life.

Try doing this. Do an Internet search on the words “help illegal immigrants”. One result will tell you that this is a felony.

But in the world of the transcendent, helping people who have less than nothing, who are desperate beyond most peoples’ comprehension, is the path of the noble. There are no felonies here. There is only love, compassion, and wisdom. Astronauts say that one of the things they most remember from seeing Earth from space is that there are no borders. There are only people.

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Buddhism 101

I recently went out to the University of New Mexico web site to see what they have in the way of resources for teaching Buddhism. The good news is that there are a number of professors who teach various aspects of Buddhism. From an academic standpoint it is a rich environment.

What is lacking, however, is anything related to the practice. There is quite a lot about “Buddhist philosophy”, but nothing about meditation or the training. As far as I can tell no one there teaches meditation.

I was particularly struck by the term “Buddhist philosophy”. The Buddha was clear about what he taught. He taught a training method that leads away from suffering and into greater happiness. The final goal is freedom from suffering, and the rounds of rebirth. To even have something called “Buddhist philosophy” is a little like having a philosophy about playing the piano.

The Buddha did not teach all that he knew. He did not describe everything about the ultimate reality that he found, only how to train the mind to come to an understanding of ultimate reality. In his discourse on the “Simsapa Leaves” [SN 56.31] he held up a handful of leaves and asked his monks, “which is greater, the number of leaves in my hand or the number of leaves in the forest.” The answer is, of course rhetorical. He finished this brief discourse by saying:

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.”

It can be quite a long and winding road down the path to an academic understanding of a philosophy. But that does not get you very far. Cultivate a good heart. Be kind and generous. Train your mind to be wise, loving, compassionate, and equanimous. This is what the Buddha taught, and putting it into practice will be of great benefit to you and the world around you.

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The Wolf You Feed

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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