Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche arriving at Land of Medicine Buddha, September 21, 2013. Photo by Chris Majors.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with Ven. Roger Kunsang arriving at Land of Medicine Buddha, California, September 21, 2013. Photo by Chris Majors.

From Ven. Roger Kunsang:

Kachoe Dechen Ling, Aptos, California, October 31, 2013 – 

Sunday, October 13, 5 p.m., Rinpoche is giving the Amitabha long life initiation in San Jose at Gyalwa Gyatso Buddhist Center. Good timing as usually initiations with Rinpoche are late-night events or even all-night events. As this is a long life initiation, it should be given in the morning. Well, it started in the morning, at about 10 a.m., and with no break for lunch, it was still going into the evening. All the students attending seemed happy and relaxed even though they missed lunch. Rinpoche taught throughout the day, and only when evening came did he start the initiation … and finished it quite quickly!

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Amitabha long life initiation, Gyalwa Gyatso Buddhist Center, California, October 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of GGBC's Facebook page.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Amitabha long life initiation, Gyalwa Gyatso Buddhist Center (GGBC), California, October 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of GGBC’s Facebook page.

As Rinpoche always says the main benefit is in the lam-rim/motivation prior to the initiation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says the same. One of the main reasons for giving the Kalachakra initiation, His Holiness says, is to get a lot of people in one place to hear the lam-rim teachings that happen prior to giving the Kalachakra. “[It’s] my business,” His Holiness says. “I offer Kalachakra initiation to get as many people here as possible for the lam-rim. If I just offer the lam-rim, most won’t come, just the Sangha.”

Rinpoche started the preparation at about 8:30 a.m. At around 10:30 a.m., the motivation for the initiation started. At around 6 p.m., Rinpoche had been sitting without food for nearly 10 hours, so I cut up a banana and offered it to Rinpoche while he was teaching. (We have to be careful of Rinpoche’s sugar level going to low.) Rinpoche ate two small slices and quickly continued the initiation.

Rinpoche was giving the Amitabha initiation sitting on a chair, the same aspect as Maitreya. Rinpoche did this because the initiation was given to him by His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, one of the main high lamas of the Sakya tradition, while sitting in a chair. His Holiness Dujom Rinpoche, the main high lama of the Nyingma tradition, gave the initiation to Chogye Trichen Rinpoche while sitting in a chair. Sitting in a chair giving the initiation is part of this tradition, and actually, most of the people at Gyalwa Gyatso Center were receiving the initiation sitting in chairs!

Lama Zopa Rinpoche preparing for Amitabha long life initiation at Gylwa Gyatso Center, California, October 13, 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche preparing for Amitabha long life initiation at Gyalwa Gyatso Buddhist Center, California, October 13, 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, Lama Zopa Rinpoche was giving the Heruka Body Mandala commentary at Vajrapani Institute in California and was to give the Amitabha initiation later in Texas where student Dr. Chu Nan Lai and the Chinese community there had requested the initiation. After finishing at Vajrapani, Rinpoche said to me near the end of the Heruka commentary, “I have to receive the Amitabha initiation before I can give it!” His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche was teaching in Boston at the time, so Rinpoche said he would request the initiation from Rinpoche so he could give it in Texas.

The difficulty was that there was very little time (a few days) before Rinpoche had to give the initiation in Texas and we had so much luggage (mostly texts) and there was only Rinpoche and me. It was complicated for a number of reasons, mainly because arrangements were last minute. So this was the plan: I made the arrangement for Rinpoche to fly alone across the US to Boston where at the airport Tim McNeill was to pick up Rinpoche and drive straight to where Chogye Trichen Rinpoche was waiting to give the initiation to Rinpoche. As soon as the initiation was finished, Tim had to drive Rinpoche straight to the airport in Boston and then Rinpoche alone would board the flight to Houston, Texas where I would meet Rinpoche. I wrote all the details down for Rinpoche as Rinpoche had not flown alone before. I was nervous about doing this, but there seemed no choice.

Amitabha Buddha Thangka. Image courtesy of FPMT Foundation Store.

Amitabha Buddha thangka. Image courtesy of FPMT Foundation Store.

The next day it all happened. Rinpoche flew to Boston and arrived in the morning. The initiation happened immediately, and as soon as it finished, Rinpoche was driven to the airport and on the flight from Boston to Houston, Texas. I was in Houston waiting at the airport with Chui Nan Lai and many students for Rinpoche to arrive on his flight. It was late night and Rinpoche was on the last flight (in fact, the airport was closing). The flight landed and everyone came off. But there was no Rinpoche. People got worried, but I said its OK as Rinpoche is always the last off the flight because he always waits till everyone else leaves. We waited. I was getting worried, so we asked the flight attendant, and she said there was no Tibetan lama on the flight! Then we spoke to another agent and she checked what happened. She said something happened in Cincinnati as Rinpoche had to change flights there. (This was the part I was worried about, but I had given Rinpoche a note explaining the details of the transit, so was hoping it would be OK.) Rinpoche had missed his connection in Cincinnati and had been put on a later flight and that flight was landing now in another airport on the other side of Houston.

