In Vajrayana, the Four Directional Dignities — Garuda, Snow Lion, Tiger and Dragon — are not just for prayer flags; they are profoundly powerful guardians of our mind

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    The dragon rises out of the clouds, mouth open, teeth the size of swords, eyes glittering like jewels. You are flying on the back of a giant black raven, as this vast dragon circles around you, shaking all dimensions with his roar.

    A beautiful snow lion leaps out of the clouds and into the fray, nipping at the feet of the great dragon — then, suddenly, rolling over playfully for a belly rub.

    Then, a giant yellow tiger pounces on this playful snow lion, snarling. The three tumble through the clouds in play — while your raven desperately tries to avoid them. And all of them, suddenly break apart as a great Garuda plunges into their midst, talons outstretched, his cry the sound of thunder…

    … and, you wake from your dream.

    Or was it a dream? Were you visited by the Four Dignities? Did they have a message for you?

    Note: This feature is slightly whimsical, sorry! Couldn’t help it!

     

    Buddha Weekly Tak Seng Chung Druk Tiger Snow Lion Garuda Dragon Four Dignities Buddhism
    The Four Dignities in Tibetan Buddhism and the auspicious animals of Bhutan: Tiger (Vraghra in Sanskrit)  lower left Snow Lion (Seng) lower right, Garuda upper left and Dragon (Vritra, Skrt or Druk) upper right. These are four directional guardians with Garuda in the north, Snow Lion in the east, Tiger in the south and Dragon in the West. (In some regions, directions may be changed).

     

    Dreaming of the Four Dignities

    Traditionally, a dream of any one of the Four Great Ones would be auspicious. Even if we haven’t had such a dream, we can aspire to having such a fortunate vision in the future.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, the four dignities are powerful and fantastical deities protecting not only our dreams, but our minds. They protect Buddhism and the Dharma. They protect each direction: Garuda in the north, Snow Lion in the east, Tiger in the south, and Dragon in the west. In Bhutan, they are more commonly — and affectionally — known as Chung, Seng, Tak and Druk, the “Four Guardians.” They are also known as the “Four Gods” or the “Four Auspicious Ones.” These wonderful, magical deities of Buddhism can be viewed as symbolic or spiritually real. In the Daily Bhutan, Ashley Chen explained[1]:

    “The symbolism of animals contains a wealth of meaning in both social and religious contexts.”

    the popular guardian of mythical creatures in bhutan dragon garuda snow lion tiger takin raven yeti 4206
    Four Dignities or Deities of the Directions Tiger, Snow Lion, Garuda and Dragon.

     

    In Bhutan, where the four Directional Deities are everywhere — painted on houses, ever-present at festivals, even used in advertising — the four great ones are especially treasured. On the Bhutan Natural website, they write[2]:

    “Tak, Seng, Chung and Druk are four powerful and auspicious animals, namely Tiger, Snow Lion, Garuda and Dragon. These animals symbolize qualities like awareness, vision, confidence, joy and power. They can avert untoward situations in life.”

     

    Buddha Weekly Temple of a Thousand Buddhas Dragon Relief France dreamstime l 232797999 Buddhism
    Generally, dragons need very little introduction, although there are differences between “eastern” dragons and western. (Chinese dragons can fly but require no wings, for example.) Tibetan dragons have four legs, Chinese two. There are giant dragons as large as planets, and tiny dragons.

     

    Garuda and Dragon, of these four mythical animals, are perhaps the best known to Buddhists outside of Tibet or Bhutan. Garuda — the king of birds — is mentioned frequently in sutras. Dragon makes appearances as awesome Nagas (who often protect Buddha) in Sutra, and is popular in Chan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism as celestial dragons. It is Buddha who “settles” the dispute between the Garudas and the Nagas — ancient enemies. Snow Lion is ubiquitous in Tibetan symbolism — and fiercely adorable. Tiger needs no introduction.

