124 - The Buddhist Practice of Vow: Giving Shape to Our Lives
126 - Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1

The Vajrayana teaching of the five wisdom energies is a about five types of energy we all have within us, or five tendencies within a human being. Within each of us, one or two energies tend to predominate, resulting in what we might call “personality,” but at a deeper level these five energies are about five characteristic orientations to the conundrum of human life.



Quicklinks to Content:
The Vajrayana Teaching of the Five Wisdom Energies
Definitions of the Five Energies
Red Energy – Longing for Intimacy
Yellow Energy – Appreciation of Abundance
Blue Energy – The Power of Discernment
Green Energy – Effective Action
White Energy – Transcendence
Honoring and Transforming All of the Energies


The Vajrayana Teaching of the Five Wisdom Energies

This episode is about one of my favorite non-Zen Mahayana Buddhist teachings. I thought about calling this episode “Liberation Through Understanding the Five Buddhist Personality Types,” but there’s really not a Buddhist teaching about personality types in the modern sense of the term. Rather, this is a teaching about five types of energy we all have within us, or five tendencies within a human being. Within each of us, one or two energies tend to predominate, resulting in what we might call “personality,” but at a deeper level these five energies are about five characteristic orientations to the conundrum of human life.

Before I start discussing the five energies, how they operate, and why recognizing them is valuable, let me give you a little background on this teaching. I confess I am not traditionally trained in it. I have not studied it in the context of Vajrayana, or Tibetan, Buddhism, which is where it comes from. Instead, I encountered it at the Zen center where I trained, when we used it as teaching framework for working with children at a Buddhist summer camp. Unlike so many classical Buddhist or Zen teachings, this Vajrayana teaching is colorful and associated with all kinds of symbols and imagery. In addition, the Vajrayana approach focuses on recognizing, celebrating, and transforming any and all energies that arise within us, so this is good fit for working with energetic, lively kids who are just figuring out who they are.

The essence of the five wisdom energy teaching is pretty basic, although I’m sure there are subtleties to the teaching as it’s used in Vajrayana that I’m missing. I apologize for any inaccuracies or distortions that might exist in my treatment of the subject. My approach is inspired by two books:

I recommend both of these books. Rockwell’s book is a more psychological take, including descriptions of personalities dominated by each of the five energies. Among many other things, she offers lists of various tendencies, qualities and affinities associated with each energy, such as someone’s central motivation, style of learning, typical neuroses, and favorite animals, music, and style of dress. Chogyam’s book also describes typical behavior associated with an abundance of the five energies, but goes a little more into the central existential issue reflected in each energy. Chogyam is where I get the idea of each energy as being associated with a characteristic response to the intuition of emptiness – but more on that in a bit.

five wisdom energiesOverall, the five wisdom energies are presented in Vajrayana Buddhism as occupying different spaces within a mandala. A mandala is a picture of a whole with many component parts, often drawn as circle divided into four, five, or six segments. The image typically represents the universe, but may also represent some other whole composed of parts, such as a family, a community, or the human psyche. In the case of the five wisdom energies, a circular mandala is divided into quarters, and a smaller circle set in the center defines a fifth space. The mandala as a whole portrays both the universe and the human psyche, and includes all five of the energies: Red in the north, Green in the East, Blue in the South, Yellow in the West, and White in the center (sometimes the directions vary, as in the image in this post).

Each energy has both neurotic and liberated manifestations. As you’ll see, each energy is about a particular kind of drive or longing that is essential to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, not to mention our survival. These drives and longings end up resulting in neurosis and suffering as long as we’re still caught in the delusion that our self-nature is inherently real, independent, and enduring. The more we awaken to liberating quality of emptiness – how everyone and everything, including ourselves, is “empty” of any inherent self-nature – the more the five energies manifest positively.

Definitions of the Five Wisdom Energies

I’ll go more deeply into each energy, but in summary, each energy is associated with – among many other things – a color, a natural element, and a particular kind of preoccupation:

Red energy is associated with the element of fire. This energy makes us long for intimacy – with other beings, but also with everything we encounter and with life itself.

Yellow energy is associated with the element of earth. This energy makes us long for stability or security through abundance and a sense of being substantial.