We all rushed and drove across the city hoping to get there in time to meet the flight. When we arrived, the flight had landed and the airport was closing, but there was no Rinpoche in sight! Students split up and went in different directions searching for the lost Rinpoche who had to give the newly acquired Amitabha initiation the next day. We couldn’t find Rinpoche anywhere … so strange! So we went outside the airport to look. I went into the park close by. Now it was late at night, so dark … small nervous freak-out happening … but suddenly I came across Rinpoche sitting cross legged in the dark under a bush! I was very relieved, but at the same time couldn’t help but ask Rinpoche why he hadn’t stayed in the airport where we could find him easily; we were all really worried. Rinpoche said simply, “You found me didn’t you!”

Next day the initiation happened and all were very happy.

Rinpoche and I were then scheduled to fly to Nepal for the November course. This was at the end of a long international teaching tour. Actually, it began several years before (when Lama Yeshe passed away) and hadn’t stopped. It just went on and on. From one center to another, we barely had two or three days between centers; it was a really grueling, hard day’s night that never ended; days and nights merged; weekends didn’t exist; years went by. I would always be asking Rinpoche to consider rest, to just take one day off, even a few hours at night, but Rinpoche would always ignore me. After some years, I asked Rinpoche what does “rest” mean to Rinpoche? Rinpoche said, “Abiding in virtue.” After that, I think I gave up on the rest issue and the phrase that immediately arose in my mind so vividly was “this is the bodhisattva’s way of life!”

Ven. Roger Kunsang, Land of Medicine Buddha, September 21, 2013. Photo by Chris Majors.

Ven. Roger Kunsang, Land of Medicine Buddha, September 21, 2013. Photo by Chris Majors.

Anyway, we were now in Houston and Rinpoche said to me, “Maybe you need a little holiday.” I was really surprised to hear Rinpoche say this. It had been many years constantly on the road and suddenly Rinpoche was talking about me having a holiday. Rinpoche said we could stop in Hawaii on the way back to Nepal and stay two days at our center there. It was really hard to believe, but of course I made the arrangements. We arrived in Hawaii and the center directors Molly and Danny picked us up and we drove to the small center on the big island. It was supposed to be a relaxing time, but it got busy almost as soon as we arrived with pujas for people. Tormas had to be made, and I was the torma maker. So the weekend was busy. We were scheduled to leave on a flight Monday morning very early. Sunday evening, just after it got dark, Rinpoche said, “Oh! I forgot about Roger’s holiday, where shall we go? So we drove along the coast in the dark, and Danny and Molly pointed out the nice beaches as we drove, which you couldn’t see in the dark, and we returned to the center after 45 minutes. So that was the holiday. We left early the next morning. Rinpoche seemed very happy that Roger had had his holiday: 45 minutes’ drive in the dark. (I’m not complaining … it was just shorter than I thought and the lights were out.)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an organization dedicated to preserving Mahayana Buddhism through offering the Buddha’s authentic teachings and to facilitating reflection, meditation, practice and the opportunity to actualize and directly experience the Buddha’s teachings. Sign up to receive news and updates.

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From Ven. Roger Kunsang:

Dharamsala, India – June 4, 2013

Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers Dharmachakra virtually the first time to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, May 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers Dharmachakra virtually the first time to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kopan, Nepal, May 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Very early in the morning Rinpoche decides to go to the long life initiation His Holiness the Dalai Lama is giving at the temple here in McLeod Ganj. So far, Rinpoche has been watching the webcast from Tushita [Meditation Centre]. We did try to explain to Rinpoche it would be difficult for different reasons. Rinpoche was very insistent he will go! Rinpoche wanted to offer the large 30-inch (76-centimeter) silver Dharmachakra to His Holiness. A small thing to get through security (never mind we didn’t have teaching passes either.)

During His Holiness’ visit to IOF [International Office] in Portland, Rinpoche offered this beautiful silver Dharmachakra to His Holiness on video. We took the video of Rinpoche offering, visualizing His Holiness, while Rinpoche was in Kopan, then emailed the video to Portland and there George, Ven. Holly [Ansett] and Tom [Truty] arranged for the video to be played to His Holiness after Tenzin Ösel Hita offered the body, speech and mind [mandala]. His Holiness watched the video of Rinpoche humbly offering the Dharmachakra and joined in the chant when Rinpoche did the short mandala offering. Then His Holiness made the comment, “so sincere.”