    Four profound symbols — “sacred qualities”

    There is no doubt they are emblems for concepts that are profound and important — in visual forms that resonate with our minds. They are real in the spiritual sense. They are so important, that they are known as the Four Dignities in Tibetan Buddhism. Together with Wind Horse, they appear on many of the beautiful prayer flags in Tibetan Buddhism — symbolically there to carry the wishes and prayers to all sentient beings on the wind. They also are the starring roles in many masked dances — the colorful masks of Chung Seng Tak Druk.

     

    Buddha Weekly Garuda statue beautiful dreamstime l 183932841 Buddhism
    Garuda’s are awe-inspiring and powerful. They are the power of wind and air, typically the guardians of the north and Green Tara/ Amoghisiddhi’s realm. They are the ancient adversaries of nagas (seen clutched in his talons) in Hindu and Buddhist legend.

     

    Ashley Chen summarised the sacred qualities:

    “These mythical animals also represent the sacred qualities and attitudes that Bodhisattvas develop on the path to enlightenment – qualities such as awareness, vast vision, confidence, joy, humility, and power.

    Garuda represents fearlessness, power and wisdom

    Dragon represents elegance, generosity, calmness and achievements

    Snow Lion represents vitality, dignity, lightness and purity

    Tiger represents confidence, discipline and modesty.”

    Dorje Drolo Padmasambhava riding on the Tiger to Bhutan
    Tiger is especially well known as a magical protector, especially with his association with Guru Rinpoche. Dorje Drolo, the most wrathful of Padmasambavha’s manifestations, rides into Bhutan on the back of a magical tiger — who is none other than Lady Yeshe Tsogyal transformed. They land in Bhutan at the site of the Tiger’s Nest monastery. NOTE THE GARUDA OVER HIS HEAD!

    No dragons in your bedroom

    No, a dragon is not likely to appear in your bedroom, but don’t be surprised if one flies into your dreams or even your waking meditations. You don’t have to believe they are “real” in the flesh-and-bones sense; but never doubt they exist in the ultimate reality of Oneness and Everythingness. They are powerful essences that exist in mind space — and, some believe, in other dimensions.

    Buddha Weekly Dragon dreamstime l 11744862 Buddhism
    What do you do if a dragon appears in your bedroom for real? This is an old Zen tale. To learn more about this story, see>>

     

    Fantasy, or real? You decide. But, have some fun with these beautiful Buddhist guardians. There is no denying they are beautiful, awesome, and magnificent, and stir the imagination. Embrace their essence and bring the power of Garuda, Snow Lion, Tiger and Dragon — and Raven — to your meditation cushion. Raven is often in the center — especially in Bhutan — and is associated with Black Mahakala, a ferocious form of the compassionate Lord Avalokiteshvara.

    They are important in Shambala Buddhism, but no less well known and embraced by Buddhists of other traditions. In Bhutan, they are national protectors!

     

    Four Dignities block prints
    Block prints of the four auspicious ones, as they typically appear on prayer flags throught Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Upper left is Garuda (Chung) upper right Dragon (Druk) lower left Tiger (Tak) and lower right Snow Lion (Seng).

     

    In Feng Shui, Chan Buddhism and Daoism there are the five celestial animals. These are slightly different — although dragon and tiger overlap — but are conceptually similar.

    So, without further preamble, let’s plunge into the world of fantastical guardians, the “Totems” of Buddhism.

     

    Buddha Weekly Tibetan Prayer Flags Buddhism
    Prayer flags are ubiquitous in the Himalayas. Printed on them is usually a Windhorse, surrounded by the four auspicious ones — Garuda, Dragon, Tiger, Snow Lion — with prayers and mantras. The wind carries the blessing to the world.

     

    Not just for prayer flags — Garuda, Snow Lion, Tiger and Dragon

    They do appear on nearly all prayer flags, together with mantras and the ever-present wind-horse in the center. In Bhutan they are elevated to “national animals” with Raven in the center (emblematic of Black Mahakala) instead of a wind-horse.

    But, they are not just symbols. They are mind-guardians of the highest order.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, the Four Dignities are intrinsically linked with the Four Elements — and thus with change, because all things are in a constant state of flux due to the interplay of the elements.