Blue energy is associated with the element of water. This energy makes us long for safety and control through understanding, which allows us to make the right decisions and maintain order.

Green energy is associated with the element of air or wind. This energy makes us long to feel effective and capable by actively meeting challenges as they arise.

White energy is associated with the element of space. This energy makes us long for transcendence – a larger perspective untroubled by ordinary worldly tribulations.

With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies.

As I offer a more thorough description of each energy, I’ll describe our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they tend to be if we’re completely dominated by that energy. Of course, we contain all five energies in different amounts; none of us is a caricature of only one of them. Still, as I go through the descriptions, I suspect you’ll identify strongly with one or two of the energies, or recognize them as predominating in someone you know.

Red Energy – Longing for Intimacy

In its pure form, red energy is what drives us to connect with other beings, and with everything we encounter. At some level we know we aren’t separate from anything, and love to experience that non-separation. Because of our red energy we enjoy relationships, sex, music, beauty, and sensual pleasures. We may also be attracted to new, exciting, and challenging experiences because their freshness jolts us out of our habitual modes of operating and requires us to be more attentive and responsive to what’s in front of us. All of these things make us feel less separate from the rest of life, and our natural attraction to them leads to the warmth symbolized by fire, the element associated with this energy.

However, when we are full of red energy but are still convinced we have an inherently-existing self-nature, we believe our existence is dependent on being affirmed and confirmed by contact – contact with other beings, objects, and experiences. We have what Ngakpa Chogyam calls “an intuition of emptiness,” but because of our incomplete understanding of it, we react with a fear of isolation. Consequently, we don’t feel alive unless we feel intimate with someone or something. You might say red energy can make us feel like we are what we touch.

Like an out-of-control fire, we compulsively burn through relationships and sensual experiences, seeking an intimacy fix that never lasts. Our endless search for novelty and excitement may exhaust the people around us and prevent us from making or honoring commitments. Our romantic relationships, while passionate or exciting, may also be tumultuous and exploitative, because we’re essentially using others to satisfy our own needs. All of these examples are grasping, the neurotic manifestation of red energy.

With practice, we begin to trust emptiness. We experience first hand how our true self-nature is no self-nature, and in what sense that’s liberating and wonderful. Intimacy and non-separation are the fundamental reality of our being, available to us at any time. It’s only when we imagine a separate self that connection must be achieved by contact with beings and objects outside of ourselves. Of course, this unconditional intimacy is a quality of the absolute aspect of our existence. On the relative level, real relationship, connection, warmth, and appreciation are vital aspects of our lives. When liberated, our red energy manifests in all of these ways, free from a self-centered, grasping quality.

Yellow Energy – Appreciation of Abundance

In its pure form, yellow energy is what drives us to gather resources, and to build and create in order to take care of ourselves, our families, and communities. This energy inspires us to make sure beings, including ourselves, have shelter, food, social support, and comfort. We anticipate needs, and plan for future contingencies. We save for a rainy day, producing resources out of our stores when otherwise beings would go wanting. We build things to last. We enjoy abundance and the ease and comfort it brings. Yellow energy may, like red energy, attract us to sensual pleasures, but the fundamental reason for the attraction isn’t the ecstasy experienced as we make contact with the object of our desire. Instead, yellow energy appreciates nourishment, abundance, and the building up of relationships. Like its associated element of earth, yellow energy is grounded and fertile.

Of course, when we are full of yellow energy but are still convinced we have an inherently-existing self-nature, we believe our existence is dependent on our stuff. Despite our “intuition of emptiness,” our incomplete understanding leads to a fear of insubstantiality. Consequently, we don’t feel safe unless we’re surrounded, protected, and enlarged by an overabundance of the stuff we rely for security or happiness. Yellow energy can make us feel like we are what we have.

Whether we’re fond of amassing wealth, possessions, status, or friends, there’s really no such thing as too much. Greed rules the day; the more we have, we reason, the more we’re insulated against inevitable losses; so the process of accumulation continues. To some extent even our human relationships can become one more thing to acquire and hoard, for the sake of the comfort and social support they can provide us. The yellow energy element is earth, and just as an earthquake or landslide can be massively destructive, the weight of all of our stuff can crush us when we’re manifesting neurotic yellow energy.

