JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 41 to 50)



ABSTRACT—Sculptures serve a variety of functions within Tibetan religious practices. They aid the practitioner in meditation, communicate meditative insight, and provide the donors with a means for gaining spiritual merit. Many images were never intended to be viewed by those not initiated into the meditative practice for the deity represented. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have mixed emotions about the propriety of public museum exhibition of certain sculptures, and many will not discuss details of iconography and symbolism of such sculptures with noninitiates. Some practical solutions for obtaining a better understanding of Tibetan Buddhist sculptures and for deciding how they should best be stored, displayed, or handled include consulting with local Tibetan Buddhist communities or major Buddhist centers, participating in some Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies or events when possible, realizing the inherent complexity of Tibetan art images and religious practices and the need to consult with those who study Tibetan teachings to unravel them, and maintaining respect for the people who made and used the sculptures.


The study and conservation of Tibetan sculpture involve many complex issues arising in part from the fact that these pieces were not made as works of art for purely aesthetic purposes but were intended to fulfill a variety of functions within serious Tibetan religious practices. Multiple functions are especially common for tantric images—those used for esoteric teachings found in a special class of religious literature called the tantras. It is these images that pose the most complex problems and ethical dilemmas to the scholar and conservator. Their very presence in Western collections today is due to recent Tibetan misfortunes that are difficult to ignore. However, there are some positive steps that a conservation professional can take to educate himself or herself about Tibetan Buddhist images and to ensure that the ethical choices are fully explored.



Buddhism is concerned with the development of compassion and realization of emptiness as well as the development of wisdom and skillful means. The majority of surviving religious artifacts from Tibet belong to the Vajrayāna (diamond path) branch of the earlier Mahāyāna (great path) Buddhism. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed a focus on a resolve to liberate all beings by transforming the entire universe into a realm of peace, abundance, and happiness. Vajrayāna is based on Mahāyāna Buddhist literature with the addition of a variety of esoteric teachings derived from the literature of the tantras. The tantras are scriptures purporting to record the revelatory teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, which describe practices intended to accelerate one's progress on the evolutionary path toward enlightenment. Because such an acceleration necessarily requires intense methods, Vajrayana practices are considered so powerful that they would be dangerous for those who are not properly prepared or who are not under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Therefore, some information is kept secret from those who have not been initiated and specially instructed (Lessing and Wayman 1978; Berzin 1981; Thurman 1991).

Much of the extensive literature of the tantras originated in India. Some texts form part of the Hindu and Jain traditions, and other teachings are unique to the Buddhist tradition. The main topics of tantric texts are creation, dissolution, worship, gaining of powers, and communication with divine beings. The texts combine metaphysical/philosophical knowledge with methods for mental focus, making images, constructing sacred spaces, and performing rites, festivals, and social duties (Banerji 1988). Buddhist tantras comprise four categories: Action, Performance, Yoga, and Unexcelled Yoga. These works form a hierarchy, with the latter reserved for only the most advanced practitioners.

Written description of meditation practice and theory is one side of Vajrayāna teaching. The texts are often symbolic and cryptic, however, and do not completely record the process of meditation. The second side of Vajrayāna teaching is personal initiation and continued guidance from a recognized meditation teacher through oral teachings that explain and elaborate upon the written documents. Much of the ritual is communicated orally to qualified practitioners only (Snellgrove 1987).

Tibetan Buddhist practitioners place importance on textual study, reflection, and meditation, although the emphasis may vary from one school to another. The components of meditation are āsana (body posture), mudrā (symbolic hand gesture) (Saunders 1960), music and sound (Goldblatt 1982), mantra (sacred syllables) (Alper 1989), deity images (paintings and sculptures), and visualization (creating a mental image of a deity and its associated colors, syllables, and mudrās in one's own mind) (Tulku 1974). The deity images and other sacred symbols are often arranged in mandalas with circular and square patterns (Tucci 1978).

