Buddhism in Thailand

Sukhothai Period
Although animistic beliefs remained potent in Sukhothai, King Ramkhamhaeng and his successors were all devout Buddhist rulers who made merit on a large scale. The major cities of the Sukhothai kingdom were, therefore, full of monasteries, many of which were splendid examples of Thai Buddhist architecture. Sukhothai adopted the Ceylonese school of Theravada Buddhism, beginning with King Ramkhamhaeng’s invitation to Ceylonese monks to come over and purify Buddhism in his kingdom. This Ceylonese influence manifested itself not only in matters of doctrine but also in religious architecture. The bell-shaped stupa, so familiar in Thai religious architecture, was derived from Ceylonese models. Sukhothai style Buddha images are distinctive for their elegance and stylized beauty, and Sukhothai’s artists introduced the graceful form of the “walking Buddha” into Buddhist sculpture.

Sukhothai’s cultural importance in Thai history also derives from the fact that the Thai script evolved into a definite form during King Ramkhamhaeng’s time, taking as its models the ancient Mon and Khmer scripts. Indeed, this remarkable king is credited with having invented the Thai script.

King Si Inthrathit and King Ramkhamhaeng were both warrior kings and extended their territories far and wide. Their successors, however, could not maintain such a far-flung empire. Some of these later kings were more remarkable for their religious piety and extensive building activities than for their warlike exploits. An example of this type of Buddhist ruler was King Mahathammaracha Lithai, believed to have been the compiler of the Tribhumikatha, an early Thai book on the Buddhist universe or cosmos. The political decline of Sukhothai was, however, not wholly owing to deficiencies in leadership. Rather it resulted from the emergence of strong Thai states further south, whose political and economic power began to challenge Sukhothai during the latter half of the 14th century. These southern states, especially Ayutthaya, were able to deny Sukhothai access to the area.

The Sukhothai kingdom did not die a quick death. Its decline lasted from the mid-14th until the 15th century. In 1378, the Ayutthaya King Borommaracha I subdued Sukhothai’s frontier city of Chakangrao (Kamphaengphet), and henceforth Sukhothai became a tributary state of Ayutthaya. Sukhothai later attempted to break loose from Ayutthaya but with no real success, until in the 15th century it was incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom as a province. The focus of Thai history and politics now moved to the central plains of present-day Thailand, where Ayutthaya was establishing itself as a centralized state, its power outstripping not only Sukhothai but also other neighbouring states such as Suphannaphum and Lawo (Lopburi).

Chiang Mai Period
While one of the Thai tribes of the Chao Phraya River was founding Sukhothai kingdom, another tribe in the north-western tableland, called Lanna, was also successful in driving out the Mons influence from the River Ping. In the nineteenth Buddhist century King Meng-Rai of the ancient Chiang-San dynasty was known to have defeated King Ye-Ma, the Mon king of the town of Lamphun, and later built his capital at Chiang Mai.During this time Theravada Buddhism of Ceylon had been brought from their flourishing states in the Mons country and in Sukhothai to the north-western tableland, but was not able to take its firm roots there. In the twentieth Buddhist century through the royal order of King-Kue-Na, several “Lankavangsa” bhikkhus both from Moulmein (Mau-Ta-Ma) and from Sukhothai were invited to Chiang-Mai (750 km. north of Bangkok) to preach their doctrine. Of these bhikkhus along with their followers, one named Ananda was from the town of Mua-Ta-Ma in the Mons country and the other called Sumana was from Sukhothai.

In the following century (B.E. 2020 or 1477 AD) under the auspices of King Tilokara, the thirteenth of Chieng Mai dynasty and under the leadership of Khammadinna Thera, a general Council of bhikkhus which lasted one year was convened at the Maha Bodhivong Vihara. Practically this was the first Council held in Thailand and reflected the intensive study of Buddhism during the time. A collection of Pali texts, compiled by the Thera (Elders) of that glorious age, are now a pride of the those who wished to further their research of Buddhism in the Pali language. Some such texts were Abhidhammayojana, Mulakaccayanayojana. Vinayayojana, Vessantaradipani and Mangalathadipani. In the following (twenty-second) century the town was taken by the Burmese and from time Chiang-Mai became a unhappy town alternately torn by two superior powers i.e. Burma on her north and the kingdom of Ayutthaya on her south.