     

    Buddha Weekly Bhutanese dancer with fearsome wooden mask of snow lion head deity dancing cham dreamstime l 135389153 Buddhism
    During festivals, monks dress up as the four auspicious ones for dances and celebrations. Here is snow lion.

     

    The Four Dignities also have an important role to play in tantric ritual practices. In fact, they are so important that they each have their own mudra (ritual hand gesture), mantra, color, season and sense organ associated with them.

    They also have an outer, inner and secret aspect. The outer aspect is what we see in prayer flags and paintings; the inner aspect is the meditational deity or yidam; the secret aspect is the wisdom principle or dharmakaya.

     

    Buddha Weekly 1440px Snow lion dance at the Karma Temple Bodhgaya Buddhism
    Beautiful snow lion dancing.

     

    So, when you see a beautiful painting of a snow lion, for example, know that there is much more to it than meets the eye. It is not just an artistic representation; it is also a map for our journey inwards — and an embodiment of wisdom and power.

    Note: In different lineages, the direction and color associations may vary — in some traditions, for example, east and center are exchanged.

     

    Buddha Weekly Golden Garuda dreamstime l 75779417 Buddhism
    Golden Garuda statue.

     

    The Four Animals of Dignity, plus one?

    1) Garuda: Activity Power, North, Air/Wind Element, Green Tara and Amoghasiddhi Buddha, Green Color, Nose Sense Organ

    2) Snow Lion: Pacifying Power, East, Vairochana Buddha, Water Element, White Color, Eyes Sense Organ

    3) Tiger: South, Increasing Power, Ratnasambhava Buddha, Earth Element, Yellow Color, Tongue Sense Organ

    4) Dragon: Magnetizing Power West, Fire Element, Amitabha Buddha, Red Color, Spring Season, Body Sense Organ

    And, in the center is Raven:

    5) Raven: Center, Wrathful Power, Black Mahakala, Secret Aspect, Space.

     

    Buddha Weekly Garuda on the side of a building in Bhutan Buddhism
    This is a typical Garuda wall decoration in Bhutan. Note the Garuda is part “bird” part “man” and is a shape-shifter who can grow to any size. In his hands — sometimes talons — are two nagas who represent in this context disease and misfortune.

     

    Garuda (Chung) — All-Seeing Watchful Protector

    Garudas are always active — flying, swooping, watching. They aren’t just the wind of the north; they are virtual hurricanes of fearless energy.

    Garuda represents fearlessness, power, and wisdom — most suitable for the guardian of the northern direction — the domain of fearless Noble Green Tara. Tara, the supreme Mother of Wisdom, therefore the Mother of the Buddhas, is Garuda’s queen. With the speed of his element, the wind, he can appear instantly anywhere, bringing his awesome protective power to the aid of Dharma practitioners — in a wonderous flash.

     

    Buddha Weekly Garuda on the Grand Palace of the Emarald Buddha Thailand dreamstime l 1733196 Buddhism
    Garuda is also the national emblem of Thailand. Here is a row of golden Garudas on the Grand Palace of the Emerald Buddha in Thailand.

     

    “The Garuda symbolizes power and courage; as the king of all birds, its presence averts illness and evil spells cast by the Nagas or the local deities.” [2]

    Garuda, as the northern protector, is not necessarily the same as King Garuda, who is an Enlightened Deity in Tibetan Buddhism. Garuda is also strongly associated with Guru Rinpoche, and in some Nyingma traditions, Garuda is a manifestation of Padmasambhava.

    As a protector of the north, and king of all the birds, Garuda does represent the wind and air element. In Buddhist and Hindu myth, Garuda is also an entire race of beings — as is the case with all of the Dignities.

     

    Buddha Weekly Black Garuda Himalayan Art collection Buddhism
    Garuda is also a practice deity in Tibetan Buddhism. In this form is black Garuda. Himalayan Art.

     

    Garuda, as the wind element protector, represents the fearless power of the Windhorse, the wish-fulfilling horse. His home, mythically speaking, is the wish-fulfilling tree of life (Seen as the tree in the painting above depicting the four Dignities.)

