I mentioned back during my discussion of Zen And Dinking Around With Bikes And Stuff how one of the things I hated about the book was how, almost without trying, it trivialized Zen in particular and Buddhism generally. I don't blame the book specifically for that. It's more like the book was one manifestation, one of the most obvious ones to be sure, of the way Zen and Buddhism have been turned into bad jokes.
Part of why this gets under my skin as deeply as it does is twofold. One is, I've benefited a whole heck of a lot in my life from the close study and practice of this stuff. There's a good chance I might not be here typing this if it hadn't been for finding a good path into the practice and staying with it. It bugs me good and hard to see something of real value turned into a cultural punchline. But I guess that goes with most everything of value in this world: someone, somewhere, is going to giggle at it. Fine, whatevs.
The other is that because of this trivialization, there's this tendency to overcompensate when people are sincere about it. The way most people study Zen, or get exposed to it, can have so much formality and so many Trappings Of Spirituality attached to it that it's hard for them to have a direct, unpretentious relationship with it. They turn it into an academic exercise (that was my initial mistake), or a dick-sizing competition (or would that be dharma-sizing competition? you get the idea), or use it for what amounts to a fancy form of social signaling, or any number of other misuses.
The impression I received, time and again, was that Zen practice was meant to be a reaction to the hopeless levels of overcomplication found in other spiritual practices. It was meant to be as minimal as possible at core. People who felt motivated to dive all the more deeply into it were given a way to do so that also forced them to question what their motives really were. It's hard for anything this subtle to be delivered as an institution or a tradition, since the minute the dynamism of it is frozen in the form of an institution or tradition, you don't have it anymore.
Too often this stuff seems to break down into bad choices. Either you have the whole thing taken too seriously or not seriously enough. The trick is, I guess, to take it just seriously enough to know when not to take it seriously at all.