To engage with Zen Buddhism, properly, involves more than just reading about Buddhism and Zen, joining a Zen center, and doing meditation several times a month. Regrettably, the intelligence of unawakened worldlings (prithagjana) is only capable of understanding Zen Buddhism from a very shallow perspective because they are in the habit of living and thinking this way. In such a life, there is no pressure or necessity to look beyond the superficial layers of oneself which is actually what Zen Buddhism is really asking us to do.
We get a sense of this shallowness in the Introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Zen Keys (1974) by Philip Kapleau. Kapleau wants the reader to understand that Buddhism is not a world-denying cult of inner illumination offering escape from the suffering of life (which, truth be told, it is). No, Buddhism is all about “simple labor and a life of awareness” which is about “being ‘awake’ in whatever one is doing” (p. 2). It is all “in the doing, not in the contemplating” (p. 4). The practice of Zen is easy enough it seems.
“Truly to practice Zen therefore means never to leave lights burning when they are not needed, never to allow water to run unnecessarily in the faucet, never to leave a scrap of food uneaten” (p. 5).
Kapleau’s introduction is almost a gross oversimplification of real Zen Buddhism. He is leaving out its most important part although, ironically, this doesn’t seem to be the case with the author, Thich Nhat Hanh. Arguably, the most important part of Zen is, seeing into one's nature, realizing Buddhahood. In order to see one’s nature, the individual has to transcend the most subtle layers of their psychophysical organism which is accomplished by means of dhyâna this being a specialized form of meditation unique to Buddhism. By no means is this easy.
The shallowness of the unawakened worldling who decides to see their nature and realize Buddhahood is a huge daunting obstruction. It is their entire being. To really see one’s nature amounts to boring through a hardened pile of almost concrete like shit. In other words, there is nothing pleasant about facing one’s own stupidity, anger, and concupiscence. But face it we must in our search for our true nature. Finding this pristine nature is not helped by indulging in our shallowness or striking back at those who show us just how really stupid we are when it comes to comprehending what Zen is actually about. This might explain why so few who practice Zen actually come to realize their true nature. They only learn to be even more deluded than they already are.