The primary purpose of the art associated with Tibetan Buddhism is to aid the practitioner in his or her quest for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not for a selfish or personal goal. To fulfill this function, the artwork has evolved into a complex set of forms that communicate both metaphysical and practical ideas. Tibetan Buddhist sculptures and paintings visually supplement written texts and oral teachings. They serve much the same function as a periodic chart and molecular models in a chemistry class and are especially useful to the visually oriented aspirant. They aid meditation in three ways.

First, visible images aid learning and memory of the important details of deity visualizations. The images are usually complex. Although many details are described in the meditation texts, it is difficult to remember them all without a visual model.

Second, iconic images focus attention while one contemplates the inner meaning of the teaching. They are intended to provide hints without giving everything away at once. Complete understanding requires oral instruction combined with repeated contemplation and meditation.

Third, images provide a means for a person to record and communicate his or her meditation experiences to others. The artist or the person determining the iconography of the artwork attempts to convey a meditation experience so well that those who observe the artwork can also share in the same experience of truth. The visual forms are external representations of internal experiences that guide others toward having those same experiences.

A secondary purpose of Tibetan art, in Buddhist belief, is to gain spiritual merit by serving as the patron for the making and/or consecrating of religious images. For a Buddhist, the accumulation of merit is of great importance, for it influences the circumstances of a person's future births and thus how favorable the conditions will be for attaining enlightenment. The commissioning of artworks and the donation of religious images to a monastery are considered highly meritorious acts. One can also donate a sculpture in the name of a loved one so that person will acquire some of the merits of the deed. Images made of metal were sometimes considered to yield the greatest religious merit (von Schroeder 1981).

Iconic images are seen as essentially nontheistic. However, every Buddhist image or religious object is regarded as an extension of the actual body of the Buddha, transmitting a living presence and worthy of highly respectful handling and treatment.


The other religion of Tibet is Bon-pö, which includes a wide range of practices that originated in the native, pre-Buddhist traditions of Tibet. The term is used to refer to both the very early, aboriginal practices and to the later, more formalized Bon religion that was highly influenced by Buddhism. The practices center on a belief in many local and personal spirits. Prominent among these are various mountain gods and the Lords of the Soil. Of central importance are spirit possession, exorcism, and the use of oracles. Related to Bon-pö beliefs was the concept of the divine origin of the Tibetan kings, which resulted in the building of elaborate royal tombs (Snellgrove 1957).

Although Buddhism became the dominant religion of Tibet, Bon-pö practitioners have always remained active, even up to modern times. Adherents frequently borrowed from the repertoire of Buddhist images and rituals, and Tibetan Buddhism in turn incorporated many Bon-pö elements into its own practices (Karmay 1972). It is much more rare to find Bon-pö images in Western museums and collections than it is to find Tibetan Buddhist images. However, the Bon-pö images also frequently hold multiple meanings and serve many of the same functions as do Tibetan Buddhist sculptures.


Many Tibetan Buddhist images can be viewed by anyone. Such images include the historical Buddha, the primary Bodhisattvas (potential Buddhas who for the sake of compassion remain in the world and guide others toward enlightenment), and sculptures representing historically known teachers and saints.

Tantric images were originally intended to be viewed only by those who have been initiated into the corresponding meditation. These images are frequently complex with multiple arms, legs, and heads (fig. 1). The multiple hands may hold a variety of implements. The deity may be either peaceful or wrathful and may be shown in sexual union with a consort (fig. 2). Traditionally, these images were kept covered except when being used for an initiation or meditation practice, so that the uninitiated would not see them. In the modern Western museum, of course, these images are displayed for public viewing, often with little explanation.

Fig. 1. Dorje Phurpa, West Tibet, 12th century. H. 33.5 cm. Leaded brass. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase M.70.1.6

Fig. 2. Vajrapāni and Consort, Central Tibet, 15th century. H. 27.9 cm. Unalloyed copper. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase M.82.42.6.

