Posted by: Soh
Comments by PasserBy/Thusness:


Thanks AEN for the article and the effort for typing out the whole article. When I was reading this article, there is somehow an immediate recognition and understanding of how my six phases of experience can be mapped more appropriately. What that came to my mind may not be what the author was trying to convey but that realization just dawn and it is cool :)

And for this, I am grateful to the article and your effort.

Thanks again!

Please refer to source file for footnotes: http://www.box.net/shared/ck6jba6so5

Fourfold Meditation: Outer, Inner, Secret and Suchness

Yael Bentor (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Ever since the discourse on the Four Noble Truths, Buddhist teachings have often taken the form of tetrads. Even when the fourth stage is conceived as beyond all categorization and enumeration, it nevertheless follows the three initial steps. The present article is concerned with tetrads that follow the pattern of outer, inner, secret, and suchness. While outer and inner refer to objects and subject, and suchness to the true nature of things, the secret element varies with the system to which the tetrad belongs. It is in fact the third stage that provides an indication as to which school of thought the tetrad is akin. An important characteristic of the tetrads considered here is that they cross the boundaries of individual traditions. Even though on the whole, the Buddhist tantric tradition tends to draw solid lines of distinction between sutra and tantra, Ratnakarasanti in his Prajnaparamitopadesa does link the fourfold meditation described in the Lankavatarasutra (with that of the Guhyasamajatantra. He also links these with the Avikalpapravesadharani. Around the early 13th century, Lce sgom pa related the tetrad of outer, inner, secret, and suchness offerings with the four stages in his delineation of taming the engagement of awareness (rig pa brtul zhugs kyi spyod pa) by means of meditation on the mandala. We shall review a number of fourfold meditations, such as those of the Lankavatara Sutra with its various commentaries, including those by Kamalasila and Ratnakarasanti, the fourfold meditations presented in the Yogacara treatises ascribed to Maitreya, the meditations on the formless ream, the meditation on the four offerings, and Lce sgom pa’s depiction of the generation process. A common thread runs through them.

In a number of his works, Ratnakarasanti describes a gradual meditation in four stages of yoga (rnal ‘byor gyi sa, yogabhumi). These works include the Prajnaparamitopadesa, the Prajnaparamitabhavanopadesa and the Madhyamakalankapratipadasiddhi. The four stages of yoga are:

1. Apprehending things to the extent they exist.

2. Apprehending mind-only or mental-process-only (sems tsam la dmigs pa).

3. Apprehending suchness (de bzhin nyid la dmigs pa).

4. Non-apprehending or non-objectifying (dmigs su med pa).

Summarising Ratnakarasanti’s explanation of the four stages of yoga:

In the first stage the yogi apply their minds (yid la byed pa) to the diversity of phenomena in the world that are the objects of the six senses. Then they apply their minds to the six senses and the six consciousnesses, in order to comprehend the mental activities that engage with the world. By combining calm abiding (zhi gnas) and penetrating insight (lhag mthong) they reach an understanding of conceptual reflected images to the extent they exist, and discern the modes of apprehending them through the eighteen spheres of perception.

In the second stage the yogis reflect on the perception of all phenomena as products of mental-processes-only (sems tsam), which appear due to habitual tendencies of clinging to objects. Since objects grasped as external to mind do not exist as they are conceptualized, their grasper cannot exist in that way either. By combining calm abiding and penetrating insight, the yogis understand that the diversity of appearances of the eighteen spheres of perception are mental-processes-only, empty of object and subject, and devoid of inherent existence.

In the third stage the yogis apply non-appearance to the false marks of manifest appearances, as meditators on the formless realms pass beyond the perception of form, by perceiving infinite space. Thereby they relinquish all false conceptual marks of the object and subject and view them as space, utterly immaculate and limitless, empty of duality, sheer clarity., They realize that all phenomena are formless, undemonstrable, and unobstructed, their one essential characteristic being the absence of characteristics. By combining calm abiding and penetrating insight, they realize that all appearances are reflected images of emptiness and apprehend the suchness of all phenomena as they are.

