Report from the Invisible Realms
by Alta Brown, Ph.D., 2008

As I practice chöd, I have been discovering how unimaginably vast the universe of beings seems to be. My education on this subject began some time ago when I asked Khenpo Tsultrim how chöd practitioners should regard "beings without bodies" as the objects of our compassion. He laughed and said, through his translator, "They have bodies; you just can't see them. If you don't believe they are there, you are not practicing compassion."

Soon afterward, one of the people with whom I practice became upset because we were practicing at her house, and she was afraid that the beings we call to the feasts would not return home, but would stay around and frighten her. When we asked Khenpo Tsering Gyurme about this, he laughed and explained that these beings are everywhere. "They are up your nose and out your ears. You close the door on them and run over them in your car." He explained further that they fill space. Some are very tiny, and others are huge. There are unimaginably vast numbers of beings whom we ordinarily cannot see.

I say that we normally cannot see them, because sometimes we do. The more I talk with people about their experiences of loved ones who have died, the more I hear about how these loved ones have visited after their deaths. Sometimes they appear in dreams; sometimes they present themselves in visions; and sometimes they even speak to, or touch the living being with whom they want to communicate. Is this too strange, or an indication that the person who experiences these dreams and visions is suffering from grief-induced hallucinations? Not really.

In the bardo teachings, the lamas tell us that dead beings take on a mental body, and that in the form of this mental body, they visit places and people they love or hate, or to whom they are otherwise powerfully attracted. Two people I know came to chöd practice after their deaths, and there was nothing eerie or frightening about the experience.

Chöd practitioners routinely practice with corpses, and the mind of the deceased person is almost always diffused in the space around the body. We may be surprised by this, only because we think that our mind is somehow inside our body, that our body is a substantial container for our mind.

In the movie we call "the human realm," this seems to be true. But at another level, our body is simply an idea, like our idea of ourselves. In fact, many kinds of movies are playing at the same time, in the same place, in the multiple of the six realms. In each movie, the idea of "body" is different, and the rules that govern a body and the environment in which it finds itself are also different, but the form and the larger container in which it functions are still only part of the movie of a specific realm.

Chöd practitioners learn to transcend the barriers that separate the movies. Chöd means "cut," and what is being cut are our ideas of time, space, materiality and the solidity of self which allow our conceptual minds to function. Of course, the first step in this process of cutting is to befriend our own demons. The first cut exposes what Machig calls our own inner demons. She says that our preoccupation with our own inner demons blinds us, making it virtually impossible for us even to recognize the existence of other movies, much less the six other movies that are showing concurrently.

The actual experience of the relativity of our ideas of time, space, materiality and solidity of self opens up a vast vision of the "infinite billion-world system."

As I discovered myself, it is important to enter into this fuller experience of the universe with humility. One of my friends had been told that her husband's business suffered from the malevolent attentions of a kind of demon which Machig calls a gyalpo. So, my friend asked our chöd group to come practice at the business site. Before we went, I looked up Machig's instructions on how to feed gyalpos, then our group arranged a practice session. The practice itself was unremarkable, and everything went well.

I was pleased, and when I went to see Khenpo Tsering for our usual meditation instruction session, I told him about our adventure with the gyalpo. Then, for the first time, he gave me the "black air." His disapproval was so palpable that I started to cry. Khenpo refused to talk to me for a week, no matter how many times I called.

When I saw him again, he asked me if we had tried to command the gyalpo, or to feed it. I explained that we had followed Machig's instructions and simply offered the gyalpo a more wrathful form of the red feast.

Khenpo then told me the following story. There was a merchant who had hired a gyalpo as a servant. The merchant gave the gyalpo a long list of items that he needed. The gyalpo came back sooner than expected with everything on the list. Delighted, the merchant laughed with pleasure and teased the gyalpo saying, "You brought me everything but three severed heads." The next day the gyalpo presented the merchant with a bloody sack that contained three severed heads.

The story's point is not that gyalpos lack a sense of humor, but rather that the other movies are very different from the movie we currently experience, and that the beings in those other realms abide by rules and conventions we don't understand.

Our only protection is our intention, which is to exchange ourselves for others in an act of a most profound offering of compassion. It is an adventure and a revelation.

Invitation to the Dance
by Alta Brown

You talk about freedom
as you stare
at me
through your prison bars.

Oh, you can
sail your boat,
take a flight,
drive your car
up to the mountains, but
you take your prison
with you.

Are you so afraid
to invite me in?
Isn't it a little dark,
a little stuffy,
a little lonely
in there?
Are you really safe
behind the bars?

You bluster
and tell me
you are prepared
to die.
Do you think
your prison door
will fly open
with your last breath?
Or will you
find yourself
in an even smaller
darker and more constricted,
where wilder things
breathe into your ear?

Why don't you
come out
and play with me?
The air is clear,
the sun is bright,
and everything
is so beautiful.