The uninitiated scholar studying such images will have difficulty obtaining help from Tibetan Buddhist experts. I first encountered this problem in 1981 while studying the sculptures of a West Tibetan monastery located at Ta pho, now within the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The sculptures form a life-size mandala of the deity Kun rig rnam par snan dzad, whose image is placed in the center and is surrounded by 32 clay sculptures representing the other deities of his mandala (Tucci 1988). My goal was to determine, through a statistical analysis of the patterns of the mudrās in relation to other iconographic features of the sculptures, whether the hand gestures were deliberately used as a form of communication (Reedy and Reedy 1987). As part of my research I collected, and where necessary had translated, several versions of the Kun rig meditation text. I also interviewed a Tibetan Buddhist teacher regarding her perceptions of the form and meaning of each of the mudrās seen on the Ta pho sculptures.

The monk who prepared most of the text translations for me commented many times as he was working with me that technically I should not be studying the texts without having the Kun rig initiation. However, since he was a friend he did do the translations, although he was clearly somewhat uncomfortable. The teacher who discussed the mudrās with me was also clearly uncomfortable and said that as soon as possible I should be initiated. It seemed to me that she was deliberately holding back information, giving me only a very bare outline. Eventually I was given a short form of the appropriate initiation from a visiting teacher who specialized in that particular meditation, and Tibetan Buddhist informants were subsequently more comfortable talking with me about the subject.

I later surveyed Tibetan Buddhist teachers about the ethics of opening consecrated bronzes (Reedy 1991). I also included a question on the topic of noninitiates studying or working with tantric images. Nine teachers responded to the question: “Do you feel it is inappropriate for a scientist or art historian to study a specific image (especially tantric) in great detail when he or she has not received the initiation for that deity?”

Six teachers either accepted study by noninitiates in some circumstances or suggested that another factor is more important. Thubten Jigme Norbu feels that it is acceptable for the uninitiated to study a tantric Buddhist image for the sake of art history. He is not troubled by technical examinations of such sculptures, including x-radiography and analysis of alloy composition. However, he does feel that “the taking of a sample of metal from the base of the image is problematic from the Buddhist perspective,” perhaps since this involves deliberate damage to the image.

H. H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya from the Sakya Monastery in Seattle said, “What is important is that the scientist show respect for the image as a religious object so that followers of the religion not be offended or upset by the scientist's treatment of the religious object.” H. H. Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakyapa order of Tibetan Buddhism now headquartered in Dehra Dun, India, said, “Theoretically, those who have not received initiations are not allowed to study a specific tantric image, but practically speaking, not everyone has the opportunity to receive these initiations. Therefore, the real issue is faith, and as long as one has faith in the teachings, there is no harm.”

Karma Gelek Yuthok, speaking for the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said “An initiated Buddhist is, directly or indirectly, bound by many vows and commitments to respect the images of Buddha and other deities in every possible way… . On the other hand, for the uninitiated ones, non-Buddhists, and non-believers, they would have more reasonable excuses of being innocent and not bound by religious commitments. It is for this reason that they are said to collect less bad karma than the believers and committed followers by doing the same undesirable act.”

Three respondents felt that it is always inappropriate for noninitiates to study or examine tantric (as opposed to nontantric) images. Aye Tulku said that he does not feel it is inappropriate to study images in general, but “tantric subjects have to be dealt with in great caution. Initiation before pursuing an in-depth study of any tantric subject is a requirement.”

Different viewpoints were also expressed by the Tibetans regarding their feelings toward the public display of such images in museum exhibits. H. H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya's definition of displaying or storing a statue with respect is that the image “should be treated with care, not put on the floor, and kept slightly elevated, if possible. Certainly it should be kept in a clean area. This respect for the object is important regardless of what material the object is made.” He considers that “there is no desecration of a statue or other Dharma object by moving it from a monastery, purchasing the object, or displaying it in a museum.” On the other hand, Geshe Tashi Namgyal, now in Victoria, Canada, stated strongly that “The tantras in Buddhism are sacred and secret and should not be revealed to outsiders.”

