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Exemplars of bodhisattva Vimalakirti

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential renaissance man, with his wide interests and considerable talents in architecture, the sciences, music, linguistics, and philosophy, and with his construction of many practical, helpful inventions. Among his many other activities, the sutra mentions Vimalakirti visiting schools to educate children. Jefferson was also an innovator in education, establishing public school systems in order to make education more generally available and founding the University of Virginia. A wealthy landowner like Vimalakirti, Jefferson lamentably was also a slave owner—although (at least in his early career) he unsuccessfully made attempts to abolish slavery and to stop its spread in the United States—and freed some of his own slaves upon his death.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

We may see qualities of Samantabhadra the benefactor as well as of Vimalakirti in Jefferson's establishment of democratic principles through his political activities, even before being elected president of the United States, especially in his drafting of the Declaration of Independence and his persistent promotion of the Bill of Rights. Jefferson's affirmation that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and his vow of "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man" echo the rigor of Vimalakirti's relentless inquiry into the attachments and dualistic conceptualizations that obstruct liberation.

Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.

Jefferson's "enlightenment" was the rationality of the emerging science of Europe, and he remained current on the latest intellectual developments on the continent. Deeply interested in religion, Jefferson extracted from the Gospels his own edited "Jefferson Bible" for his personal study and inspiration. He firmly believed that God had created the human mind free, able to find its own way through reason and inherent moral sense. Jefferson, like the enlightened Buddhist layman, was attempting to reclaim religious authority and value from the priestly class, or in Vimalakirti's case from the purified monks, and to return religion to the province of everyone's personal experience. In this sense Jefferson exemplifies the aspect of Vimalakirti as critic of religious elitism, pretension, and prejudice.

Despite his brilliance, Jefferson's shadow side suggests the limitations in citing complex, actual persons as exemplars of archetypal figures. The range of his extraordinary, noble qualities exemplifies and illuminates Vimalakirti-like activity, but Jefferson equivocated about the relationship between the races. From our own cultural vantage point, Jefferson's remarkable shortcomings can be acknowledged and some of his conduct deeply deplored without ceasing to appreciate his many valuable qualities, which may help inform our understanding of modes of bodhisattva activity.