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Dharma Warriors

Jun Zi

Dharma Warriors

“And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” ~ Plutarch, according to Die Hard


Alexander was known as “The Great” for a reason. Despite being 5’ 4’’, the man conquered most of the known world in his lifetime with the world’s most efficient killers willing to do anything for him at his back. Not that you could take on this Kevin Hart-sized king even if the two of you were alone: Alexander was proficient in all the weapons of his time, from spear to sword, as well as having trained in unarmed combat since he could walk. At the age most Gen Zers are just starting internships or serving coffee, Alexander was throwing himself against the king of Persia at the head of his elite cavalry, the Companions.

We have nobody like this god on earth today. The closest we get is Kim Jong Un, which just goes to show that you have no idea.

Such a man would intimidate anyone alive. Even in the streets, he’d have at least a hundred men with him who were as good or better at cutting people down than he was.

Now imagine what kind of mastery you’d have to have over yourself to treat such a person not only without fear, but with contempt. Such men existed, and this is their story.




Amongst the few men who did so were the Greek philosopher Diogenes and the gymnosophists of India. You might think the little foreigner who has himself called a god by his sycophants, a brute whose claim to fame was being better at thuggery than anybody else, isn’t all that special, but would you have the balls to tell him to his face? Chances are you wouldn’t even dare tell that to your neighborhood drug dealer.

But Diogenes told him to stop blocking the sun, and the gymnosophists told him to go home.

When one such Indian sage fell so ill he couldn’t move, Alexander asked if he had any requests.

The geezer told his friend Alexander how he’d like to go out: in a huge blaze. Just Super Saiyan himself out of existence, releasing a blast of energy so strong it turns his immediate surroundings into a desert crater. Alexander refused at first, but ultimately relented and built the sage a massive pyre so that he could dazzle the world with his utter mastery over bodily pain and suffering. The man’s chose a form of euthanasia virtually identical to what was later used as the worst form of punishment: burning at the stake.

Meanwhile, when Alexander was faced with the limits to his own will in the soldiers who refused to continue fighting and dying for him, he drank himself to death, but not before killing one of his best friends and generals, Cleon.

So the answer to the great Disney psyop question asked of every Super Bowl champion, “What are you gonna do next?” wasn’t “Go to Disney World” for Alexander, winner of the world, but “death by sex, drugs, and alcohol.”

Obviously, I’m not trying to throw shade on a foundational figure of Western Civilization. Without Alexander, there would be no Caesar (who wept at seeing a statue of Alex in his 30s and realizing he hadn’t accomplished a fraction of what Alexander did at that age, then went on to convert Rome into an empire to last millennia). There would be no Sun King Louis XIV, no Czars, and no Napoleon.

It takes more courage and fortitude to conquer a small hill tribe than most of us will ever have.

I’m just trying to point out that for one of the few men in all of history who can claim to have literally won himself an empire, life was pretty miserable toward the end. Men who strive greatly often suffer greatly. This was certainly the case with Alexander and his mythical ancestor, Hercules. The greats also seem to suffer from great fits of madness.

No achievement today could match what Alexander the Great did. The man literally turned himself into a god, which was what Nietzsche believed to be the aspirational dream of every Ancient Greek. Perhaps because life was so hard and death so easy, prolonging it seemed pointless. Instead, men thought they should do something with their lives so memorable that their deeds could possess the minds of entire generations to come. Alexander took Achilles as his model, a man who chose the short and incredible life over the long and fruitless one. How many can claim to have made the same decision? We who are raised on the belief that there is no greater death than one of old age surrounded by loved ones. And that’s totally okay, but the chances of you also making music like Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix, or laying waste to corrupt civilizations at the head of a cult of super-soldiers, is extremely small.

Alexander accomplished his goal, only to find even bigger goals and more territory before him. In his essay, “Homer’s Dilemma,” Nietzsche claims the Greeks were always trying to become peerless, to achieve perfection. But when they found themselves having attained it, the lack of competition lead them to self-destruct. Say what you will about the cultural character of the Greeks, but I think there’s a simpler explanation at work here that we can all relate to, that of dissatisfaction.




Whether it’s the city you’ve been besieging for months refusing to surrender and thus forcing you to have to make an example of them or the abuse you have to put up with from your boss or relatives, it’s infuriating when things don’t go your way. Hell, you’re not even allowed to complain about it because a true man doesn’t complain.