Ayutthaya Period
Towards the close of the nineteenth Buddhist century which witnessed the decline of Sukhothai kingdom, King U-thong of Suphunaphum, once under Sukhothai domination, proclaimed his state as independent of Sukhothai power and built up his capital at a town called Sri Ayutthaya, south of Sukhothai. This kingdom, which lasted 417 years, are ruled over by 33 kings.

Through more than four centuries which marked the age of Ayutthaya kingdom, Theravada Buddhism in Thailand seemed to reach its zenith of popularity. Within and without the city of Ayutthaya there scattered innumerable temples and pagodas which served as places, thereby exerting a great influence on the spiritual life of the people. Buddhist art, both in the field of architecture and Buddha-image construction, were on the same line of flourishing. An illustrative example of this fact may be seen today in the temple of the Foot-Prints at Saraburi. There was also a tradition which is still in practice today for every Thai young man to be ordained at least once as a bhikkhu. Several kings such as Pra Borom Trai Lokanatha, the 18th king, in following the example set by King Li-Thai of Sukhothai period, had temporarily renounced his throne to be ordained as a bhikkhu.

During the reign of Phra Borom-Kote, the thirty-first of Ayutthaya kingdom, there reigned in Ceylon a king named Kitti-Siri-Raj-Singha, who being discouraged by the decline of Buddhism in his island country and learning that Buddhism was purer in Thailand than any other country, sent forth his religious mission to the Thai King, asking a favour of some Thai bhikkhus to revive the spirit of Theravada Buddhism which had almost died out in his land. This was a good occasion when Thailand was able to repay her debt to Ceylon and the Venerable Upali, together with his followers, were sent to Ceylon. Thus the community of Ceyl;onese bhikkhus ordained by the Thai bhikkhus at that time has ever since been called Upali-Vangsa or Siam-Vangsa. It is the well known and most revered sect in Ceylon.

Religious literature of Ayutthaya, however, abounded both in Pali and Thai language, but most of them were most regretfully destroyed when the kingdom was ruthlessly overrun by the enemy in 2310 BE.

Thonburi Period
There was not much to say about Buddhism in the short-lived Thonburi period (2310-2365 BE). During the prelude of fifteen years, a greater part of which was occupied in driving our the enemy and restoring the peaceful situation of the country, what could be done to Buddhism was merely a general revival of Buddhism, not to say the compiling of new texts and other measures for the propagation of Buddhism. In the reign of King Thonburi he had several temples repaired, monastic rules settled, religious texts collected and the study and practice of Buddhism revised to some degree. With regard to the texts such as the Tipitaka, Commentaries and Sub-commentaries destroyed by fire, he had them borrowed or copied from those Combodia. It is safe, however, to say that Theravada Buddhism in the form of that of Ayutthaya was still prevailing in Thonburi period.

Ratanakosin Period
King Rama I
The reign of King Rama 1 of Chakri dynasty began in the year 2325 BE, with the town of Bangkok as capital. Although there were some wars with outward enemy, he often managed to find time to encourage the study and practice of Buddhism. Numerous temples, both inside and outside the capital, were repaired. Of these temples, the Jetuvana Vihara (or Wat Pho, in the vernacular), which ranks among one of the most important, had undergone seven years of repair and the well-known Wat-Phra-Keo (Temple of the Emmeral Buddha), which is regarded as the most important one in Thailand, was also built during his reign. From the Northern provinces such as from Sukhothai, a number of Buddha images (about two thousand in all) were brought in order to be enshrined in the Uposatha of various temples in Bangkok.

In 2331 BE a Council of Bhikkhus was convened for the sake of, as before, settling the contents of the Tipitaka and having those settled passages written down with a stylus on books made of corypha palm leaves. Such books were numbered 345 in all, i.e. 80 for the Abhidhamma and 53 for the Saddavisesa texts. The Council, held at the present Wat Mahadhat, lasted five months and under the chairmanship of a Supreme Patriarch (whose name was Sri). The participants were 218 bhikkhus together with 32 lay scholars. This was the second council held in Thailand.

Religious literature during his reign were compiled both in Pali and in Thai, of these, one was a Pali treatise celled Sangitiyavangsa written by Somdet Phra Vanarat of Jetuvana Temple.