Now Rinpoche was in the teachings near to His Holiness and at the end of the teachings, after the mandala offering, Rinpoche managed to get to his feet and go up to His Holiness’ throne as best as he could holding the large silver Dharmachakra as high as he could, the five different colored khatas underneath. Rinpoche approached the throne bending down humbly and trying to hold the Dharmachakra high to offer to His Holiness. His Holiness, with arms stretched out and bending down low from the throne, was making an effort to try and reach the Dharmachakra, but then Rinpoche was bending even lower and it didn’t look like His Holiness could reach – this wasn’t going to work! Suddenly somehow they connected and finally His Holiness actually received the Dharmachakra first offered on video!

His Holiness said to Tashi-la, the ritual attendant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to put the Dharmachakra in front of the large Padmasambhava statue on the main altar. That seemed really auspicious and special. Such a moving offering, it really did feel like something significant.

Ven. Roger Kunsang is CEO of FPMT and assistant to FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

To keep up to date with “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche,” consider signing up for our RSS feed (in the right-hand column of this page).

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Lama Zopa Rinpoche making prostrations at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, March 10, 2013. Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/fpmtABC.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche making prostrations at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, March 10, 2013. Photo courtesy of www.facebook.com/fpmtABC.

From Ven. Roger Kunsang:

Hong Kong – March 22, 2013

Rinpoche stood with his hands in the mudra of prostration before a very large thangka of Chenrezig. Rinpoche gradually leaned forward, slowly going to the ground, his stronger left arm reached for the ground, fingers contacted the floor. Gradually, Rinpoche put weight on the arm as his body leaned forward cautiously. The left knee moved towards the ground and made contact. Now the hard part: the right arm reached out to touch the ground with Rinpoche trying to spread his fingers so they landed open and stretched out on the floor.

I was feeling a little anxious as when Rinpoches head goes lower than the waist, he can feel dizzy and that’s a little dangerous after a stroke.

Gradually, Rinpoche lowered his body forward awkwardly, always the left side taking most of the weight. Watching Rinpoche making this kind of effort is very moving. I can see others moved and feeling emotional. The whole hall is very quiet while Rinpoche is making such an effort to do a full length prostration to all the Buddhas.

Rinpoche is now stretched full length on the floor although his right arm can’t straighten out yet. The process is slow but done with great, great determination. Now the really hard part: Rinpoche gets up alone as he won’t let anyone help! Rinpoche has developed a technique as he gradually rises where he shifts his weight over several stages, and finally to the stage where he has to take the weight from his arms and be on his legs only. That is most difficult. It’s quite tense watching this part and I can see some students who are watching, holding their breaths.

Rinpoche is hesitating now as he has to make a huge effort to go from kneeling to his feet … He does so and then straightens his body and is standing. His hands slowly come to his heart in the mudra of prostration in front of Chenrezig. Now two more prostrations and then the climb up on to the throne.

It wasn’t so long ago that Rinpoche couldn’t do this alone and it was dangerous as he would sometimes feel dizzy when his head went below the waist (not a good sign when you have problems with blood pressure and you have had a stroke!)

It’s very inspiring and moving to see Rinpoche do this with such determination. In the hospital immediately after the stroke, Rinpoche commented and also explained to His Holiness the Dalai Lama how sad he was that he couldn’t do even one prostration any more … or even bring both hands to the mudra of prostration at his heart to respect the Three Jewels. But now up to 12 long prostrations alone … that’s progress! Rinpoche is going in his own way at his own pace.

Ven. Roger Kunsang is CEO of FPMT and assistant to FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche. 

To keep up to date with “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche,” consider signing up for our RSS feed (in the right-hand column of this page).

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While traveling from Taipei to Kaoshung as part of a tour of FPMT centers in Taiwan, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had a very late dinner at a food court. Ven. Roger writes in his blog “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche”:

Rinpoche then mentioned with a mixture of sadness and compassion, “When you don’t think of the next life … people are wandering, like in a dream, believing 100% the dream is real! Like in a illusion or mirage … believing it’s all real.”

Here’s a video from that night of Rinpoche discussing karma at the food court.

Read the complete post “Dreaming in the Food Court” by Ven. Roger, from his blog “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.”

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night market taiwan

Night market, Taiwan. Photo by bittermelon; Flickr Creative Commons attribution.