In the fourth stage, the yogis pass beyond the subtlest conceptualisation of phenomena. Without exertion and without conditioning, they realize experientially, through a direct perception, the suchness of all phenomena. They realize the complete vanishing of the marks of phenomena and the nature of phenomena, the enlightened wisdom, which is non-dual, free of appearances and apprehension, the supramundane non-conceptual calm abiding and penetrating insight.

Ratnakarasanti links this fourth stage with the yoga of the realization of non-conceptualisation in the Avikalpapravesadharani. This is in contrast to his predecessor Kamalasila, who – as Gomez points out – commented on the four levels of meditation of the Lankavatarasutra in his Bhavanakrama and composed a commentary on the Avikalpapravesadharani without suggesting any relationship between them. Although the Avikalpapravesadharani serves as a scriptural authority for both the sudden and gradual paths to enlightenment, it does offer a graded course of progress towards enlightenment.

According to this text, on their path to non-conceptuality, the Bodhisattvas relinquish marks of conceptuality in stages, by not applying their mind (yid la mi byed pa, amanasikara). First they give up all marks of conceptualisation with respect to inherent existence. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing the antidotes to conceptualisation of inherent existence arise. In the second step the Bodhisattvas relinquish these marks as well. By not applying their minds to them. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing suchness arise. In the third step, the Bodhisattvas relinquish marks of conceptualisation in analysing suchness. But then, the marks of conceptualisation in analysing their attainment arise. In the fourth step, the Bodhisattvas relinquish the marks of conceptualisation in analysing their attainment. Then, the Bodhisattvas engage in unsupported, free of appearances, devoid of cognition and foundation. These are the steps towards non-conceptualisation portrayed by the Avikalpapravesadharani. In this Prajnaparamitopadesa, Ratnakarasanti describes the fourth stage of yoga in his delineation of the four yogabhumi in terms leading towards the non-conceptual level of the Avikalpapravesadharani, and then cites the Dharani itself.

Ratnakarasanti then proceeds by relating the four stages of yogas he describes to the four steps of meditation in the Lankavatara Sutra. The following is a translation of Ratnakarasanti’s citation of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Having relied on mental-processes-only (sems tsam, cittamatra), [the yogis] would not conceptualise external objects.

Having apprehended suchness, they would pass beyond even mental-processes-only.

Having passed beyond mental-processes-only, they would pass beyond non-appearances.

The yogi abiding in non-appearances sees the Mahayana.

The Lankavatarasutra served as one of the main scriptural authorities for the Chan-school that is characterised by its sudden path to enlightenment, but this passage obviously offers a gradual path. While the stages of meditation presented in these verses can be interpreted in more than one way, Ratanakarasanti follows here Kamalasila. In this ‘First Bhavanakrama’, Kamalasila cites this passage as a basis for the graded process of meditation on wisdom (prajnabhavanakrama, shes rab bsgom pa’I rim pa). As has been pointed out by several scholars, here Kamalasila adheres to the words of his teacher Santaraksita who, in the conclusion to his Madhyamakalankara, says:

Having relied on mental-processes-only (citttamatra), one would understand that there are no external entities.

Having relied on this method [Madhyamaka], one would understand that even that [Cittamatra] is completedly devoid of own essence.

Therefore those who ride the chariot of the two methods [Madhyamaka and CIttamatra], while holding the reins of reasoning, attain the true meaning as it is, the state of the Mahayanist.

In his commentary Madhyamakalankaravrtti, Santaraksita provides a scriptural authority for his position by citing the same verses from the Lankavatarasutra that were quoted above (Ichigo, 1989, p.156), and Kamalasila reproduces them in his own commentary Madhyamakalankarapanjika (ibid.). But, while the Madhyamakalankara is mainly concerned with theory, Kamalasila’s Bhavanakramas are devoted to meditative practices. Still, this presentation of meditation in structured steps would seem to fall within the theory of practice rather than within the practice itself.

Kajiyama (1978) has suggested tha Kamalsila’s presentation of the four steps of meditation in the Bhavanakrama follows the doxographical exposition of tenets and corresponds to the positions respectively of (1) the Sarvastivada and Sauntrantika, of (2-3) the two schools of ‘Mind Only’, the Satyakaravada and Alikaravada, and of (4) the Madhyamaka. The interesting question is whether the fourfold meditation was modelled on this doxographical structure, or whether it is possible that the tradition of the fourfold meditation formed the paradigm for the system of the four tenets. Kamalasila’s explanation of the verses from the Lankavatarasutra may be summarised as follows.