When we have insight into the true, liberating nature of emptiness, we recognize there is no inherently-existing self-nature hiding out behind the protective barriers we’ve erected. Instead, our self is a dependently co-arisen phenomenon, constantly changing. We’re composed of material that has come to us through the abundance of life, and it will eventually disintegrate. Our life is an unfolding of causes and conditions through which resources can flow freely. Recognizing this is liberating, because no amount of money, comfort, physical security, or social connections are going to ultimately save us in the long run.

Once we let go of our obsession with protecting and preserving ourselves, our liberated yellow energy will naturally lead us to take care of ourselves and loved ones as best we can. Instead of trying to accumulate or hoard our resources to vainly guard against impermanence, we can appreciate and celebrate abundance with gratitude. What flows out of gratitude is yellow energy’s greatest strength: generosity.

Blue Energy – The Power of Discernment

In its pure form, blue energy is what drives us to understand – understand ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the nature of reality. In the process of understanding, we discern one thing from another: Red from blue, harmful from beneficial, right from wrong, self from other. We establish predictive theories about the way the world works, and these theories help us navigate our daily lives. We create plans for addressing problems. It’s our blue-energy intelligence and discernment that enable us to make wise decisions, and protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm. Like its associated element of water, blue energy can take different forms: Sometimes calm and reflective, like a mirror; sometimes sharp and penetrating, like a sliver of ice.

However, when we are full of blue energy but remain convinced we have an inherently-existing self-nature, we believe our existence is dependent on our understanding of the world and our consequent ability to predict and control it. Despite our “intuition of emptiness,” our incomplete understanding leads to a fear of threat. If everything is empty, how will we know what to do? We don’t feel safe unless we can get our minds around something, discern where it belongs in our mental universe, and then reconstruct our worldview in a way that helps us feel we’re in control. Emptiness seems like a meaningless no-man’s land that threatens the mental map essential to our existence. Blue energy can make us feel like we are what we know.

Because of our insecurity, we perceive as threatening the unknown, the uncontrolled, and anything or anyone who conflicts with our view – whether that view is about ourselves, our relationships, or the larger world. When things are not the way we think they should be, we respond with one of the neurotic manifestations of blue energy: Anger. This anger can range from mild irritation to all-out war. Unleashed, anger has the destructive power of a tsunami.

Once we have tasted the liberating experience of emptiness, the tension, defensiveness, and anger of blue energy dissipates. There’s no one who is under threat. There’s no inherently-existing, enduring “self” responsible for understanding and predicting everything. Our self-nature is actually fluid and responsive, and has its own kind of wisdom. At a certain point we can let go of our mental map of the world and allow clarity to arise naturally. When we do this, liberated blue energy leads to beneficial discernment and wisdom. In fact, it’s blue energy itself that can help us know the right times to engage our discriminating mind, like a scalpel or a light during surgery, and when our thinking is getting too rigid and it’s time to embrace “don’t-know” mind.

Green Energy – Effective Action

In its pure form, green energy is what drives us to action. Life throws us one challenge after another, and we try to respond with energy, determination, and nimbleness. Our greatest joy is to perform effectively – to juggle lots of projects without dropping any of them, neutralize or even convert an opponent with grace and cleverness, engineer a brilliant solution to a practical problem, or achieve at a task with a maximum of efficiency. We’re proud of our abilities but always seek to develop and expand them. Others may accept something as good enough, or procrastinate taking action, but we just want to get started. Green energy makes us feel like there’s no impossible task, no insurmountable problem. The element associated with green energy is air, or more specifically the wind, which is always moving – just like us when we’re filled with green energy.

However, when we are full of green energy but are still convinced we have an inherently-existing self-nature, we believe our existence is dependent on our ability to anticipate and deal effectively with every problem we encounter. Our intuition of emptiness paired with an incomplete understanding of what it actually means results in a fear of groundlessness. If there’s no “you,” how are you going to perceive what’s coming, and how can you count on your ability to deal with it? Our fear may manifest as stress, groundless anxiety, or an attachment to busyness. It’s like we’re juggling a dozen balls and can’t let a single one drop or we’ll surely die. We have a sense, at times, that if one more thing comes our way, the whole house of cards will come down. Green energy can make us feel like we are what we do.

