First faced with reading Zen literature in my Asian studies class I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Still, I was intrigued by it. There was certainly a charming aspect about it.
At that time, I could see the divide between Eastern literature and Western literature. The semantic scope of Western literature went from the name or sign to the concept. In Zen, it seemed to want me to go beyond the name and the concept. Over the months I began to understand that my concept of something was not the same as the real thing in itself. Sure, it was important to have the name and the concept connected in your head. When my foreman instructed me to put those small cans in these boxes (I was working at a cannery), I already came with the name and the concept connected—all in my noggin. Then the real task began which earned me a paycheck.
No matter how much my teacher in class (who was a friend of D.T. Suzuki) tried to explain Zen and its terms I could make no meaningful connection. My first time out of this conundrum was—as simple as it sounds—when I realized that these Zennists were talking about some kind of special experience. That became the first of many clues that I had to wait for. They just didn’t occur as a read a book on Zen.
As for the mechanism of how this came about, I can’t say exactly. I just know that one day I got it. However, I will say that one has to stay engaged with Zen, continually. Read and forget doesn’t work. It is more like read, admit your ignorance with regard to various passages and sermons and ponder deeply, then wait for the answer. Your answer could take a year or more. Do not give up once you’ve started.