Everything we do in Buddhism, including Zen, has to do with transcending conditionality so that, more than likely, we will cognize the unconditioned in its own right—not through the veil of the conditioned. What we perceive through the veil of the conditioned is never other than conditioned. The words we read, even the Buddha’s discourses we read, fall within the distorted realm of conditionality. In this regard, the role of deep meditation cannot be undervalued it getting us beyond the conditioned.
The forest monks in Thailand, for example, are far more successful at cognizing the unconditioned than the city monks. Withdrawing from the madding crowd is not a bad thing to do. At the right time it is necessary when one deeply understands the goal, the goal being to realize nirvana which is totally unconditioned. This is the most critical part of our journey. In my case, many years ago, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had to cognize pure Mind which was not an intellectual matter, so I went into retreat to see this pure Mind. I couldn’t afford the distractions.
The Buddha’s greatest triumph was fully realizing that the unconditioned is the only true reality; all else is appearance—a mere configuration of this supreme, unconditioned reality. If the Buddha were like a radio, his deep meditation discovered the more subtle radio signal. What he realized had nothing to do with the radio parts and the music coming out of the speaker. But few today understand the subtlety of mind required that discovers the unconditioned. Most followers of Buddhism, it seems to me, are more interested in using Buddhism as some kind of palliative for helping them cope with the conditioned world they are not yet ready to give up.
Many today, rather than look for the unconditioned Mind, which is what authentic meditation is all about, or the same, seek nirvana, all their effort goes towards learning how to live the life of a prithagjana (a worldling) Buddhist hoping, that when death comes, to be reborn in the Western Paradise. At this point, it becomes almost a demand on the part of the prithagjana that the teaching of the Buddha be for their temporal benefit—not for their ultimate benefit. Pretty soon, Buddhism becomes more like a psychiatric institution taking care of those who believed the temporal world was a refuge.