To make matters worse, our society is built upon want. There’s always another Funko Pop to buy or a must-have part for your car. Another restaurant to try, another show to watch, another game to play, another place to take the family on vacation.

No amount of supplicants hailing you as a god or cities founded in your name or temples dedicated to your deified likeness will change this. Imagine looking like Sol Brah, having total command of the US military, being lusted after by supermodels, and still dying like some junkie enthralled by his addictions. That’s Alexander in a nutshell, and the question he couldn’t face faces all of us: What will you do when your goals prove hollow? How will you face the unconquerable?

The man of great-yet-tragically-insufficient self-mastery defeated himself. When his troops refused to march further, and Alexander was forced to turn back to Babylon, the most powerful conqueror the world had ever seen drank himself into a stupor, killed his best friend, and died a tyrant to his subjects. While Alexander may have conquered the world, he ultimately failed to conquer himself.

Generations later, one of Alexander’s successors in India would face a similar problem. After having “conquered more tribes than Alexander,” as Strabo says, the king whom his Indian subjects called Milinda, Menander The First, found himself beset on all sides by threats to his kingdom and an army uninterested in going any further.

One wonders if Menander realized he was in the same spot as Alexander, who, having his will defied by the world, had found himself in a similar spot to his model, Achilles. An unceasing will to act trumped by circumstance.




In one of the greatest essays on the ancient Greek cultural character ever written, Nietzsche outlined the Greek love of competition and the madness that followed the cursed few who found themselves with no rivals.

It would seem that ancient Greek nature was to aim at the impossible. A noble goal stretches potential. It can make almost anyone better than they otherwise would have been.

But Nietzsche doesn’t really dwell on why those who attain it go mad. Beyond declaring that the gods liked to sabotage those closest to them, he doesn’t fully explore the horror of knowing that what lies beyond peerlessness… is nothing. Winning more games, conquering more tribes, and building more cities than anybody else, might bring you momentary respite from the void that eventually engulfs every man and pulls his trophies and buildings back into the earth, but it’s only momentary. When you have summited a peak so high that no living thing can block your vision, you will eventually have to gaze into the empty void above.

From there, the Greeks entered a nihilistic spiral that rarely ended well. The Greeks so feared this tendency in their character that they ostracized the best among them so that the competition may continue. When competition became pointless, perpetually victorious athletes like Miltiades pushed the limits of their influence until their peers were forced to stop them, as did kings like Alexander and even entire city-states like Athens and Sparta. The downfall of Icarus was not that he flew too close to the sun but that he would have flown straight into it if unchecked.

The same, it would seem, would have been the fate of Menander I had he not met wise Nagasena, a sage whose culture’s expansive cosmology stretched beyond even the Egyptian teachers of the Greeks to times when even gods will die.




Like Alexander before him, Menander had been trained since birth in all the ways of war and wisdom alike. Like most Greek royals of that period, he was likely reared on The Iliad and taught by philosophers. Menander then spent much of his early life navigating internecine politics and subduing foreign tribes along his borders. Like his forebears, Menander also ruled over numerous non-Hellenic peoples. Like Alexander, he adopted a foreign religion. But this is where the similarities end.

Unlike Alexander, who attempted to join the pantheons of Greece, Egypt, and Persia, Menander became a devout follower. What’s more, the foreign religion Menander adopted seems to have actually contained solutions to Nietzsche’s conundrum, for Menander did not go mad upon becoming peerless in his kingly vocation but instead grew to be a wise old ruler recognized by the Buddhist monks as having achieved enlightenment before his passing.

Nor did Menander succumb to the self-negating criticisms lobbed at Buddhism from the West by the likes of Rene Girard and Schopenhauer over a millennium later, for he is also said to have died in his battle tent after accomplishing enough to be hailed, “Menander the Savior” or “Soter.”

The Savior, like The Great, was fond of philosophy as well as power and enjoyed debating the wisest men in his kingdom. So good was he at it that a great many were stumped into submission. As the legend goes, his questioning challenged even heaven itself, and so a god was brought down to earthly incarnation to answer his questions as proof of his own worthiness of enlightenment.