    Garuda is a shapeshifter. The wings of a Garuda can expand instantly to the size of a planet, and shrink to smaller than a dragonfly. He symbolically clutches two snakes (nagas) in his talons, representing his ability to destroy poisons and diseases. Garudas are hatched from an egg, fully grown. Once hatched, they can expand to any size at will.

     

    Buddha Weekly Garuda dreamstime l 41746832 Buddhism
    Garuda in classical form.

     

    Garudas are not just popular in Bhutan and Tibet, but in India, Nepal, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand.

    A Garuda can also manifest as a personal protector or guide.

     

    Buddha Weekly four mythical creatures four dignities bhutan snow lion Buddhism
    Tibetan snow lion with white fur, green mane and tail, and a playful yet fierce readiness.

     

    Snow Lion (Seng) — the Purifying and Playful Protector

    Snow Lions (Seng) are known to be fierce — yet playful.

    In iconography and art, we see them dancing playfully like puppies. But, don’t mistake them for silly. They can become ferocious in an instant! And, definitely don’t confuse them with snow leopards — they hate that!

    Snow Lions are especially pre-eminent as they are considered the protector of Buddha. They appear on the thrones of nearly every Buddha! As a symbol, they have even become synonymous with Shakyamuni Buddha!

     

    Buddha Weekly Manjushri on a Snow Lion by Jampay Dorje Ben Christian detail Buddhism
    The Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri riding on a snow lion. Snow lions are almost always on the thrones of Buddhas, especially and notably Shakyamuni Buddha. Art by the amazing Jampay Dorje (Ben Christian). See our interview with this artist>>

     

    “The Snow-lion (Sengge) stands for vitality, dignity and purity. Its body and mind represent the vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight.”[2]

    The Snow Lion is the protector of the eastern direction, and its element is water. The color white is also associated with this direction, the domain of Vairochana Buddha.

    Tibet’s national animal is the Snow Lion. For Tibetans, the snow lion embodies all the characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism: fearless yet gentle; powerful but calm; radiant with good fortune.

     

    Buddha Weekly Snow lion prayer flag design Buddhism
    Line art of a Snow Lion as he might appear on a prayer flag.

     

    “The body of the Snow Lion is white, while its flowing mane, tail and curls on legs are usually blue or green. While most Snow Lions are gender-neutral in Buddhist art, there are some that are represented as obviously male or female. When represented as a symmetrical pair, the male is on the left and the female on the right. The snow lion is often associated with youthfulness, vibrant energy of goodness, and cheerfulness.” [2]

     

    Buddha Weekly Snow lion statue at Taleju Temple Durbur Square Katmandu Nepal dreamstime l 75396276 Buddhism
    Not only are snow lions the protector of Buddhas, supporting their throne, but their statues also protect temples.

     

    The Snow Lion is also a shapeshifter. It can take on any form, large or small.

    Some Snow Lions have the head of a lion and the body of a white horse. Others are purely lion — with thick white fur, edged with a turquoise green mane and tail.

    They are known to be gentle and loving — yet fierce when necessary. They mate for life and have a strong bond with their family.

     

    Snow Lion art
    Snowlion: This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. – Emblem_of_Tibet.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

     

    Tigers (To or Tak) — The Fierce and Fearless Protector

    Tigers are one of the Four Dignities and the protector of the southern direction. The color yellow is associated with this direction, as is Ratnasambhava Buddha and the Jewel family.

    It is on the back of the Tigress that Guru Padmasambhava — in wrathful form as Dorje Drolo — flew to Bhutan to Taksang Monastery. Appropriately, this is how the sacred site received its name Tiger’s Nest. (The Tigress here was the transformation of none other than the great Lady Yeshe Tsogyal!)

     

    Buddha Weekly Tiger detail from thangka of Dorje Drolo Padmsambhava Buddhism
    Lady Tsogyal transforms into a magical tiger to carry Padmasambhava — transformed into wrathful Dorje Drolo — to Bhutan. (Detail from full thangka shown above). They land in Bhutan at the site of the beautiful Tiger’s Nest Monastery. (See picture below.)

