House of Cards x Buddhism (and the Five Wisdom Energies)

My capacity to binge watch an entire season of House of Cards in 48 hours is currently far greater than my ability to meditate for 20 minutes every morning, so I’m not even going to try and make the case that sitting for hours with little movement while watching the Underwoods take DC is a manifestation of Dharana (sustained focus), the 6th limb of Yoga. Instead I’m going to geek out about the Buddhist monks that make a cameo appearance in S3E6 and attempt to describe a theory on personality through the use of a mandala, which is what the monks were creating during the episode. 

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle. This symbol traditionally appears with a center point, a surrounding circle, and enclosed in a square. Mandalas typically have a balanced layout and invite creators and observers to focus in a meditative state while contemplating the symbols, stories, and details of the design.

There is a Buddhist framework for understanding personalities, emotions, and actions called the Five Wisdom Energies. In this context, the term energy is used to indicate that each quality of “self” has movement. Each quality arises as pure emotion — anger, desire, attachment, fear — and can then manifest in behaviors in one of two ways: with wisdom or with confusion. 

For example, when a moment of desire arises in the mind — OMG I really want a Salty Pimp cone from Big Gay Ice Cream right this moment — the emotion can come to life with a neurotic and confused behavior — I immediately put on my shoes and run as fast as I can to the East Village and am rude to everyone that stands in the way of ME and MY ice cream — or my actions can come to life with more wisdom — hmm it’s 28 degrees and I just ate dinner and dairy also isn’t so great for my skin so I should probably wait until I can go get some non-dairy treats with a friend this Spring. Not such a profound example, but hopefully that helps to convey the concept? These characteristics aren’t static and are expressed at various moments throughout each day and for our entire lives. 

This theory of the Five Wisdom Energies is illustrated using a mandala, much like the one created in House of Cards. Each section of the mandala is referred to as a family. 

The Buddha family, located at the center of the mandala, represents spaciousness — primarily in mind, but also in actions, routines, and physical spaces. Clear light is the color for this family which symbolizes the inherent basic goodness within everyone. The wisdom energy is expressed as the ability to let things be as they are — being accommodating to not only personal thoughts and feelings, but of those in the environment. When out of balance, the neurotic energy is expressed as being spaced out, having apathy, and an “ignorance is bliss” attitude. 

In the East is the indestructible Vajra family, which is represented with the element of water, the color blue, and the winter season. Wisdom is expressed in clarity of thought and those embodying this family favor systematic thinking, ethical codes, and structured frameworks of thought. When a situation does not fit into a pattern or is a gray area, the energy becomes aggressive and angry as the experience challenges the foundation for which a Vajra person has established their life. 

The Ratna family is symbolized by a jewel, the color gold, and the autumn season. It is in the southern direction in the mandala and is associated with the element of earth. This family seeks equanimity and wisdom behaviors are expressed with a strong presence for generosity, richness, and elaborate activities. When confused, the energy of Ratna becomes insecure, in need of praise, and with an arrogant sense of pride. 

The most commonly expressed energy in humans is that of Padma, the lotus family, which represents passion. Located in the west, this family associated with the color red, the element of fire, and the full-of-potential spring season. The basic energy is that of desire which can be expressed positively as longing for connection with others and in a way that is discerning and without attachment. The opposition is that of obsessive grasping for a person, thing, or idea leading to a small-minded perspective. Padma people favor storytelling based study and investigation of concepts, are charming, and value communication. 

Karma means action, and this family is based on the energy of ambition. The element of wind/air represents constant movement and the summer season indicates growth and completion. In the mandala it is in the north and is the color green. Those with Karma family tendencies are able to cut through obstacles — less talk, more doing — and they value data and direct experience over theories. When out of balance, the energy becomes jealous and anxious as the mind begins to compare itself to others and the focus on the journey is lost to an attachment to a goal. 

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Related reading! The Five Wisdom Energies by Irini Rockwell and shorter article in Lion’s Roar and this nondescript PDF summary