The symbolism here is easy to miss for us moderns who consider all talk of gods and monsters as fanciful storytelling, but this isn’t your Marvel comics popcorn-selling variety of mythology. This is about your soul.

Buddhism was to Hinduism what Christianity was to the local faiths of Europe, it was a reply to the unceasing desire of man to become god. To say that even gods die is to say that humans who are deified are still mortal. It is to say that there is a way out rather than up. Even the gods, in their infinite power, must nonetheless deal with pain and sorrow, despair and regret. Fate is inescapable. So how do you shut off the soap opera of existence? Or at least, how do you stop caring so much? You meditate.




The driving problem facing anyone who is an actual person and not a mythical demigod is the conquest of the material. You are your body, and the sensory feedback of for your keeps you from thinking and acting the way you want.

If, as Nietzsche says, man is to be surpassed, the way to surpass yourself is neither physical asceticism nor endless philosophizing. Instead, take control of your brain by sitting with your mind and figuring out what is the appropriate or proper response to all that befalls man.

But first, you need to train up your concentration, since the ability to resist distraction is how you’ll prevent yourself from being distracted by the task at hand and succumbing to overreaction when faced with unpleasant experiences. This is done by focusing on simple things like breathing or a single candle flame for a set period of time. Progressive overload is achieved by adding more time and greater intensity of concentration. For example, you might start by feeling the sensation of breathing for a few minutes and eventually progress to deeply feeling the sensations of every inch of your body from scalp to toe for over an hour a day.

Then, as you get better at this, you might turn those noobie concentration gains to topics like the nature of reality or how to respond to assholes in a way that doesn’t result in having to deal with more assholery. In this way, time spent on the cushion actually leads somewhere, and one can experience philosophy on both a meta and physical level.

The dialogues of Menander and Nagasena feature questions and answers to a seemingly inexhaustible list of questions. The Pali Canon supposedly contains all the true words of the Buddha himself. But Buddhism is not a religion of words, and its scriptures are only as useful as the effect they produce on the reader. This is why most Buddhists aren’t chastised for not having read the canonical works – direct experience is far more important.




Dogma and instruction are fine if you need them to get going, but what’s most important is that you proceed. Reading about mastering your mind is not going to grow your concentration any more than reading about bodybuilding is going to grow your physique. This has been one of the persistent errors of philosophy and a reason why Socrates so despised books. Book-knowledge isn’t self-knowledge.

There are at least as many meditation techniques as there are ways to hit your pecs, but the truth is that mental development is very simple: concentrate and observe.

Most people don’t do this, because meditation is much more like extended isometric exercises than lifting. Lots of time, under minimal tension, until the tension becomes unbearable, then the timer sounds, and you do it again tomorrow. Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the Zen practice that involves not moving a muscle for days on end. Whereas even lifters who spend hours in the gym are training explosively with reps lasting 5-10 seconds at most.

Also, unlike lifting, noobie gains are mostly invisible. But then, one day, you find yourself able to focus on a task for hours or suddenly catch yourself losing control of your temper and are able to “grab hold of the chariot” and rein in your emotions. That’s when you realize, “Holy shit, this stuff works.” But, like lifting, you have to do it regularly, or your gains go away.




But convincing the brilliant young philosopher-king, so fond of crushing enemies on the battlefield and yogis in debate, to stop arguing and start practicing would take some doing. When Nagasena first met him, Menander delighted in posing paradoxical questions that dumbfounded even the wisest of Brahmins, such as, “Is there such a thing as good and evil acts? Is there such a thing as fruit, the ultimate result, of good and evil acts?” and (paraphrasing here) “If nature rules the world, then why do people go to hell?”

The Milinda Panha is over 200 pages long and contains many answers to such philosophical questions as well as details on scripture that are largely irrelevant today. Most people barely know the Buddha’s life story, let alone the finer points of doctrine, like whether a monk should accept gifts and how that’s different from being given food.

What is of interest is the way Nagasena replies to the questions he’s asked.

Over and over, the young sage specifically chooses from the many monikers of the Buddha the title of “Conqueror.” While it’s a strange thing to call a man born into a warrior family who ends his life with no lands and no weapons, the title nonetheless appealed to the physically and intellectually combative king.