Endless anticipation of the challenge that will finally bring us down leads to one of the neurotic manifestations of green energy: paranoia. Other people become additional challenges and problems to us: They’re unpredictable, sometimes directly threatening, often unimpressed with the incredible juggling act we’re performing, and usually unhelpful.

Once we awaken to the real nature of emptiness, though, our green energy is once again liberated. We’re no longer so worried about some inherently-existing, enduring self, who’s in danger of losing a battle with uncountable, unseen foes. We recognize how our capacity to respond effectively often arises naturally, and doesn’t always depend on a willful struggle. With a greater sense of ease, we can take joy in our abilities and engage in a lively dance with the challenges we encounter, benefitting self and other. Paranoia fades with our self-preoccupation.

White Energy – Transcendence

In its pure form, white energy is what drives us to seek and honor transcendence. We know there’s something more, or deeper, or greater, than the material, everyday world we’re usually presented with. Always trying to maintain the largest possible perspective, we are receptive and aware, refusing to take sides or get caught in small agendas. No matter what happens, we almost always remain grounded and calm. Much of the angst and striving in the world seems pointless to us, because we’re satisfied with just being. White energy is far from exciting, but it makes us comfortable with silence and stillness. We’re able to give other people space to be who they are, and we listen. Appropriately, then, the element associated with white energy isn’t really an element at all, it’s space.

When white energy predominates in us but we’re still convinced we have an inherently-existing self-nature, however, we believe our existence is dependent on our ability to be untroubled by reality. Our “intuition of emptiness” leads to a fear of nothingness because of our incomplete understanding. Faced with what we think is a nihilistic void, we employ the near-enemy of our natural equanimity and respond with indifference. Our “larger perspective” turns into a refusal to engage, and our comfort with stillness and silence turns into passivity. We sink into dullness and depression. When simple indifference doesn’t blunt the horror of nothingness, we may turn to various kinds of intoxicants – substances or behaviors – to help us shut out reality. White energy can make us feel like we are nothing.

Of course, in a sense, we are nothing! But emptiness is not a nihilistic void. Nothing in the universe could exist without space; even the smallest particle of matter is mostly space. Emptiness is the lively potential permeating every manifestation. When we awaken to the real nature of emptiness, our white energy inspires us to reflect and honor that emptiness by embodying peace, sufficiency, stability, and fearlessness. We remain untroubled by reality not because we have shut it out, but because we have faced it directly and see everything as a miraculous, luminous play of energy.

Honoring and Transforming All of the Five Wisdom Energies

I’ve been speaking as if there are people who have only red energy, or yellow energy, or blue, green, or white energy. Of course, while one or two energies tend to predominate in each of us, we contain all of them – and have to!

In conclusion, I want to point out two valuable aspects of this five wisdom energy teaching. First, the concept of the mandala helps us integrate and honor the different aspects of our being, and of our communities. As I mentioned before, a mandala is an image of a whole composed of many parts. Every part is essential and has its place. Within our being we have all five energies, and within every group of people there are individuals in whom red, yellow, blue, green, or white energy predominates.

Recognizing the value of the liberated forms of each energy helps us recognize and value them as they manifest within us, and in the people around us. For example, perhaps I’m a mostly blue energy person and value order and logic. I may be inclined to reject or ignore my red energy because I’m uncomfortable with emotions or the messiness of human relationships, but unless I honor and – to some extent – cultivate my red energy, I’ll probably be a very lonely person. Or maybe I’m a green energy person and I feel judgmental and impatient about someone I’m working with who manifests a lot of white energy. I want to “get the show on the road” and make changes, but they have a greater sense of acceptance about the way things are, and lack the sense of imperative. Rather than struggling with them, I can recognize the value of their perspective and be a little less attached to my own agenda.

The second important aspect of the five wisdom energies teaching is the idea of transformation. Every energy has both liberated and neurotic manifestations. When we encounter a neurotic manifestation in ourselves or others – grasping, greed, anger, paranoia, or indifference – we don’t need to reject or suppress the energy that’s behind it. Rejecting and suppressing is always harmful. Instead, we can learn to recognize the purpose of each energy, see how it’s being misused or deformed, and then liberate it by giving up self-centered attachment and concern.


124 - The Buddhist Practice of Vow: Giving Shape to Our Lives
126 - Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1