In the first stage, the yogis investigate material phenomena (chos gzugs can, rupino dharmah), that others conceptualise as external objects, and analyse them into their components, until they do not see them. Thereby they realise that all external objects are results of mental-processes-only (cittamatra). Since they no longer apprehend the distinguishing features that allow their apprehension, they relinquish the conceptualisation of material phenomena.

Then the yogis analyse immaterial phenomena. Since these are mental-processes-only, there are no objects, and since subjects need objects with which to relate, there could be no subjects. Hence, the yogis pass beyond the notion of subject as well and abide in the non-dual knowledge of the absence of dual appearances.

In the third stage, the yogis pass beyond even the knowledge of the absence of dual appearance. They relinquish their attachment even to the knowledge of non-duality, and abide in the knowledge of the non-appearance of the knowledge of non-duality alone.

In the fourth stage, the yogis abide in the realisation that all phenomena are devoid of own essence and thereby enter non-conceptual concentration (nirvikalpasamadhi). Since they do not see by means of the ordinary eye, they see the sublime suchness, and since they do not cling to things, they see them through the wisdom eye. Since they look through the wisdom of meditative equipoise, they do not apprehend (mi dmigs pa, anupalambha) any phenomena, and this is the supreme non-apprehension. Since they do not apprehend any essence, they neither conceptualise any thing nor any non-thing.

Both Kamalasila and Ratnakarasanti interpret the four stages of meditation they present on the basis of the passage from the Lankavatarasutra. Both explain the first stage of the yoga as non-conceptualisation of external objects and the second as realisation of mental-processes-only. Their interpretation of the third stage is similar, yet while Kamalasila emphasises non-duality – the yogis abide in a non-dual knowledge of the absence of dual appearances, Ratnakarasanti underscores non-apeparance of the false marks of phenomena. With regards to the fourth stage, Kamalasila stresses that even the knowledge of non-duality is untrue; hence the yogis abide in the knowledge of the non-appearance of the knowledge of duality. Then they enter non-conceptual concentration where they see without seeing that all phenomena are devoid of own essence and attain the realisation of suchness. Ratnakarasanti emphasises here a direct perception that is beyond the marks of both phenomena (dharma, chos) and of the nature of phenomena (dharamata, chos nyid). This is the terminology that appears in the Guhyasamajatantra. Immediately after citing the verses from the Lankavatarasutra (X 256-58), Ratnakarasanti declares:

The Guhyasamajatantra teaches this very thing in one verse: “When you examine your mind, [you realise] that all phenomena abide in the mind. These phenomena abide as the sky-vajra. There are no phenomena and the nature of phenomena” (Derge, p.321, Peking, p.249.4).

Ratanakarasanti then relates the sutric meditation on wisdom to the tantric meditation of the Guhyasamajatantra, emphasising their identity:

1. In both [the Lankvaatarasutra and the Guhyasamajatantra] the first stage of the yoga is not explicit. Because as long as [the yogis] do not grasp that all phenomena are these [as they appear], so long they would not be able to grasp their emptiness. Hence, understanding that all phenomena are these [as they appear] is the first stage of the yoga.

2. Developing resolute faith that they [all phenomena] are mental-processes-only, empty of the grasped and the grasper. This is the second [stage of the yoga] that is accompanied by appearances.

3. Since in that very [stage, the yogis] develop resolute faith in the non-appearance of the marks of phenomena, viewing [all phenomena] as clarity is the third [stage of yoga].

4. Since in that very [stage] all the marks of phenomena and of the nature of phenomena do not appear at all, this insight is the fourth [stage of the yoga] (Derge, p.322, Peking, p.249.4).



Ratnakarasanti goes on to interpret the verses from the Lankavtarasutra in terms of both this fourfold yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra and of the four stages of the yoga that he outlined above. He begins with the second stage.

2. Here, the meaning of ‘mental-process-only’ is to know apprehension as mental-processes-only. This is the meaning of the ‘second stage of the yoga’.

1. The meaning of ‘[the yogis] would not conceptualise’ refers to external objects that are conceptualised in the first stage of the yoga, and the meaning of ‘they would pass beyond’ refers to the other.