According to Karma Gelek Yuthok, “The very act of removing a statue from its proper context and placing it in the art market desecrates it to some extent, but the statue, by its own, is still a sacred object. It's like forcing a holy saint to remain in a busy worldly place. There is a world of difference between keeping a holy statue in a museum just for display and putting it anywhere for sale” (which is generally considered a sacrilege by Buddhists). Jetsun Chimey Luding agreed, saying, “It is not good at all to sell on the ‘art market’ these sacred statues. It is said by the Buddha that we do not sell sacred things.”

Geshe Thupten Gyatso also said, “The people who sell the article desecrate it. They commit the bad action (karma) of abandoning Buddha's teaching. But the one who buys the object has no fault, and in fact has accumulated merit in doing so. There is also nothing wrong with displaying it in the museum; many people will obtain virtue by seeing it, remembering it, hearing the name of the deity depicted, and touching it.”

The mixed emotions generated by this relatively recent situation of Tibetan sculptures becoming available to Western collections is expressed by Tharthang Tulku. “Unfortunately, in recent times, with the destruction of various aspects of Tibetan culture, many precious statues have been lost; others have been scattered across the world in museums and private collections. In one way, it seems suitable for statues to be in museums where many people can view them. But … when sacred images are placed in secular environments, their essential purpose is lost.”

It should be noted that under more normal circumstances, Tibetan Buddhist sculptures would rarely be appearing in private or public collections in the West. Their presence here is directly due to the relatively recent Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent destruction and looting of most Tibetan monasteries. Consequently, those of us working in museums and in the fields of conservation and art history face an ethical dilemma whenever we choose to study, treat, and publish these sculptures. Since the oppression and extermination of the Tibetan people are continuing, we do not want to encourage continued looting by increasing the value of Tibetan sculptures through our work. However, we also do not want to ignore Tibetan artistic works once they are here, and it is possible that conserving, researching, and publishing artifacts of the unique Tibetan culture might ultimately help to preserve and protect that culture. The types of issues involved in this ethical debate are quite complex, and have been dealt with in detail elsewhere (Greenfield 1989; Messenger 1989). There are, however, some practical solutions available for obtaining a better understanding of Tibetan sculptures and for deciding how they should best be stored, displayed, or handled.



The first solution is to consult with practicing Buddhists whenever possible. It can be rewarding and useful to identify and involve the local community of practitioners when major decisions have to be made regarding storage, display, and handling of sacred images. A number of references can help locate Buddhist groups in various cities throughout North America who can provide information to conservators. A particularly useful source is Tibetan Cultural Resources in North America (1982). One can also consult the listings in the local telephone directory under names of Tibetan Buddhist centers of worship such as Dharma-dhatu Centers and Karma Thegsum Choling Centers.

If one cannot locate a nearby Tibetan Buddhist group or community, it is always possible to write to major centers with specific questions (see the addresses listed at the end of this article). Such groups appreciate the communication and will respond with a thoughtful and serious reply.


Most Tibetan Buddhist groups or centers offer a variety of ongoing or special events, some of which are open to participation by anyone. These events may include seminars and public talks by resident or visiting teachers, celebrations of the Tibetan New Year, activities commemorating important events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and memorializing important teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, meditation retreats, Tibetan language classes, and teachings on specific texts. It is also often possible to arrange private audiences with resident or visiting teachers by contacting the center. For example, a group from the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was able to arrange for and attend a private ceremony at a local Tibetan Buddhist center to reconsecrate a bronze that had been in the objects lab.

Some introductory practices may require no initiation and are generally open to anyone interested in learning more about Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. One example is the Meditation of the Four Infinitudes (infinite love, infinite compassion, infinite rejoicing, and infinite equanimity). Another example is the meditation of Chenrezi (The Greatly Compassionate One).

All of these participatory activities can bring one into personal contact with Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and can provide a more complete understanding of aspects of their philosophy and daily practices. Such firsthand experiences can provide a better context for interpreting and appreciating Tibetan Buddhist works of art and their intended functions.