King Rama II
King Rama II, formerly called Phra Buddha Lert Lah, came to the throne in B.E. 2352. Buddhist activities during his time were noted in sending a religious good-will mission group to Ceylon and organizing the research and study of Buddhism. Thus it was during this time that the course for studying Buddhism in Pali language was divided into mine grades as such had once been done in Ayutthaya period. Other activities included the repairing of the existing temples and the building of new ones. The latter included the “Prang” of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), symbolic of Thailand for all foreigners.

King Rama III
Phra Nang-Klao, the third of the Chakri dynasty, succeeded his father in B.E. 2367. Having a natural bent for architecture besides being a pious king himself, he had more temples built both inside and outside Bangkok. The temple of Jetuvana in the reign of King Rama I became a treasure of religious knowledge for Buddhist scholars and the symbolic “Prang” of Bangkok was perfectly completed in his reign. Also two groups of good-will missionary bhikkhus, one after the other, were sent to Ceylon. His piety in Buddhism may be seen in his pioneer undertaking to translate the Pali Tipitaka and some other Pali texts into Thai. Nevertheless, his reign came to an end before they were all completed.

In B.E. 2372 there was a religious movement which marked a cornerstone for the study and practice of Buddhism in Thailand, the birth of the Dhammayutta group of bhikkhus. This was due to Prince Mongkut, the King’s younger brother who had been ordained as a bhikkhu for 27 years. Through this long period of secluded life he was endowed with a thorough knowledge of the Buddhist Scriptures, including the Tipitaka, its Commentaries, Sub-commentaries and other Pali texts as well. With such a wealth of knowledge gained and digested as a result of long and profound thinking, he was able to distinguish more clearly between what is right and what is wrong in the Master’s doctrine. He then set out putting to practice what is mentioned and regarded as righteous in the Tipitaka. By doing so, he unwittingly made a great impression on those who, inspired by his conduct, took it upon themselves to follow his way of life. This group of people, in course of time, grew bigger and more popular and became a separate gathering of bhikkhus called the Dhammayutta group as distinct from the former group of bhikkhus in Thailand. Besides being proficient in religious knowledge, Prince Mongkut also had a good command of Sanskrit and English , and in his establishing the Dhammayutta group of bhikkhus, his movement might be compared with that of the Venerable Rahula Thera who through his examplary mode of practice had founded the Lankavangsa group of bhikkhus at the town of Nakhorn Si Thammarat (some 800 km. south of Bangkok).

Of the religious literature in Thai, one was “Pathom-Som-Bodhi-Katha” (life of Buddha) compiled by the Supreme Patriarch Prince Paramanujit Jinorasa of Jetuvana Temple. Of the works in Pali, one called “Sima Vicarana” (Treatise on Sima or boundary of a main shrine) compiled by Prince Mongkut himself wins high respect in Ceylon.

King Rama IV
King Rama IV, or Prince Mongkut who had to disrobe himself after his brother’s death, came to the throne in B.E. 2394. He was formally known as Phra Chom Klao. During his reign bhikkhus were greatly encouraged in their study and practice of Buddhism, so that they were well-behaved as well as well-educated in the Buddha’s doctrine. Some rules and regulations for the betterment of the administration of the community of bhikkhus as a whole were laid down; a group of religious good-will mission was sent forth to Ceylon; and the community of Dhammayutta bhikkhus was also established in Cambodia.

Never was the construction work neglected. The Raj-Pra-Dit Temple, one of the most important temples of Bangkok was an evidence of the fact. The greatest and highest “Chedi” or pagoda of Nakhon Pathom, called the “Pathom Chedi” second to none in its design and decorations, also bears witness of his constructive genius and serves to remind the Thai people of its historical importance.

As a result of earnest study in Buddhism there were more books expounding the tenets of the Buddha’s doctrine in Thai language. This movement opened up a new trend of modern thought in disseminating the Dhamma to the people on a broader scale, instead of the former which seemed like monopolizing it for the realization of the few intelligentsia. Of the Pali literature, a volume by the Supreme Patriarch Prince Pavares Variyalongkorn, named “Sugatavidatthividhana” is the most important of the time.