     

    Tigers are considered to be among the fiercest and most feared animals in the world. In Tibetan culture, they are also seen as guardian deities — and are revered for their power, strength, and courage.

    “The tiger (To) is the symbol of unfathomable power and fearlessness. It overcomes all obstacles and vanquishes ignorance.”[2]

     

    Buddha Weekly Taktshang Goemba or Tiger s nest Temple or Tiger s nest monastery high on the cliffside in beautfiul Paro Valley Bhutan dreamstime xxl 79229859 Buddhism
    Iconic of Vajrayana Buddhism is the famous Takshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest Buddhist Monastery, high on a cliffside in Bhutan. Imagine the dedication the early Buddhists must have had to cling to this cliff-face, building their monastery in a nearly impossible place. This is the site in legend, where Dorje Drolo and Lady Tsogyal (transformed into a magical Tiger) landed in Bhutan.

     

    It may seem like a contradiction, but the Tak or To (Tiger) protector is known for kindness and confidence. Imagine a purring Tiger. That’s the picture! But ferocious when needed!

    Tibetan Tigers are different than other tigers in that they have six stripes on their foreheads, instead of the usual five. They are also larger, with longer tails.

     

    Buddha Weekly Tiger Pailnting on house in Chazam Village Black Mountains Bhutan dreamstime l 65586381 Buddhism
    Tiger protective image painted on a house in Chazam Village, Black Mountains, Bhutan.

     

    The wrathful deities in Tibetan Buddhism are often sitting on a tiger skin cloth, the back of a tiger, or even wearing a tiger skin — symbolical of this fierce and fearless protector of the south.

     

    Buddha Weekly Buddhist monk walking a Bengal Tiger in Kanchanaburi Thailand dreamstime l 16618262 Buddhism
    A Buddhist monk — out for a walk with a Bengal Tiger in Kanchanaburi Thailand.

     

    Dragons (Yul or Jyotiṣa) — The All-Seeing Wisdom Protector

    Dragons are the protector of the western direction, and their element is fire. The color red is associated with this direction, as is Amitabha Buddha.

    “The Dragon (Druk) symbolizes achievements, calmness, elegance, and generosity; when it roars in the sky, it opens our eyes and awakens to all the world’s delusions. It is indestructible and energetic and holds in its hand’s precious gems that stand for wealth, prosperity and perfection. In its entire splendor, the Dragon also represents the country Bhutan – Druk Yul – the Thunder Dragon Land.” [2]

     

    Buddha Weekly Dragon Relief Temple dreamstime l 30755833 Buddhism
    A dragon relief in a temple.

     

    They are seen as benevolent deities that bring rainfall and bring prosperity. They are also seen as the guardians of Tibet’s lakes and rivers.

    The dragon (Druk) is the embodiment of primordial power. It represents longevity, awe-inspiring wisdom, wealth and good fortune.

     

    Buddha Weekly Green Tara Thangka Red Dragon Buddhism
    Stunning Green Tara Thangka depicts her activities in our world. Notice the red dragon wrapped lovingly around her. The red dragon is the protector of the west, the Padma Family of Amitabha and Chenrezig. Tara’s guru is Amitabha and she is a member of all families.

     

    Tibetan dragons are different than other dragons in that they have four legs instead of two. They also have horns on their head, and a jewel in their forehead. And, unlike “western” dragons they fly — but without wings.

    Druk is even more pre-eminent in Bhutan, which is literally the land of Dragons:

    “Bhutan, often referred to as Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon takes its name from the druk or the Thunder Dragon, a mythical animal revered by the Bhutanese as the symbolic guardian of the country. It’s the national personification of Bhutanese culture, mythology and monarchy. The dragon is prominently featured in Bhutan’s national anthem (Druk tsendhen) and national flag. The dragon is snarling and clutches jewels in its claws. The jewels in the dragon’s claws represent the wealth and prosperity of Bhutan. The snarling dragon represents the male and female deities who are always protecting the country, its King and the people from harm or outside forces that are threatening them.” [2]

     

    Buddha Weekly Tara on a Dragon Buddhism 1
    Green Tara riding a dragon.