Participation in other practices may require a specific initiation. Every tantric image depicted in works of art has a special meditation associated with it, which must be taught to and practiced only by those who have received its unique initiation. If one is interested in attending an initiation ceremony and following the practice for a particular deity in order to pursue in-depth studies of it, one could enquire at any of the Buddhist centers mentioned above. Of course, the traditional motivation for participating in initiations is to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Therefore, it is not an activity to undertake lightly.

There are different points of view among Tibetan Buddhist teachers regarding initiations. Some teachers hold numerous initiation ceremonies and will include, for some practices, anyone who wishes to attend. In contrast, other teachers do not encourage frequent participation in initiations and hold them more rarely, restricting attendance to serious Buddhist practitioners only. An ethical protocol would be to meet prior to the ceremony with the teacher who will be performing the initiation (or his representative), explain the reason for wishing to attend, and request permission to participate.

The Tibetan word for an initiation ceremony actually means “empowerment.” Participation in this ceremony empowers a person to view and study a particular deity image. Practitioners generally receive numerous initiations, since there is a separate ceremony for each deity image. A Tibetan Buddhist would be expected to actually practice on a regular basis the meditation of only a few of the deities for which he or she has been initiated (Snellgrove 1987), but all initiation ceremonies are serious events.

The initiation format follows in general that of Tibetan Buddhist meditations, which start with (1) a preliminary stage (taking refuge in the Buddha and resolving to obtain enlightenment for the sake of all other beings); then (2) a stage of main practice (visualization of the deity, reciting mantras, silent meditation); and (3) dedicating any merit received through the meditation practice to the welfare of all other beings.

An initiation usually includes a vow not to reveal certain aspects of the ceremony or practice to noninitiates. Such a vow should not be taken unless one plans to respect it. Discussing the ceremony with the teacher beforehand should clarify what is expected of an initiate for that particular ceremony, so it can be determined whether or not one's participation is appropriate.


The third solution is to realize that one should not expect to fully understand the iconography, symbolism, and function of Tibetan art in more than superficial ways unless one is willing to study and become involved to some extent in the practices which are the context of that art. It is in the philosophical and religious teachings that one finds descriptions which more fully explain the iconographic content and purpose of Tibetan bronzes.

An example is the West Tibetan leaded brass sculpture shown in figure 3, representing Yama, the god of death (Pal 1975). To understand why death would be represented by this image, we need to explore some of the Tibetan practices regarding death. According to the Lam 'bras teachings of the Sakyapa order, Yama, at death, appears to the ordinary deluded mind as a terrifying apparition with weapons that are necessary to drag the consciousness into the unknown experience of death. According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, one should be aware that death is a certainty and cannot be avoided, since life is not permanent. But the terror of the change from life to death is increased by the physical pain of death and the great remorse and anxiety the dying may feel due to remembering a lifetime of faults, wrong actions, and time wasted on trivial distractions. This image is intended to remind the practitioner that one who better understands death and impermanence and who does not have such regrets will not have this fear at death (Deshung Rinpoche 1980; Lhundrup 1987).

Fig. 3. Yama, West Tibet, 10th century. H. 10.2 cm. Leaded brass. Robert H. Ellsworth, Ltd.

One function of Tibetan Buddhist art is to stimulate the imagination of the viewers, to give them a new way of perceiving, to open up the idea that enlightenment is actually a possibility. Once the ordinary way of viewing the world is dropped and that possibility is imagined, the practitioner would be inspired to diligently pursue the aim of enlightenment for himself or herself and all others through the practices of compassion, study, and meditation (Thurman 1991).


The fourth solution is to develop and maintain respect for the Tibetan people and culture. Respect can be cultivated by personally meeting Tibetan people and by reading some basic books about Tibetan history and culture. Especially good choices are the autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1962; 1990) and the recent historical overview of Tibetan culture by David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson (1986). Developing a sense of respect for the people who made and used the piece one is studying or working on, whether or not one agrees with their specific religious beliefs or philosophies, makes it unlikely that scholars and conservators will do anything to the sculptures entrusted to our care that will cause offense to the surviving Tibetans.