King Rama V
The reign of King Rama V, formerly called Phra Chula Chom Klao, began in the year B.E. 2411 and lasted 42 years. He was also one of the few monarchs who temporarily renounced his throne after his coronation in order to be ordained as a bhikkhu. This was because most of the Thai kings since Ayudhya period were usually ordained before the coronation day.

Being no less devout to Buddhism than his predecessors, he managed to found two Buddhist Universities for the sake of increasing the progress and stability of the education of Buddhism.

These two were Mahamakuta Raja Vidyalaya and Mahachulalongkorn Raja Vidyalaya, both of which have played a very in the field of Buddhist study. He also enacted a law concerning the administrative system of the community of bhikkhus, declaring that the Buddhist Church should be self-governing holy community, while the state would be the patron under the direction and for the welfare of the Church. Of other major construction work one is Wat Benjamabophit, which is well known among foreigners for its impressive Buddha image in the Uposatha.

In B.E. 2431 a Council of Bhikkhus under the chairmanship of the Supreme Patriarch Prince Pavares Variyalongkorn was held for the purpose of transliterating the existing Tipitaka from the palm-leaf books in Cambodian characters to printed books using Thai characters. This required 39 printed volumes for each set of the entire Tipitaka. Besides the Message itself, some Commentaries from Cambodian to Thai characters and then printed in the form of paper books.

One of the king’s elements of religious success, however, undoubtedly comes from the zealous efforts of one of his great helpers. This was no other than his own half-brother, the Supreme Patriarch Prince Vajirananavarorasa, who had a profound knowledge in English as well as Pali and Sanskrit. Thus, by virtue of his ability plus his high position (as the king’s brother and as chief of the whole community of bhikkhus), the theoretical and practical sides of Buddhism under the far-sighted and able Patriarch were greatly encouraged. Most of his noble works are still now studies by the public as well as by the students, and it is never an over-estimate to say that he has blazed a trial for modern thought in the study and practice of Buddhism.

In B.E. 2437 the Mahamakuta Raja Vidyalaya, one of the two Buddhist Universities published a religious periodical, called “Dhama Cakshu”, which now reaches its sixty-third anniversary and is therefore the oldest and most long-lived religious periodical in Thailand.

King Rama VI
King Rama VI, the poet and philosopher, formally known as Phra Mongkut Klao, ascended the throne in B. E. 2453. In order to imbue the spirit of Buddhism into the minds of his citizens, without distinction of position, profession or sex, he organized a new branch of studying Buddhism in Thai language. This was successfully done because there has been several texts on Buddhism compiled in the reign of his royal father together with many writers during his reign [mostly by the Supreme Patriarch Prince Vajirananavarorasa]. He himself never neglected to do so, and thus there were written many religious books which were both instructive and understandable by all. His wealth of religious literature consisted of such books as “ Addresses to Scouts” and “What did the Buddha realize?” So it can be said that the study of Buddhism was now accessible to all, whether they know Pali or not, whether they want to study it for a long time of within a limited period of time and whether they be a male or a female. In case they have a limited time for studying, it is then advisable that they should Buddhism from the texts written in Thai, and if they are ordained as a Bhikkhu or Samanera (Novice), they are called “Nak Dhamma (Dhammiko-the Dhamma student). The (almost) same course for laymen or woman called “Dhamma Suksa”. (Dhamma-Sikkha-Dhamma student).

As regards the transliteration work done in the reign of King Rama V, more Commentaries, Sub-commentaries, Tika, and other Paki works were transliterated during his reign.

King Rama VII
Phra Pok Klao, of King Rama VII, came to the throne in B.E. 2468. Besides preserving all the movements for the promotion of Buddhism as King Rama VI had done, he also had a Council of Bhikkhus convened under the chairmanship of the Supreme Patriarch Prince Jinavara Sirivatthana for the sake of revising and checking the contents for the 39 Tipitaka volumes printed in the reign of King Rama V with the Tipitakas from Ceylon, Burma, Europe and Cambodia. Then a re-print was done. This time the contents were divided into 45 volumes, of which 8 were the Vinaya, 25 Suttanta and 12 Abhidhamma. All these were printed in B.E. 2470. This new set of Tipitaka was called “the Siam-Rath edition”.

