Our Emotions According to the Indo-Tibetan Tradition

Tibetan colorful prayer flags hanging over mountains across a sunny horizon.

Sowa rigpa, the Tibetan medical system, is an extension of Buddhism in many aspects. The therapeutic principles followed in sowa rigpa have unique esoteric features. In the Tibetan medical tradition, spiritual practices including visualizations combined with meditation and the recitation of mantras are part of the training that aspiring doctors must go through in order to acquire the qualities of compassion and the right motivation to help their patients.

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The Three Humours of Tibetan Medicine

In Tibetan medicine, the body is understood as an aggregation of Humours, duwa, and Organic Components, khams. The Humours of Tibetan medicine refer to a potency that has the capacity to create, maintain, and destroy by way of three natures that have different functions.

There are three aspects of the Humours of sowa rigpa, they are:

Wind Humour rLung

    • Mobile like the Air element.

Bile Humour mKris pa

    • Hot and burning like the Fire element.

Phlegm Humour Bad Kan

    • Solid and stable like the Earth and Water elements.

In the Vajrayana teachings, the three elements; Air, Fire, and Water, are represented by the letters Ram, Yam, and Kham, respectively. They are utilized to eliminate and purify the defilements of the mind which are burned by fire, dispersed by Air, and washed by Water. These three elements support the functions of the Three Humours.

Usually, advanced knowledge of the subtle channels and energy pathways connected to the body is kept secret in the Buddhist tradition, only being revealed to a few initiated disciples who are considered ready to receive them by a spiritual master. In Tibetan medicine, however, this knowledge is treated with somewhat less secrecy, as it is of practical relevance for therapeutic purposes.

Emotions in Buddhism

Since Tibetan medicine is rooted in Buddhism they’re both based on similar viewpoints. A large portion of Buddhist philosophy revolves around human emotions, although no word in any of the traditional languages of Buddhism can be found that translates as “emotion”.

Among the most famous teachings that Buddha Shakyamuni has given are the Four Seals, of which the second states that “all emotions are pain”. According to Buddha, the root of cyclic existence in states of suffering is three poisonous emotions; anger, attachment, and ignorance.

The disciple who wishes to get out of the endless cycle of conditioned existence is offered a graduated path according to her or his capacity, which will lead to the perfect enlightened state of a Buddha.

For the beings of lowest capacity, the path of renunciation of sins and practice of virtue is taught. For beings of middling capacity, the path of the three higher trainings in ethics, concentration, and wisdom is taught. Great capable beings must generate the awakened heart of bodhicitta and practice the six paramitas.

In tantric Buddhism, the graduated path of the secret mantra vajra vehicle, the greatest capable being is taught how to transform emotions into wisdoms. Tibetan medicine is mainly connected to this branch of Buddhism.

Emotions in Tibetan Medicine

In the Tibetan system of subtle anatomy, the body is composed of hundreds of thousands of subtle Wind-energy channels that connect to three main channels. Ro ma flows on the right side of the body, kyangma flows on the left side, and uma is the central channel.

The right channel is tied to solar energy, the hot nature, and the Bile Humour. The left channel is tied to the cold nature of lunar energy and the Phlegm Humour. The central channel is tied to neutral energy and the Wind Humour.

The three poisonous emotions that are the root of cyclic existence in samsara are connected to the three main channels of the body which carry the energies of the duwa (three Humours). The latter is both the basis and the secondary cause of the three poisonous emotions. Ro ma connects to anger, uma connects to attachment, and kyangma connects to ignorance.

Afflictive Emotions in the Middle Way School

The afflictive emotions are essential obstacles for any sort of spiritual attainment, this is a rough translation of the Sanskrit term kleśa. The afflictive obscurations hinder the achievement of the liberation that comes from the realization of emptiness (shunyata).

Since the highest aspiration in the Buddhist path is to attain enlightenment in order to be able to benefit all sentient beings, getting rid of afflictive emotions is considered a crucial feat, for which many methods exist.

"Seizing karma and afflictions nirvana is achieved."

Arya Magarjuna

According to the Madhyamika School of the Middle Way founded by the great Indian pandit Nāgārjuna, all phenomena are dependently arisen and lack true existence. This philosophical school refutes extremist views that assert either eternalism or nihilism.

According to Geshe Tenzin Namdak, this is the essential definition of the two extreme views:

    • Eternalism/reification/permanence/absolutism: also known as the extreme of existence or the extreme of superimposition, referring to true existence of phenomena.
    • Annihilation/nihilism: also described as the extreme of non-existence or the extreme of denial, referring to the utter non-existence of phenomena.

Who Creates the Afflictions?

The Middle Way School asserts that all phenomena are merely imputed by the mind, including the self. A person is defined as the mere I that is imposed upon the collection of aggregates, or skhandas, being empty of both self-sufficient, inherently existent self, and true existence.

From the Diamond Cutter Sutra:

“As a star, a visual aberration, a lamp, an illusion, dew, a bubble, a dream, lightning, and a cloud – see conditioned phenomena as such”

The afflictive emotions arise due to self-grasping. When we see the consciousness aggregate as a person, as the I, or as the self, and then grasp at that consciousness, we generate afflictive emotions.

In order to refute inherent existence, Master Candrakīrti created a sevenfold reasoning based on the classical syllogism which characterizes the tenet system known as “one with or different from”, as expounded by Geshe Tenzin Namdak.