3. The meaning of ‘apprehension of suchness is the wisdom by which one apprehends suchness. This is the meaning of ‘the third stage of the yoga’.

4. The meaning of ‘passing beyond mental-processes-only’ is to train in the example of a precedent. It is not accomplishing something without a precedent. The meaning of ‘passing beyond non-appearances’ is accomplishing without a precedent. Further, the meaning of ‘non-appearances’ is the non-appearances of the marks of phenomena. This is the meaning of ‘apprehending suchness’. If you ask: “How does one pass beyond that?” – one abides in non-appearances. That is to say, one is endowed with the insight that the marks of [both] phenomena and the nature of phenomena do not appear at all. This is the meaning of ‘abiding in the fourth stage of yoga’ (Derge, p.322, Peking, p.249.4f).

Ratnakarasanti embeds in this interpretation vocabulary that appears in the stanza from the Guhyasamajatantra: “There are no phenomena and no nature of phenomena.” Finally, he interprets that verse from the Guhyasamajatantra in terms of the fourfold meditation:

Further, ‘examining the mind’ is the second stage of the yoga. ‘Abide’ means that all phenomena are appearance of your own mind. This is understood as: your own mind is appearing, while not existing. ‘Sky-vajra’ is the two non-appearances [of phenomena and of the nature of phenomena]. ‘Abiding there’ is abiding in non-appearances of phenomena and the nature of phenomena, successively. The non-apeparance of the inherent nature of phenomena here is the third stage. The non-appearances of the inherent nature of the nature of phenomena is the fourth stage [Derge, [.323, Peking, p.250.1).

In his commentary on the Guhyasamajatantra, the Kusumanjali (Toh.1851), Ratnakarasanti again interprets the verse from the Guhyasamaja in terms of the four yogabhumi. The following is a very tentative translation of a few sentences from this commentary on the verse in question.


The meaning [of this verse] is as follows: When the Bodhisattvas see a dream, the ysettle their quipoised mind in that dream and investigate it [as follows]. Because in this dream there are no object whatsoever to be grasped, nothing graspable, there is no grasper either. Well now, this mental-process-only of dualistic appearance with regards to non-duality is but a deception… Because they indeed are like dream, all phenomena are mental-processes-only… All those appearances of phenomena of forms, feelings and so on, are your own mind alone endowed with aspects of forms, feelings and so on. Still there is no object to be grasped by the mind that is external to the mind… Following that [the Bodhisattvas contemplate], since there is no grasped, there is no grasper either. That being so, there is no duality. Therefore, [the Bodhisattvas] thoroughly relinquish the deceptive causes for dualistic appearances of all phenomena, which are one taste, empty of duality… and engage in perfect mental application. Because they proceed with this mental application, their minds rest in meditative equipoise on that which is spontaneously accomplished, unconditioned… empty of duality and free of mental proliferation. That was explained to be the supra-mundane pristine wisdom of emptiness, free of mental proliferation, non-conceptual, the ultimate thought for enlightenment… As for [the line] ‘there are no phenomena and no nature of phenomena’, there is no appearance in the manner of phenomena, because when the cause for all phenomena vanishes, there is appearance as emptiness alone. There is no appearance in the manner of the nature of phenomena either… The emptiness of phenomena is the nature of phenomena (Derge, pp.82.7-84.3).

Thus, the verse from the Guhyasamajatantra, which in itself contains no explicit fourfold structure, is explained by Ratnakarasanti in his commentary on the Tantra in terms of our fourfold meditation.

In his Hevajrasadhana entitled “Relinquishing Deception” (Bhramahara, ‘Khrul pa spong ba, Toh.1245), Ratnakarasanti provides practical instructions for the meditation on emptiness that precedes the generation of the mandala. Here the fourfold meditation is actually applied in a tantric practice. Note that a few of the clauses here appear as well in the passage from the Kusumanjali cited above.