Another effective method for winning the philosopher-king over to the merits of mental training is found in the fact that the young sage rarely provides definitive answers at first. While others immediately give the king something to refute. When asked who rules the earth, a Brahmin shouts, “Earth!” Nagasena’s replies, on the other hand, are more considered and make use of metaphors that impart profound insights for the questioner who puzzles them out.

In many of the replies Nagasena gives, the metaphors and parables told are especially relevant to a royal personage well-acquainted with the arts of statecraft, warfare, hunting, and politics.

For example, when asked by the king about how the qualities needed to escape suffering are the same as those required to escape reincarnation, Nagasena answers, “They are like the various parts of an army – elephants, cavalry, war chariots, and archers – who all work to one end, to wit: the conquest in battle of the opposing army.”

Nagasena knows that men of ambition are fixated on conquest, even when the opposing army lies within. So those who cringe at all the stereotypical New Age jargon of “transcendence” and “loving-kindness” might do well to give The Milinda Panha a skim. Much of it is clearly directed at a proud and proven warrior who nonetheless has doubts about how best to maintain great strength of character for himself and his people. One of its themes, not explicitly stated but evident through word choice, is how to attain and maintain the character of their common Indo-European ancestors. The Sanskrit word used for “noble” here, “Ariya,” shares common roots with the word “Aryan,” clearly referring to the positive characteristics of peoples who conquered and ruled both India and Greece in bygone days. Virtues that are suited not only to the battlefield but to all aspects of life.

At the end of all this questioning, Menander is said to have converted to Buddhism. Proof may be found on coinage depicting the great king on one side and the dharma chakra, the Buddhist wheel of universal moral order, on the other. That this was clearly a golden age of economic prosperity can be discerned through the fact that so many such coins from the period come to us intact, indicating that a great many more coins were needed as a medium of trade during Menander’s reign. The corollary is that no Indo-Greek ruler before or since has used this much Buddhist iconography.




Do you find the answers to your philosophical conundrums leave much to be desired? Did you follow some macho podcaster or bronzed-ab influencer into the dusty shelves of your local library, only to find the likes of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, or Junger utterly incomprehensible?

Consider the possibility that it isn’t the philosopher who sucks, but your inability to perceive his work with the concentration of mind and will necessary to fully grasp it. Oftentimes what we consider a lack of intelligence or life experience might actually be a lack of mental training.

That’s right, there is a way to cultivate discipline and mental fortitude in much the same way that one might expand one’s muscles through bodybuilding. Ignore the “mindfulness” and “meditation” marketing that targets granola hippies and tech nerds, and embark on the same mental and spiritual journey that enabled the samurai to face death unflinchingly. Start mental training: the gains are worth it.

One basic exercise for concentration looks like this:


  1. Find a quiet spot to sit comfortably.
  2. Close your eyes and count your inhalations and exhalations until you reach 20.
  3. Repeat for time (start with 5 minutes and work your way up to an hour).


Rarely do I see instructors or manuals explain why you are doing this, which is to train the mind’s ability to concentrate on bodily sensations as experienced by your brain. Where bodybuilders build the mind-muscle connection that grows muscles and stimulates hypertrophy, meditation strengthens a mind-mental connection. These faculties, once sufficiently developed, can then be applied to the mental equivalent of powerlifting or gymnastics: you start drilling down into your experience of reality, noticing all the while how everything that comes to you is mediated by sensation.

Eventually, you realize those sensations are themselves illusory and that you can train yourself to indulge or ignore them at will.

At this point, you will have reached the freedom you seek since you can now mentally ‘turn off’ what you do not wish to experience through similar exercises over extended periods of time. Take, for example, the Tibetan practice of Tumo, wherein monks can transform their bodies into mini-furnaces, surviving for days in the Himalayas under sub-zero temperatures wearing little more than flimsy robes and special underwear. But first, they must practice a kind of Kundalini breathing and meditation that is said to “burn away negative emotions”.

To be unaffected by circumstance, to be able to initiate action rather than be stuck forever reacting to the actions of others, is to escape much suffering and even, according to some traditions, achieve godhood. Master yourself, and you master your fate. You may not gain the ability to hurl thunderbolts, but you will know how to overcome the desire to do so.