According to Candrakīrti Madhyamakāvatāra:

“A chariot is neither asserted to be [inherently] other than its parts, nor to be [inherently] non-other. “

• The first step is recognizing how the self appears to one’s consciousness, recognizing the object of negation or sometimes called the object of refutation. It appears in an independent manner, as being separate from body and mind, existing from its own side. This appearance of a concrete self is especially evident at times when destructive emotions like anger and attachment arise. At these times there is a strong apprehension of a concrete” I” and “mine”.

• The second step analyses the truth that if a concrete self exists as it appears, it must be either one with or different from body and mind, there is no other possibility.

• The third step establishes that this mistakenly appearing self cannot be one with body and mind. If it were one with the body and mind, then the self should be multiple since the body and mind are multiple. The Mādhyamakāvatāra says:

“If the aggregates [of body and mind] were the self, then since there are many aggregates, the self would also be many.”

• The fourth step establishes that the concretely appearing self cannot be inherently different from body and mind. If it were inherently different from body and mind, how could an interdependent relationship exist between the conventional self and body and mind? The Mādhyamakāvatāra says:

“There is no [inherent] self, other than the aggregates because without the aggregates, it is not apprehended.”

• Based on the previous reasons, the fifth step concludes that an inherently established or concrete “I” cannot exist. One focuses upon this conclusion for some time and familiarizes one’s mind with this understanding of the ultimate reality of the self. Following this insight, one concludes that the self is a mere imputation upon the aggregates of body and mind in a nature of dependent origination. Through this one finds the view of the middle way; Nāgārjuna says in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

“Whatever is dependently originated, that is explained to be emptiness, that [emptiness reflects] dependent designation, this indeed is the middle way.”

rLung and the Mind

The rLung Humour of Tibetan medicine is what moves everything in the body. The Wind element is the vehicle of consciousness, in fact, and rLung is consciousness itself, in Tibetan they’re termed rLung-sems [རླུང་སེམས་].

The general functions of the Wind Humour is to preside over the perceptions of the five senses, the arising of awareness, all the movements of the body including the limbs, respiration, swallowing, blood circulation, the transportation of nutrients, the opening and closing of the sphincters, and so on.

There are different types rLung that exert different psychological as well as physiological functions throughout the body, they are five in total. The main Winds responsible for psychological functions are:

Gyen rgyu rLung

The Ascending Wind circulates through the nerves of the nose. It presides over the complexion and energy of the body, assists memory, and manifests attention, presence, and awareness.

Thur sel rLung

The Downward-clearing Wind circulates through the nerves of the large intestine. Its disruption can cause restlessness, fear, psychological and emotional distress, and worry.

Khyab byed rLung

The Pervading Wind pervades the entire nervous system, it is disrupted by sudden fear, shock, depression, fright, and phobia. The disruption of the Pervading Wind can lead to fainting, discomfort in the heart, restlessness, decreased mental functioning, unfounded fears, meaningless talk, panic attacks, and so on.

Sokzin rLung

The Life-sustaining Wind connects the body to the mind. At the moment of death, it is the last energy that retains consciousness in the body. It sustains all cerebral functions. Among the five Winds, Sokzin rLung is most often implicated with mental conditions.

When the Life-sustaining Wind is disturbed it manifests as anxiety, depression, confusion, and stress. In case of an invasion of its channels by other types of Winds, aggressive behaviours or hysteria may manifest, and even psychosis and insanity.

The Tibetan Solution

According to Tibetan medicine, we must try to keep the three Humours in their natural and undisturbed nature and “enable everything we do to support our health” (Norbu, 89).

The medical tradition of Tibet is rooted in the most basic of earthly needs, while taking into consideration the inseparability of earthly life and the transcendental spiritual reality. As a result, here we have a truly organic medical system.

The therapeutic approach of Tibetan medicine

    1. Prevention

Exercise, diet, seasonal habits.

    1. External Therapies

Massage, sauna, moxibustion, acupuncture, cupping, thermal waters.

    1. Oral medicine

Herbal pills, infusions, venoms, minerals, and some animal parts.

The Three Doors

Vajrayana Buddhism sees human beings as having three doors of communication with the world; the body, the energy or voice, and the mind. The relationship between energy and mind is metaphorically compared to a blind horse and a person without legs, respectively. The person can see, hear, think and plan, and is perfectly conscious, but having no legs is unable to move. The blind horse can walk and run but is not conscious of where it is going.

According to this metaphor, when the person who can’t walk mounts the blind horse, it is a perfect combination. The person can guide the horse and the horse can move in the right direction even though it can’t see anything.

Part of the prevention and healing in the Tibetan system involves meditation practices, the recitation of mantras and yogic breathing, and physical exercises aimed at relaxing the body and mind, and bringing the subtle Wind energy to its correct places.

Emotions are connected to the energy aspect, and their seeds come from the mind. In the Tibetan tradition, there’s no one-size-fits-all best way to work with individual problems, but a variety of ways to follow. It all boils down to being able to halt the chaotic movement of the grosser mind that causes us to experience afflictions, as well as bringing it to a peaceful and controlled state before engaging in any complex practice.

In the Madhyamika tradition, the pacification of the mind is done through extensive study combined with the practice of samatha meditation (calm abiding). In Tibetan medicine, there are more direct methods such as breathing exercises combined with movement that help to coordinate the energy and the channels. All those methods are equally useful to different people, different life contexts, and different stages of life.

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