Then having made all phenomena into the object of [their] mind, [the practitioners] should investigate [them in the following way]. This is just mind, which appears deceptively in various forms, as in a dream. There is nothing to be grasped by the mind, which is external to the mind. Since there are no grasped entities, the mind as well is not a grasping entity [does not grasp]. Hence all phenomena have mind as their essence. Their emptiness of grasped and grasper is the Highest Truth. Having determined this unequivocally, [the practitioners] should relinquish the deceptively superimposed and deceptively marked aspects of all phenomena, and then they should see just their nature alone, which is characterised by non-dual awareness, limitless like an immaculate crystal and the pure autumn sky at midday. This is taught to be the ultimate thought for enlightenment, the supramundane pristine wisdom of emptiness, devoid of mental proliferation and free of conceptualisation (Derge, pp.378.7 – 379.3, and Isaacson, in preparation).

Fourfold meditations like those that appear in Ratnakarasanti’s works are common in Yogacara writings, and are considered to be typical for expositions of this school. Among these are Vasubandhu’s Trimsika (vss.28f) and Trisvabhavanirdesa (vss.36f.), and the Madhyantavibhaga (vs.6). Davidson (1985:295-97), Jackson (1987:348-51 and notes there) and Lindter (1997) have pointed to still other parallels. A few examples will be sufficient here. The sixth chapter of the Mahayanasutralankara describes the following path toward the realisation of things as they are. After understanding that there is nothing but the mind, the wise realise that the mind does not exist either. And after understanding that there is no duality, the wise abide in the dharma-sphere. A similar fourfold meditation is found in the fourteenth chapter of the same work (vss.23-28).

Another consonant fourfold meditation is found in another work among the treatises known by Tibetans as “Five Works of Maitreya”. The Dharmadharmatavibhaga outlines the four aspects of engagement in the perfect practice.

1. Dmig pa’i sbyor ba, upalambhaprayoga,

2. Mi dmigs pa yi sbyor ba, anupalambhaprayoga,

3. Dmigs pa med dmigs sbyor ba, upalambhanupalambhaprayoga,

4. mi dmigs dmigs pa’I sbyor ba, nopalambhopalambhaprayoga.

It is possible to interpret these puzzling phrases in more tht one wa, but the traditional interpretation is found in Vasubandhu’s commentary, the Dharmadharmatavibhagavrtti:

1. Through apprehending mere cognition.

2. Through non-apprehending objects.

3. Through non-apprehending mere cognition when there are no objects, since when there are no objects to be cognised, cognition is not possible.

4. Through non-apprehending duality, non-duality is apprehended.

We have seen that Ratnakarasanti employs four stages of meditation not only in his explanation of meditations according to the system of the Perfection of Wisdom, but also in the system of the Guyasamajatantra. Another author who makes use of fourfold meditation in a tantric context is Lce sgom pa who, around the early thirteenth century wrote the Man ngag rin chen spungs pa devoted ot the netire Buddhist path (Sorensen 1999, Bentor 2000). In the description of the tantric path included there, Lce sgom pa portrays the practices for taming the engagement of one’s awareness (rig pa brtul zhugs kyi spyod pa) that are performed for enhancing the experience of those who have attained a slight stability in their formal meditation. One of these practices, which is carried out with proliferation of mental constructs (prapanca), consist of actually acting out of the mandala. Yogis and yoginis occupy the seats of the Buddhas in the mandala, meditate there, and make four kinds of offerings. What is the purpose of this practice?

Tantric practices may be expressed as transformations of the practitioner’s place (gnas), body (lus), enjoyments (longs spyod) and deeds (mdzad pa). These are called the four complete purities (yongsu dag pa bzhi, yet another fourfold presentation that begins with outer and inner). T he complete purity of place refers to the transformation of the practitioners’ environment into the mandala of their yi dam; the complete purity of body to the transformation of the practitioners themselves into their yi dam; the complete purity of deeds, to the transformation of the practitioner’s ordinary emotions and cognitions into pure enjoyment free of any affliction.

When enlightened beings make and receive offerings, both the giver and recipient are said to experience perfect enjoyment untainted by any trace of such affliction as attachment, miserliness, or jealousy. Therefore, offerings and meditation on the practice of offering form an essential component of the tantric practice. For the transformation of their enjoyment, the yogis and yoginis make the four offerings outer, inner, secret, and suchness. The outer offerings are said to transform ordinary enjoyments into sublime ones, by generating a special immaculate bliss as object of the five senses.