From Ven. Roger Kunsang:

Taiwan–March 2, 2013

We stopped for dinner, at a food court on the drive to Kaoshung. (We were driving from Taipei in the north to Kaoshung in the south of Taiwan. We got off to a late start as Rinpoche was trying to squeeze in as much as possible at Jinsui Farlin, our center in Taipei, before leaving.) It’s around midnight and not easy to find something open.

The food court had many small restaurants even an Irish Potato place … Hmmm delicious! But they were all closed except for a place specializing in pork dishes(!) and a coffee shop (midnight, can you imagine … coffee?). So we settled for the only thing existing for midnight vegetarians … tea/coffee and a sandwich of delicious white bread.

Rinpoche was sitting at the table with tea and delicious sandwich and seemed to be thinking contemplatively as he watched the people moving around in the shopping area (seeming to not have the slightest interest in the delicious sandwich). We all were very hungry, so not wanting to wait too long to eat the delicious sandwich.

Rinpoche then mentioned with a mixture of sadness and compassion, “When you don’t think of the next life … people are wandering, like in a dream, believing 100% the dream is real! Like in a illusion or mirage … believing it’s all real.” (Rinpoche was watching the people walking around very focused on the shops and shaking his head.)

Rinpoche continued, “Imagine walking around like this and no idea of your next life and that life is not according to your choice; it is up to karma we create. Most likely insects, jelly fish … what suffering. So knowing Dharma is a huge benefit! Wow wow wow, so so so fortunate having met Dharma. Knowing Dharma is a huge opening of the eyes; the need for money in this life becomes like nothing. So so so fortunate having met Dharma.”      

UPDATE: Ven. Roger share’s a video from the food court.

Ven. Roger Kunsang is CEO of FPMT and assistant to FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche. 

To keep up to date with “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche,” consider signing up for our RSS feed (in the right-hand column of this page).

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Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Choden Rinpoche, Taiwan, February 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Taichung, Taiwan — February 16, 2013

From Ven. Roger:

It’s been two years since Rinpoche has had the stroke. Not a lot has changed in Rinpoche’s life style actually. When Rinpoche had the stroke it happened gradually over several days … things got worse gradually, even after arriving at the hospital the stroke seemed to continue for several days. It got to the stage where Rinpoche physically was doing almost nothing, could hardly move. It was a serious stroke … he just lay there and it was very hard to know what to do. Rinpoche took absolutely no interest in his body. He never asked the doctor how he was or what he should do … what were his chances, will he be OK? Not the slightest concern did he seem to have about his critical condition. Rinpoche focused on prayers for the sick people in the hospital and even did a little fundraising for the (Christian) hospital in the later part of his stay.

And so nothing has changed over the last two years in this sense. Rinpoche seems not to have the slightest interest in recovering or not (but recovery is happening). This is hard to relate to for most people, why wouldn’t you want to get better … so you could help others. Prior to the stroke Rinpoche lived the same way … having no worldly concern or interest … everything was for others. There was no concern for sleep or any worldly benefit, no interest in rest. ( Rinpoche’s definition of rest was … abiding in virtue.) From my experience being with Rinpoche, there was no space for the eight worldly dharmas, there was no self cherishing … signs such as these was none.

So nothing has really changed in Rinpoche’s life … oops, there is one thing … Rinpoche doesn’t cough any more, especially in teachings! The more I think about Rinpoche’s life, and wonder, and try to understand, the more I think about Shantideva and the way of the bodhisattva warrior. Rinpoche is a warrior, and I think he has conquered the real enemy within and that’s maybe why it is hard to relate to him sometimes or understand his actions … because they are always opposite to the world. Rinpoche has no rush to go anywhere as he is already there. And as Rinpoche always says, “Taking care of others is the best way of taking care of yourself.”

This morning Rinpoche did 12 long prostrations unaided … quite an effort. We are in the 15 Days of Miracles, so Rinpoche is making an effort to use every minute to create merit. Yamantaka self initiation started a few days ago and is still not finished … it started with prostrations and then Lama Chopa and in between many other things kept happening … pujas, incense offering for people who are sick … this and that. The day finishes around 3 a.m., 4 a.m. is tea and then some prayers … a little rest after breakfast.

Video: Lama Zopa Rinpoche doing prostrations, Shakyamuni Center, February 2013

For the last few days Rinpoche has been visiting Choden Rinpoche to receive shabtu puja (clearing pollution) and also offering lunch to Choden Rinpoche. They sit together quietly, very peacefully and occasionally there is a little conversation and warm smile.

Today … right now Rinpoche is giving Dzambala initiation here at Shakyamuni Center, there could be as many as 500 people in the gompa. When the initiation finishes, the Yamantaka self initiation will continue. And so it goes on.