     

    Interestingly, Dragons are found in most regions, mythologies, and cultures of the world — which is quite surprising, considering we’ve yet to discover a dragon fossil. Sometimes they are winged — as in Europe — and sometimes they fly without wings — as in China — most times they are gigantic, other times tiny, usually they are invisible to humans, but it seems they are present in the mind space and mythologies of many cultures.

     

    Buddha Weekly Crow and Mahakala full image Buddhism
    The crow is associated with Black Mahakala in Tibetan Buddhism. For a feature on Mahakala and the crows see>>

     

    The Four Dignities plus Raven?

    What about the center? In Tibetan Buddhism, the center is a direction. We often speak of ten directions, East, South, West, North, Up, Down and the quarters. The main four guardians are not only the Four Dignities, but their Kings — the Guardian Kings in Buddhism, such as Kubera in the north. (We’ll save that for another story!) But what about the center?

    Certainly, in Bhutan, the center belongs to Raven. This is also a precious guardian in Tibet as well since Raven is a symbol representing Black Mahakala, who is an emanation of Chenrezig — the Buddha of the Land of Snows.

     

    Buddha Weekly Crow Raven Buddhism
    Raven is associated with Black Mahakala and also Palden Lhamo.

     

    Raven (Legon Jarog Donchen) is the national bird of Bhutan. Killing a Raven is the most heinous of crimes!

    “Its shining black feathers, distinctive voice, and playful nature represent power, mystery, wisdom, and intelligence. Known in Bhutan as Legon Jarog Donchen, the raven is seen as an emanation of Mahakala, the wrathful protective deity. It is believed that the guardian deity took the form of a raven to guide the country’s unifier, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in his trip to Bhutan from Tibet in the 17th century. As the nation’s protector, the raven is considered so sacred that killing a single raven is one of the most heinous crimes.” [2]

     

    Buddha Weekly Black Mahakala face of ferocious wisdom and compassion Buddhism
    Black Mahakala is a supremely important wrathful protector emanation of Avalokiteshvara. There are many stories associating him with ravens, including stories involving the Dalai Lamas. See this feature>>

     

    Black Mahakala is a very important protector in Tibet and Bhutan. “He is black in color like the void, and his two eyes are white sun and moon. He has one face and four arms. His right hand holds a curved knife, which symbolizes cutting through attachment and hatred. His left-hand holds a skull cup filled with blood, which represents the transmutation of negativities into wisdom.”

    Tibetan Buddhist Totems: The Four Dignities

    The Four Dignities are not just mythical symbols; they are powerful mind guardians that represent profound concepts and energies. By understanding their meanings, we can focus our minds and tap into their power.

    When you see a Snow Lion, do you think of Buddha?

    When you see a Dragon, do you think of legends of your childhood?

    When you see a Garuda — wait, have you ever seen a Garuda? Wow, that would be something special.

    In our meditations, of course, we can meet them daily. They are the four great Dignities, the sacred ones. Humor aside, treat them with respect, understanding they are sacred guardians of the Dharma! At the least, remember what they represent.

     

    Buddha Weekly Tak Seng Chung Druk Tiger Snow Lion Garuda Dragon Four Dignities Buddhism
    The Four Dignities in Tibetan Buddhism and the auspicious animals of Bhutan: Tak (Tiger) lower left Seng (Snow LIon) lower right, Cheng (Garuda) upper left and Druk (Dragon) upper right. These are four directional guardians with Garuda in the north, Snow Lion in the east, Tiger in the south and Dragon in the West. (In some regions, directions may be changed).

     

    So, now that you know a little bit more about the Four Dignities (plus one!), what do you think they represent? What power do they have for you? Can you see how they could be mind-guardians on your spiritual journey? Do you seem them as metaphors and symbols, or something more tangible in your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Credits

    Snowlion caption: By This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. – Emblem_of_Tibet.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9704044

    Snow lion dancers: By Michael Eisenriegler – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeemesser/5343185016/in/album-72157625792181062/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40407576

    SOURCES

    [1] The Popular mythical animals in Bhutan

    [2] Butan Natural site

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    Lee Kane

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
    Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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