Of course, this is but the first step, a “beginner’s workout for the mind,” if you will, as the path to a perfected mind, like that of a perfected body, is long. We know that bodybuilding requires specific exercises which vary depending on the person, their genetics, their muscle insertions and skeletal structure, as well as a number of non-workout factors like nutrition and rest requirements. Likewise, mental and spiritual training are at least as complex and can’t be completely covered here. While the process is broadly understood, the specific problems a trainee faces often require personal guidance.

Suffice it to say that, after much training and dialogue, Menander would have noticed changes to his awareness, ability to concentrate, perceptions of his environment, and more. Deeper emotions and transformations ranging from euphoria and depression would have followed on his meditative journey, until one day he arrived at a state of equanimity. This marks the “snuffing out” of desire known as Nirvana. After this, he would be considered an Arhat (or Arahant, depending on the transliteration).




This is by no means a comprehensive list. Enlightenment provided:


  • Increased reflexes
  • Mental clarity and the merging of broad awareness with focused attention
  • Control over and ability to observe his emotions
  • A deeper and more complete understanding of morality and the nature of reality
  • A balanced experience of his emotions marked by what some Buddhists have termed “sweetness” and others call “inner peace”


There are also a number of “powers” that yogis and monks of various creeds are said to be capable of performing, such as mind-reading, prophesy, and even levitation, but I will not dwell too long on these other than to say that the discoveries of science in recent years have rendered many such feats less incredible than we once believed. Telepathy through meditation, for example, has been recorded as an achievable phenomenon by the US government (search for “CIA Gateway Tapes” for more on this). Fortunately, there are not many accounts of the supernatural in the Milinda Panha, and those which are mentioned can be taken mythologically, i.e., as metaphor until proven otherwise, to be psychoanalyzed as much or as little as the reader would like.

Depending on which tradition of Buddhism you follow, attaining the initial stages of enlightenment, aka mastery over your desires, is enough to classify you as an Arhat. What happens next is up to you: Continue as a recluse and achieve full Buddhahood, or return to society as a Bodhisattva and liberate as many fellow souls as you can.

Unpacking this, you could say that the choice is whether to spend the rest of your days doing nothing but meditating or help others awaken to their enslavement by desire and teach the steps necessary to free themselves from it.



One of the reasons why historians remain dubious about Menander’s enlightenment lies in the fact that aside from The Milinda Panha, there are no accounts of him withdrawing to a monastery or giving up the sword for good. In fact, Plutarch believes he likely died on campaign. That we cannot conceive of him being both an enlightened person and an active war hero betrays our modern biases as to what Buddhism can be.

While it is true that a Bodhisattva is a master of self-control who has dedicated himself to liberating others from mental bondage, there is no definitive way to go about doing it. Such a figure is also free from the fetters of “good behavior” imposed by society.

There may be orthodox texts that mandate all monastic followers of the Buddha keep vows of chastity, refrain from killing, and preserve peace at all costs, but we also know of several “mad monks” in possession of “crazy wisdom” who did not obey such injunctions. Further, Buddhism does not explicitly argue for “turning the other cheek” when attacked. Rather, self-defense is often seen as a necessity, and standing up for oneself is a mercy when done to prevent one’s enemies from incurring even greater sins. Bodhidharma, for example, is credited with the invention of Shaolin Kung Fu and is said to have continued lopping off arms and killing bandits long after his supposed enlightenment.

Buddhist monks elsewhere and at other times have also taken up arms. The monks of China’s various Shaolin Temples and the Sohei Monks of Samurai-era Japan spring readily to mind. Famous samurai such as Benkei and Suzuki Shosan became Zen monks. Even Japan’s greatest swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, is said to have died a Zen monk.

This could have been the case with Menander, who evidently decided that the best way to spread Buddhism and liberate souls was to continue ruling over his kingdom, subduing the Brahmins and Bactrians who would persecute Buddhists or challenge his peace.

Had he not used his enlightenment to become a venerable ruler and defender of his faith, had he instead chosen to abandon all duties to withdraw into some mountain retreat, then it is doubtful the people would have clamored to turn his remains into relics and spread them across his empire for purposes of pilgrimage. As Plutarch writes:


“But when one Menander, who had reigned graciously over the Bactrians, died afterwards [sic] in the camp, the cities indeed by common consent celebrated his funerals; but coming to a contest about his relics, they were difficultly at last brought to this agreement, that his ashes being distributed, everyone should carry away an equal share, and they should all erect monuments to him.”