Rinpoche in front of Shakyamuni Center, Taichung, Taiwan, February 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Rinpoche in front of Shakyamuni Center, Taichung, Taiwan, February 2013. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

Rinpoche’s blood pressure and sugar levels are OK. The doctors seem to be happy considering Rinpoche’s situation. And although Rinpoche has no interest in the conventional types of exercise … very gradually there seems to be improvement in his right leg and arm, the arm being the slowest to improve but it does seem to be improving.

Most days here Rinpoche does long prostrations and then walks up the stairs to the top floor where he stays … six stories. It leaves most of us puffing, and Rinpoche manages OK.

Ven. Roger Kunsang is CEO of FPMT and assistant to FPMT spiritual director Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

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Dharamsala, India — April 2, 2012

From Ven. Roger:

It’s very dark. There is a strong storm with blasting winds and the road is narrow with room for only one vehicle at a time. The road is on the edge of a cliff at least a 1,000-foot [305-meter] drop on one side – it makes you dizzy looking over the edge. The road is in bad condition: sometimes just gravel and rock, with too many holes really jarring the car. There is a truck coming the other way heading straight for us blasting its horn. (Indian trucks are big and heavy and often held together by wood! They are actually huge pieces of scrap metal on wheels with tires that have no tread or very little.) I have nowhere to go (it’s me driving) and I can’t figure how to avoid this oncoming scrap metal heap on wheels that moves like a crab. The roads are so narrow so when an oncoming vehicle appears, you have to find quickly where the road is a little wider so you can pass each other, otherwise you get stuck and someone has to reverse up. And even then it could be a long way and then you might find another car behind you and he is blasting his horn and the car behind him is blasting away on his horn. Actually, Indian drivers drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn, and it is very acceptable. Anyway, I manage very luckily to find a place where we can pass and we continue in complete darkness. The journey is 12 hours so you really have to be alert all the time, like really alert!

Indian road. Photo by John Haslam. Creative Commons (Flickr: foxypar4)

Everyone has the right-of-way on the roads which is confusing, everyone thinks they own the road which also goes for pedestrians, cows, dogs and donkeys … earlier in the day we came across a guy on the phone rolling with his feet a large gas bottle down the middle of the road, the gas bottle picked up speed and he lost control which didn’t seem to be a problem for him as he continued talking on the phone as the gas bottle picked up more speed and headed straight for us! We swerved and all was fine as it is with Indian roads as there are no rules so no one is doing anything wrong so all is OK … I like it with no rules, but can’t handle the overtaking on blind curves, which is common. (I thought it appropriate to have no full stops when describing the roads here.) (more…)

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You can view the entire archive of Ven. Roger’s wonderful “Life on the Road with Lama Zopa Rinpoche” blog here.

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Bodhgaya, India — January 28, 2012

From Ven. Roger:

Elephant practicing Dharma with Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Can elephants create virtue? Of course they can. Rinpoche was offered an elephant here in Bodhgaya. He accepted to keep it for 10 minutes and then return it to its owner. During those 10 minutes (which did get extended a little) Rinpoche had the elephant circumambulate the large Maitreya statue a few times, then with others he fed the elephant a lot of food while reciting mantras. After the great blessing, Rinpoche asked the owner to bring the elephant from time to time to Root Institute to do korwa (circumambulations). Since then a few friendly camels have come to do korwa. (more…)

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Bodhgaya, India — January 8, 2012

From Ven. Roger:

They are saying that 400,000 or more people are at the Kalachakra Initiation, among them thousands of monks and nuns. It’s a spectacular sea of red when you look out over the crowd.

Some Tibetans start lining up at 1 a.m. in the morning, 12 hours before His Holiness the Dalai Lama starts at midday. The teachings have been lasting four to six hours. People are crammed in tight. I have Tenzin Phuntsok Rinpoche (the eight year old incarnation of Geshe Lama Konchog) sitting beside me. He listens on my headphones to the English and the other ear is free to hear His Holiness in Tibetan. Both his hands are busy drawing, using toilet paper delicately balanced on the top of his small thermos. He creates amazing little sketches of the eight auspicious signs and then passes them over to me. I put them carefully in my bag.

Bread and tea are being handed out, young monks come racing into the teaching area real fast! Some monks start skillfully, some not so skillfully, surfing the sea of red, delivering paper cups, bread and tea. It’s hot and stuffy with Tibetan bread everywhere. There are plenty of TVs for people who can’t see His Holiness directly. Outside this massive tent there are thousands of people sitting on the roads. The police have blocked all traffic and rickshaw walas from going anywhere near the teaching site. (more…)

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