There’s a great zen story about an enlightened master, walking through town with a bamboo pole on his shoulder, at the end of which is a handkerchief with a few belongings inside. He’s accosted by a young student, who asks him, “What is the essence of zen?”
The old master puts down his little bundle.
Then the student asks, “And how is this put into practice?”
And the old master puts the load back on his shoulder and continues walking.
So what does this mean? It means that after practicing non-attachment with his belongings, the zen master is still able to perform all of his duties. He just doesn’t need anything in his life to make him happy.
And we think, “Yes, but my mother! My son! My house! My car!”
But if you could enjoy all of these things, knowing that they might be taken from you at any time, and still love them and care for them without the fear of losing them, then you would be a zen master. The practice of being able to put down your burdens at any time is incredibly freeing. Your life is lighter. You live fearlessly. Your love is unconditional.
My friend recommends mentally placing all your possessions in a bonfire every night before you go to bed, which I practiced for years. Lately, though, I’m starting to see the whole world as a kind of pop-up book. We should be able to close the book at any time, freeing ourselves of the story we repeat to ourselves about responsibilities and duties, memories and possessions. If we can do this, that is a day that we are able to perform our duties well, to live in the present moment, and to find real peace of mind.
Sometimes something sticks out, and the book doesn’t close. Something is bothering us.
We just have to reopen the book and carefully refold that page, giving away our worries and our micromanagement. Then we can close the book. We get to feel ourselves as spirit for that blissful moment. That’s the essence.
Then we reopen the book whenever our attention is needed and all the pages magically reappear. Then we attend to our duties.
That’s the practice.