In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a detailed discussion of how a dying person should be guided past the “wrathful deities” that are images of his fear to the desired annihilation of the self in Nirvana. There is a state between death and either rebirth or liberation from the circle of endless rebirths.
Here is a description of one of these demons, named Heruda:
O, Child of Buddha Nature, listen without distraction. Although the intermediate state of the peaceful deities did previously arise within you, you did not recognize it. So now you have wandered, [through the succession of pathways,] to here. Now, on the eighth day, the assembly of wrathful blood-drinking deities will arise. Recognize them and do not be distracted! O, Child of Buddha Nature, he who is called the Great Glorious Buddha Heruka will [now] arise, vividly manifesting before you from within your own brain. His body, blazing in a mass of light, is dark brown in colour, having three heads, six arms and four legs, which are [firmly] set apart. His right face is white, the left red and the central face dark brown. His nine eyes are fixed in a fearsome wrathful gaze, his eyebrows are quivering like lightning, his fangs are bared and gleaming, and he is laughing loudly, uttering the sounds of Alala and Haha, and Shoo oo—like whistles, in loud piercing cries. The golden-auburn hair of his head blazes and rears upward, sun and moon-discs, black serpents, and dry skulls adorn each of his heads, and black snakes and fresh skulls form a garland around his body. In his six hands he holds, on the right in the first hand, a wheel, in the middle one, an axe, and in the last hand a sword and to the left, in his first hand, he holds a bell, in the middle one, a ploughshare and in the last a skull. The female consort Buddhakrodhesvari is embracing his body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cup filled with blood to his mouth. Amidst loud pounding palatal sounds of ‘Thuk-chom’, and an [echoing] roar like the reverberation of thunder, the fire of pristine cognition blazes from the fiery indestructible pores of their bodies, and thus they stand together, [with one leg] extended and [the other] drawn in on a throne supported by garudas.
Do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! And do not be awed! Recognize this to be the buddhabody of your own intrinsic awareness. These are your own meditational deities, so do not be terrified. This, in reality, is the transcendent lord Vairocana and his consort, so do not be afraid. Recognition and liberation will occur simultaneously!
It is difficult for us to recognize what appears to be a wrathful demon as a manifestation of ourselves. By exhibiting fear in this critical Bardo state (as the Tibetans call it) will tie you to this life and the inevitable defeat of rebirth. Perhaps in our culture, we do not see rebirth as a negative: Rather, we typically frighten ourselves with demons and exhibit fear.
Whereas in our culture it is death and the pathways to it that terrify us, the Tibetans see death as a teachable moment—the last chance for non-returning to a world characterized by misery.
As I write this, Martine and I have just returned from a nearby hospice in which a longtime friend is confronting pancreatic cancer and trying to prepare his mind for—what? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that fear on that last approach is an ever-present danger. May we all be spared from this fear as we make our way out of this world and into—what?
Frank Herbert in his book Dune included this Bene Gesserit mantra which I think of often when confronting my own demons:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
There is great wisdom in these lines.