King Rama VIII
King Rama RII or King Ananda Mahidol, succeeded King Rama VII in the year B.E. 2477. The administrative system for the community of Bhikkhus was during this time altered in compliance with that for the State, so that there were Ecclesiastical ministers and prime minister. More of this alteration will be dealt with under the heading “Administrative system for the community of Thai Bhikkhus” in the following pages.

Or the events worth mentioning, one was the construction of Wat Phar Sri Mahadhat by the Government and another was the study of Buddhism which became more popular in neighbouring lands such as in the Federated Malay States and Singapore.

King Rama IX
The reign of King Rama IX, formally called King Phumiphon, began in B.E. 2489.

A special hospital for Bhikkhus was built and two Buddhist Universities, in the real sense of a university, were established. These two are Mahamakuta University, situated at the temple of Bovaranives, opined in B.E. 2489. and Mahachulalongkorn University, situated at the temple of Mahadhat, opened in B.E. 2490. There two Buddhist Universities were really managed by Bhikkhus, with a subsidy from the Government and contributions from the public. Also studying in these two universities are Bhikkhus from neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia. Up till now there have been several groups of graduated students. This is in a way a good omen foe Buddhism in this age of trouble and turmoil.

In B.E. 2499. King Bhumiphol temporarily renounced the throne for the purpose of ordination. During the period as a Bhikkhu he gad attentively studied Buddhism both in its theoretical and practical side. This moved the people to a general appreciation and rejoicing and in this occasion there was also rejoicing and in this occasion there was also an amnesty of many prisoners. The Supreme Patriarch was the Preceptor [Upajja] in this royal ceremony of ordination.

Mahayana Buddhism in Ratanakosin period
Mahayana Buddhism might have theoretically or nominally been lost from Thailand in the eighteenth Buddhist century, but all through this time some of its ideals have been practically and with some degree of sincerity adhered to by the general public. The general belief that everybody is or can be a Buddha and that the king is a Boddhisatva [or future Budbha] including the efficacy of charms and amulets that make a believer invulnerable to weapons and dangers and misfortunes are evidences that the spirit of Mahayana is still clinging stubbornly to the hearts of the people.

The first time Mahayana Buddhism came into Thailand was the Mantrayana Sect. Then for the second time Mahayana was introduced in the reign of King Thonburi and Rattanakosin Period by the refugees from Viet-Nam or Annam at that time. Owing to a state of revolution in their country, there were many noblemen and people who were immigrants from Annam. They later on built up a temple of their own. With a second wave of immigrants two more Annam Temples were built in Bangkok. In the reign of King Rama III, there more temples of the Annam Buddhism, one in Bangkok and two in the country, were built by the third group of immigrants.

In the reign of King Rama V there came from China a Chinese Bhikkhu, who later became very popular among the Chinese in Thailand, He afterwards built two Chinese temples-one in the country and the other in Bangkok called in Chinese “Leng Noi Yee” or Wat Mang Kon Kamalavas which is the biggest Mahayana temple in Thailand. When an ecclesiastic title was given to the Chinese and the Annam Bhikkhus, he was one of those who were offered the honorable title. It should be noted, however, that Mahayana Buddhism in Thailand introduced by the Chinese and the Annam Bhikkhus belonged to the Sukgavati sect.

Another progressive step of the Chinese Buddhists during this reign was the building of another temple of their own-the first temple in Thailand that, due to the presence of Sima (formal boundary mark as prescribed in the Vinaya or Book of Discipline), can be used as a place wherein to perform the religious rite of ordination. This eliminated one of the the previous troubles that required a Chinese Bhinkkhu to be ordained from China. In addition to this, there were also many Buddhist Associations founded by the Chinese Buddhists for the purpose of propagating their Mahayana doctrine. Nevertheless, their propagation was practically restricted restricted among their propagation was practically restricted among their fellow-men. This is possibly because the Mahayana Bhikkhus are generally more relaxed in their behaviour and less educated in their study.
Some propaation activities

It has been traditional for every Wat or temple in Thailand to arrange for every Wat or temple in Thailand to arrange for a delivering of the sermon four times a month. This is done on the Buddhist Sabbath day, called in Thai “Wan Phra”, which, calculated from the lunar calendar, falls on the full-moon day, the half-moon days (of the waxing moon and the waning moon) and the day before the new moon day. In addition to this, there was later arranged a sermon on Sunday which, like those on the four Sabbath days, has been broadcast from various radio radio stations. The days of the Buddhist events such as Visakha Day, Magha or All Saints’ day and the day of Lent are proclaimed official official holidays. On the Buddhist Sabbath days there is to be no killing whatever in all slaughter-houses. There is also a department of religious affairs which is responsible for the welfare of Bhikkhus and the upholding of Buddhism (and other religions), for which purpose an annual subsidy from the Government is given. Bhikkhus who are well be offered a noble title by the king according to their ability and will also be given some financial help by the government.