Alper, H. P., ed.1989. Mantra. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York.

Asia Society1982. Tibetan cultural resources in North America.New York: Asia Society.

Banerji, S. C.1988. A brief history of tantra literature.Calcutta: Naya Prokash.

Berzin, A., trans. and ed.1981. The Mahāmudrā: Eliminating the darkness of ignorance by the Ninth Karmapa, Wang-ch'ug dor-je. 1978. Reprint. Dharmasala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Dalai Lama, H. H.1962. My land and my people. New York and London: Barrie.

Dalai Lama, H. H.1990. Freedom in exile.London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Goldblatt, E. A.1982. Sādhana of the glorious coemergent mother Vajrayoginī: Liturgical music. In The silk route and the diamond path, ed.D. E.Klimburg-Salter.Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council. 225.

Deshung Rinpoche1980. The three jewels of spiritual perception.New York: Jetsun Sakya.

Greenfield, J.1989. The return of cultural treasures.Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Karmay, S. G., ed. and trans. 1972. The treasury of good sayings: A Tibetan history of Bon.London: Oxford University Press.

Lessing, F. D., and A.Wayman1978. Introduction to the Buddhist tantric systems.Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Lhundrup, H. K.1987. The beautiful ornament of the three visions, trans. L. Dagpa, N. S. Chopel, and J. Rhoton. Singapore: Golden Vase Publications.

Messenger, P. M., ed.1989. The ethics of collecting cultural property.Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press.

Pal, P.1975. Bronzes of Kashmir.Graz: Akademische Druck-U. Verlagsanstalt.

Reedy, C. L.1991. The opening of consecrated Tibetan bronzes with interior contents: Scholarly, conservation, and ethical considerations. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation30:13–34.

Reedy, C. L., and T. J.Reedy1987. Statistical analysis in iconographic interpretation: The function of mudras at Tapho, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. American Anthropologist89(3): 635–49.

Saunders, E.D.1960. Mudrā.New York: Pantheon.

Snellgrove, D.1957. Buddhist Himalaya.Oxford: Bruno Cassirer.

Snellgrove, D.1987. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. 2 vols. Boston: Shambala.

Snellgrove, D., and H.Richardson1986. A cultural history of Tibet.Boston and London: Shambhala.

Thurman, R.A.F., M. M.Rhie, and R.A.F.Thurman.1991. Tibet, its Buddhism, and its art. In Wisdom and compassion: The sacred art of Tibet. New York: Abrams. 20–38.

Tucci, G.1978. The theory and practice of the mandala, trans. A.H. Brodrick. New York: Samuel Weiser.

Tucci, G.1988. The temples of Western Tibet and their artistic symbolism, Eng. trans. of Indo-Tibetica III.1 (1935), ed.LokeshChandra.New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

Tulku, T.1974. Sacred art of Tibet.Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Publishing.

von Schroeder, U.1981. Indo-Tibetan bronzes.Hong Kong: Visual Dharma.


The Council of Religious and Cultural Affairs of H.

H. the Dalai Lama, Gangchen Kyishong, Dharmasala-176215, District Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, India

Sakya Monastery,

108 N.W. 83d St., Seattle, Wash. 98117

The Tibet Society,

P.O. Box 1968, Bloomington, Ind. 47402

Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center,

R.D. 1, Box 306A, Washington, N.J. 07882–9767.


CHANDRA L. REEDY is an assistant professor in the Art Conservation Department of the University of Delaware and coordinator of its new Ph.D. program in art conservation research. She was previously employed as a scientist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Conservation Center. She received her graduate training at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was awarded the Ph.D. from the interdisciplinary Archaeology Program with specializations in materials analysis of art and archaeological objects and in the South Asian region. She has done fieldwork in north India and maintains research interests in the history of Tibetan art, material culture, and religion. Address: Art Conservation Department, University of Delaware, 303 Old College, Newark, Del. 19716.

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