During his reign, he built innumerable temples and even brought together Greek and Ghandara artisans who would, for the first time, sculpt a human likeness for the Buddha with the same divine mathematical principles of perfection used to depict Apollo and the other Olympians. Prior to this, all references to the Buddha were made through symbols, which explains why coinage from the time tends to depict what looks like the steering wheel on a ship (known as the Dharma Wheel).

A golden age for Buddhism ensued. Shrines, temples, and stupas (structures containing holy relics) rose across the land like some transcendent network of holy gyms for the mind. Everywhere, missionaries could be found in their familiar orange robes and alms bowls, teaching everyone from commoners to nobles how to overcome mental and moral weakness. All of it was funded by a king whose experience of liberation was more visceral than the utterings of priests or even the drug-induced initiatory ceremonies of his Dionysian forebears.

While our age of material plenty coincides with moral and spiritual decay, Menander’s championing of Buddhism did not preclude his empire from being a materially prosperous one, as the many coins we have from that period can attest.

If Menander really had followed the Buddhist way, then he would have directly experienced the cessation of dissatisfaction and suffering that befalls all beings, great and small. Perhaps this explains the zeal with which he propagated his newfound faith and why he never traded his crown for the cassock of the recluse: he honestly couldn’t think of anything better to do after becoming the most powerful ruler around than dedicate himself to the spread of mental and spiritual fitness.

The fact that the Brahmin kingdoms to the south and his Bactrian relatives to the west were not only his enemies but also viewed Buddhism unfavorably no doubt gave Menander another reason to continue: he was the only one who could prevent the answer to all his existential questions from being snuffed out.




Did he leave his kingdom to his son and withdraw from worldly life and become a full-blown Buddha himself, as the Milinda Panha suggests, or did he, as Plutarch believes, die in a tent while defending his kingdom from one of its many Brahmin or Bactrian enemies?

While we may never know for certain which path he took, I would like to propose a possible answer which lies somewhere in between. It is not impossible, after all, for lay people today to attain Arhatship, and many go on to benefit in ways beyond the spiritual. Daniel Ingram, for example, wrote the comprehensive manual on attaining enlightenment, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, while also serving as an ER surgeon. As mentioned previously, the savior’s work as a Bodhisattva would not necessarily preclude him from taking up arms or leading a military force.

There is no reason to believe Menander’s conversion necessitated that he become a pacifist. It’s very likely he died a spiritually enlightened warrior king.

But if that isn’t enough, then I would like to propose an alternative interpretation, one from a time in which history was written, not to preserve material facts but to provide readers with guiding principles for their own lives. Knowing exactly how Menander died is less important than knowing what you will do now that you’re aware of a man who escaped the Nietzschean curse that befell all the Greeks before him who found themselves peerless in their chosen fields of competition. Perhaps there’s a way out for you too. Maybe it involves withdrawing from the world, and maybe it means becoming an even greater part of it. The decision is deeply personal, and it’s up to you to determine which of Menander’s endings works for you when the time comes to make that decision.




There stand in India a number of temples from and after the period of the Indo-Greeks, several of which contain sculpted reliefs of the Buddha, carved with a lifelike realism common to the art of that era.

Depicted on them are scenes from the life of the Buddha and his various disciples. Among them, one bears a strikingly recognizable and uniquely un-Indian appearance. The largest of the Buddha’s guardian disciples appears to be a well-muscled, bearded man wearing a lion’s pelt and carrying a club. He is the same demi-god and ancestor of Alexander the Great: Heracles, better known by his Roman moniker, Hercules.

The divine hero of the Greeks, having finally found a cure for his madness in the lessons of the divine sage of India, protects him with his life. Never was there a more poignant mythologization of history than this statue symbolically depicting what occurred during those years when Menander reigned. After Menander became a student of Nagasena, the sons of Heracles used their prodigious might to defeat the enemies of the Buddha. Buddha’s followers, in turn, showed their protectors how to finally slake the endless thirst for competition and overcome the hubris which drove so many of their heroes to madness and self-destruction.

You could say that in each other, the two conquerors found what they needed to overcome the greatest challenges to their existence.

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