Every turn of life practically cannot do without Buddhist ceremony or observance in some way or other. The birth, marriage, death and many other occasions of an individual as well as state ceremonies often require some Bhikkhus to take part in them by chanting or by delivering a sermon or by some other methods. Before beginning the morning lessons in every school, the pupils are to say their prayer to the Triple Gem (i. e. the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha ), and the life of Buddha and his doctrine are among compulsory subjects in the school curriculum. Also there has for a long time a tradition that every Thai youth must be once ordained as a Bhikkhu for a “Vassa” (a rainy season i. e. three months). It is all the better for him if he can stay as a Bhikkhu longer than that or for the rest of rest of his life.

At present there are several Buddhist as associations under the management of devoted lay adherents. Some of these are the Buddhist Association and the Yong Buddhist Association of Thailand, both with affiliated societies in almost every town in the country. By the efforts of these associations programmes for a lecture or talk or discussion on the Dhamma are at regular intervals arranged for the public, in addition to a periodical each of their own.

Thus it is an undeniable fact to say that the every day life of a Thai from the cradle to the grave, so to speak, together with his arts and craft and literature and culture and arts and other elements of his life, are all based upon and moulded by the one common factor-the spirit of Buddhism.

Administration of the Buddhist church
In Thailand the head of the Buddhist Church is the Supreme Patriarch. The executive power is vested in the Council of Ecclesiastical Ministers, which to a great extent corresponds to the Cabinet Council of the State. For this Council there are Ecclesiastical Ministers, including the Sangha Nayaka (Ecclesiastical Premier), Ecclesiastical Ministers for Administration, for Propagation, for Education and for Public Welfare, and Eccl. deputy ministers. The rest are Eccl. ministers without portfolio.

The State, so far as the administration of the Church is concerned, is divided into main sections, each with its own Eccl. High Commissioner and his assistant, something like the State High Commissioner or Governor-general. Each section is further sub-divided into town, each with its own leading Bhikkhu or Eccl. Commissioner or Governor with his assistant. Then (for each town) there is a board of town committee, along with the board of town judges. Each town is divided into several “Amphur” (or districts), which in turn is sub-divided into several “Tam-boon” (Sub-districts). For each “Amphur” and “Tamboon” there is again a chief together with his assistant and board of “Amphur” or “Tam-boon” committee, These administrative agents are all Bhikkhus.

The Twenty-Fifth Buddhist Century
In the auspicious occasion of the twenty-fifth Buddhist century, Thailand has organized a nation-wide celebration from 12 th-18 th May in commemoration of one of greatest events for all Buddhists. Thus for the glory of the longevity of Buddhism in spite of undermining influences, and for the sake of showing the world how Thailand had firmly upheld Buddhism and how the Thai people are impressed by the Master’s teaching, there is allocated as a sanctuary a piece of land to be called Buddha-Monthon (Buddha’s domain), wherein is erected a standing Buddha image 2500 in. in height. In addition to this, the whole Tipitaka or the Three Baskets of the Buddhist Canon has been translated into Thai; temples and places of worship all over the land are being repaired; 2500 persons are to be ordained as Bhikkhus, and an Amnesty Act is passed; Buddhist activities, both on the part of Bhikkhus and laities such as of the various Buddhist societies, are also exhibited to the public; Buddhist literature and pieces of art will be displayed, and, within the temporary pavilion in the midst of the Phra Meru Ground, sermons are to be delivered, Parittas (instructive passages from the Sacred Books) chanted and food presented to 2500 Bhikkhus each day throughout the seven day celebration. These are to be presided over by their Majesties the King and the Queen.

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Sean Kjetil Nordbo

Enthusiastic and energetic. Love life and all it has to offer. A lover of humans, animals, technology, the universe and everything else that is good.

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