Posts Tagged ‘me’

In New York State you can own a Personalized License Plate, better known as a vanity plate, for $ 43.00. To retain your plate you will need to pay an annual fee of $ 25.50. Depending on your viewpoint, that is a lot or not much to pay for the privilege of having your name—or that of your trade, your passion, or your favorite sport—emblazoned on your car.

As I was driving on the New York State Thruway the other day, I came upon the ultimate vanity plate. Pulling into a rest stop, I noticed the out-of-state license plate on a sporty silver car. In bold black letters, it proclaimed its owner’s first concern:


On either side of these letters were several inches of white space, which gave further prominence to this one, all-important word.

It’s common to hear the word “me” in conversation, but it was striking to find that word isolated on a license plate. I was reminded of a poem by my one-time mentor, the Maine poet Philip Booth (1925-2007). Entitled “Marches,” the poem is an exploration of seasonal change and human mortality.

In the first four stanzas the narrator reflects on the advent of spring, imagines the young “wading the surf, getting wasted, pretending / they cannot die,” and envisions “thousands of death-needles” being passed, leaving “hundreds of / children. . . born with systems in no way immune”. In the last two stanzas, he reflects on  the imminence of death in everyday life, especially life on the highway:

And millions of the rest of us, self-righteous

in the perfect democracy of backcountry roads, freeways,

and interstates, pass each other at life-span speeds;

or close, in opposing lanes, at a hundred-and-thirty,

trusting implicitly in simple self-interest, missing

each other, time after time, only by fragments of seconds,

as we move our lives, or dyings, another round toward

what March may be like in maybe the year 2000.*

Yes, the roads are dangerous, these lines acknowledge, but no one wants to die, and we can depend on each other’s self-interest to keep us alive.

This vision of interdependence is common in Western culture. In sociological terms, it is often called Western individualism; in economic terms, the free-market economy. In America this view has prevailed for at least two hundred years, though of late its economic version has not been faring so well. But there is another vision of interdependence, which the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes in this way:

In our ordinary discriminatory world, we see a teapot as a single, independent object. But when we look deeply enough into the teapot, we will see that it contains many phenomena—earth, water, fire, air, space, and time—and we will realize that in fact the entire universe has come together to make this teapot. That is the interdependent nature of the teapot. A flower is made up of many non-flower elements, such as clouds, soil, and sunshine. Without clouds and earth, there could be no flower. This is interbeing. The one is the result of the all. What makes the all possible is the one.**

In this vision of interdependence, everything depends on everything else. All are interconnected parts of the great, indivisible body of reality, in which energies are constantly being exchanged, and what we normally call “things” are being transformed, moment by moment. To describe that reality, Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the word “interbeing.”

In Japanese Zen, the reality of “interbeing” is epitomized by the Japanese word “mu,” which literally means “no” but in Zen usage has no extractable content. Rather, it is a way of pointing toward things as they are at any given moment—impermanent, void of intrinsic selves, and utterly dependent upon each other. In contrast to “me,” “mu” evokes a fundamental mutuality and engenders a spirit of compassion. Were I to see it on a license plate, I would feel safer on the road.


*Philip Booth, Selves (Viking 1990), 56

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation at the Base: Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press 2001), 77

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