13 of 13

Exemplars of bodhisattva Vimalakirti

Helen Keller

Helen Keller became blind, deaf, and mute when she was struck with a fever when less than two years old. Thanks to the intervention of an extraordinary teacher, Anne Sullivan, when she was seven, Keller was able to go on to develop remarkable knowledge and wisdom and to encourage many people. As a child Keller had been locked into an inner world that was enraging and frustrating because she had no means to communicate. Sullivan was called a "miracle worker" because she was able to get through to the difficult, unruly child and introduce the concept of language to Keller. Thereafter Keller performed her own "miraculous displays," learning how to speak and attracting fame for her accomplishments while still very young.

Helen Keller pursued knowledge by learning five other languages and studying history, mathematics, literature, astronomy, and physics, eventually graduating from Radcliffe College at the age of twenty-four. Keller learned through Sullivan's interpreting by spelling in Keller's hand with a manual alphabet, as well as via lip-reading with her fingers, and through Braille. She communicated by typing, speaking with her somewhat odd-sounding voice, and manually spelling in interpreters' hands. Thereby Keller was able to write numerous books, actively correspond with many people, and give lectures around the world, always displaying her great enthusiasm for life.

Possessed of an unusual wealth of inner experience resulting from being shut away from conventional perception, Helen Keller was a multidimensional woman who used her wisdom and knowledge in a great many realms. She developed a lifelong faith in the Swedenborgian religion with its philosophical and cosmological validation of inner spiritual states and vision.

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

Keller was perhaps best known as a spokesperson for the blind, the disabled, and the mentally retarded, as she helped end the practice of locking away the blind and deaf in mental asylums. But Helen Keller applied her concern for the unfortunate to a range of issues of social justice. Her researches into disability and blindness revealed that class inequity was a contributing factor, as industrial accidents and inadequate medical care led to a higher incidence among the poor. She visited factories, slums, sweatshops, and workers on strike in mining or mill towns, lending her support, “smelling” the squalor, as she said, and listening to the pleas of those struggling, thereby educating herself to the devastating effects of class injustice.

Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I am in, therin to be content

Keller was also a leading figure in the women's suffrage movement, actively campaigning for women's right to vote in articles, lectures, and personal appeals to politicians, as well as marching at the front of suffrage rallies. Having worked so hard to transcend her early silence and find her voice, Keller was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union in support of free speech. As a white woman from Alabama, she was unusual in her early support of the NAACP.

As a vehement social critic and champion of the oppressed, Keller exhibited Vimalakirti's tenacious and fearless critical insight. Keller's radical political views led her to active involvement, writing and speaking on behalf of the Socialist Party, and later the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. But Keller was able to skillfully moderate her sometimes unpopular views and remained a spokesperson, educating and raising funds on behalf of the blind and disabled. Like Vimalakirti, Helen Keller was an invalid undeterred from expressing compassion for a wide range of beings using her remarkable wisdom, powers, and knowledge.

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.

Aside from renowned, remarkable cases, many anonymous sick and dying people can teach us of the truth of impermanence in their old age, sickness, and death. When we use our own ailments as skillful means, or when we can listen and learn from others' diseases the wisdom inherent in us all, we are in the realm of Vimalakirti. Enactment of Vimalakirti further manifests marvelous, creative displays in diverse worldly arenas, everywhere leaving astonishment and a fresh sense of vitality and expanded, luminous possibilities.

Other Vimalakirtis?

What other modern figures have qualities that remind you of Vimalakirti? Who do you know that embodies any of Vimalakirti's qualities: seeing through religious pretension, bringing wisdom into many worldly realms, or teaching by confounding conventional expectations?

Vimalakirti and you

How do Vimalakirti's qualities of fearless critical insight express themselves in your own life? How might Vimalakirti's teaching of seeing through the trappings of religion to the spiritual heart of the wonder of reality affect your own practice?