Yes, zenkarma, it is in sense paying less attention to the sensory, or at least not limiting ourselves to it, not assuming it is a clear and true perception. We must analyze our immediate perceptions to discover how they arise, what conditions them. This is not uncommon in the Buddhist tradition; we must realize that even our sensory perceptions are already shaped by our culture and experiences, and there is never a pure and true perception, because perception occurs in the mind, not the eye/ear/finger.
My point is that this reification of senses, by the belief that they are unanalyzable, prevents us from becoming aware of how things really are. This is a long debate in Buddhism, and, to come to Huseng’s question, the belief in and unconditioned, which is clearly already a subject of debate in the Pali canon, only becomes more or less “settled” in the “Original Nature” or “Buddha Nature” debates. It is after this that it is commonly simply assumed, in eastern Buddhism, that there is an “unconditioned.” Up until then, it was a subject of debate, and Nagarjuna is clearly arguing that even things like space are dependently arisen—but he is arguing this because there are other Buddhists who disagree with his position. It is only later that it can be “assumed” that there is an unconditioned, and for many Buddhists this is still seen as a rejection of the most important Buddhist insights: anatman and dependent origination.
I rarely agree with HHDL (I am not a Tibetan Buddhist), but on this he has a point. There is perhaps nothing wrong with understanding “mindfulness” a bare attention to the supposedly “pure” sensory present, if it helps relieve you migraines or whatever—but it is not Buddhism. Instead of helping us to realize the absolute conditioning of everything, it reifies our present construal of the world, and uses the “ineffable” to avoid real insight.
To return briefly to the idea of Thich Nhat Hanh using “skillful means”: I think in the case of the example of the WMD engineer, the function of the example in the book is not to suggest that he will become awakened eventually, but to reassure the reader of the book that it is okay to give money to Plum Village even if that money is made by making weapons. Read the book, and I think the rhetorical function of the example is clear: don’t bother to change the world, just ignore the effects of your actions and focus on you immediate sensations. It is promoting quietist comfort, and Buddhism as a way to reduce anxiety and guilt without having to stop doing things we really should be anxious and guilty about. I could believe he was using skillful means if he just said to the guy, look, if you even came here to ask this question, you already know the answer—when you’re ready to accept the answer you already know, then we can talk.