The inner offerings of the five fleshes and five tantric nectars, which are no different from the five male and female Buddhas of the mandala, serve for overcoming ordinary conceptions of attractiveness and repulsiveness. The secret offerings are the bodhicitta of the Father-Mother enlightened beings in embrace that descends along the central channel of the subtle body. When it reaches the four cakras, the four joys are experienced whereby ordinary desire is transformed into great bliss. The offerings of suchness are accomplished when the mind that experiences this sublime bliss sees emptiness directly. By making these four offerings, the practitioners engage in the transformation of their enjoyment through a proliferation of mental constructs.

Another practice for taming the engagement of one’s awareness is performed completely without proliferation of mental constructs. Lce sgom pa describes it in the following words.

Thoroughly comprehending the outer, inner, secret, and suchness, they tame their ordinary conceptual thoughts by means of their awareness. They fuse all the external and internal phenomena into the assemblage of enlightened beings of the mandala as mere conventional illusion. They then realise that all these enlightened beings are emanations of their own minds. In the highest truth, the mind as such is not apprehending, therefore they penetrate the equanimity of emptiness. Hence this is called the practice of engaging in the taming of awareness (p. 122).

Here the four kinds of offerings have been endowed with a new level of meaning .The meditation on the generation process (bskyed rim) is interpreted here in four steps that correspond to the outer, inner, secret and suchness offerings. In the outer step all phenomena are transformed into the mandala and the enlightened beings dwelling in it. In the inner step, the practitioners understand that this mandala is but a product of their own mental processes. In the secret step, they realise that the mind as such (Sems nyid) does not apprehend (or does not objectify, mi dmigs pa); and in the step of suchness they penetrate the equanimity of emptiness. These steps are obviously the fourfold meditation we encountered above.

In his description of the four stages of yoga, Ratnakarasanti uses the example of meditation on infinite space for the sake of passing beyond the perception of form. Did Ratnakarasanti perhaps have in mind the meditative absorption of the four formless realms as a further model for his four stages of yoga? The meditation on the four formless realms is another example for a fourfold meditation with a pattern of outer, inner, secret, and suchness. The important feature for this meditation, for our purposes, is that it is shared by non-Mahayana and even non-Buddhist systems, and may have served as a kind of prototype ofr most of the fourfold systems of meditation we have encountered above. The meditative absorptions of the four formless realms consist of meditative absorption on infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception. Buddhist literature attributes these last two meditations to the two meditation teachers of the Buddha with whom he studied before attaining enlightenment (Nakamura 1979, Bronkhorst 1986). Hence these are considered to be pre-Buddhist forms of meditation adapted by Buddhism or early Buddhist teachings that were eventually superseded and then attributed to non-Buddhist teachers. Certain terms used in these meditations on the four formless realms are preserved in later systems of fourfold meditation. Among these terms are ‘applying’ and ‘not applying the mind’ (manasikara, yid la byed pa and amanasikara, yid la mi byed pa) to ‘divesity’ (nanatva, sna tshogs), and ‘passing beyond’ a certain meditative state (atikram, ‘da’ ba or bzla ba). This consistency in terminology may indicate conscious continuity and change in these meditative practices.

A fondness for numerical categorisation is a constant within most Buddhist systems of thought. Even some of those who wish to do away with categories nevertheless resort at times to various categories, as does the “Heart Sutra” in teaching emptiness. In continuing a long Indian tradition, and out of their tendency towards comprehensiveness, various Buddhist systems try to find links between the distinct numerical categories. The most celebrated system among them is of course tantra, which constantly seeks correlations, as the meaning of its name ‘weaving thread’ suggests. Though it may be impossible to make rules for how they function, there are certain numerical categories that structure much of Buddhist thought. One important example is the three bodies of the Buddha that find cosmological parallels in the three realms of desire, forms, and the formless; mental parallels in the three types of consciousness according to the Yogacara – the consciousnesses of the six senses, the klistamanas and the alayavijnana; and according of the Great Perfection they find parallels to their models of being in the three modes of the mind – emptiness, clarity and non-obstruction. The fivefold system that underlies much of tantric thought is well known. Here are correlations among the five aggregates, the five physical elements, the five afflicting emotions, and the five male and female Buddhas of the mandala together with the five wisdoms and so on. The fourfold classification of mediations is another such fundamental configuration that finds constant expression in Buddhist thought.

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