Among the many confusing/refreshing/inviting passages in the Diamond Sutra is the following exchange between the Buddha and Subhuti:
The Lord asked: What do you think, Subhuti, does it then occur to the Arhat, “by me has Arhatship been attained”?
Subhuti: No indeed, O Lord. And why? Because no dharma is called “Arhat.” That is why he [or she] is called an Arhat…I am, O Lord, an Arhat free from greed. And yet, O Lord, it does not occur to me, “an Arhat am I and free from greed.”
Nothing is called “Arhat”…that is why he or she is called “Arhat”.
Subhuti asserts that he is an Arhat free from greed…and yet it does not occur to him that he is an Arhat free from greed.
In this sutra, we witness a conversation (or, perhaps, a Dharma interview, a dokusan, a testing of Subhuti’s attainment?) between Subhuti and the Buddha. Subhuti has asked how one should take up the Bodhisattva path. The teaching unfolds from there. And as it unfolds we confront passages such as these time and time again.
If you are like me, your first inclination might be to figure out what the meaning of this passage is. Perhaps saying that one is an Arhat is different from thinking to oneself that he or she is an Arhat. That would pacify confusion, for a little while at least. But what about the other line from the Buddha?
How about trying to practice this? The Buddha asks about the Arhat. Forget that – what about the Buddhist looking for a little peace and quiet? Does it occur to the Buddhist looking for a little peace and quiet that he or she is a Buddhist looking for a little peace and quiet?
Subhuti provides an example of how to be one without thinking it. We probably have a little grip on what this means – the practice of not seeking peace in order to attain peace? Of not seeking enlightenment while on the path towards enlightenment?
Say it, don’t think it. Seek, without seeking. Sit, even when standing.
These words mean nothing unless we practice them. Will you take it up?
(Note: The passage above is from chapter 9 of the Diamond Sutra. The specific translation here is due to Edward Conze from Buddhist Wisdom, page 40. Additions to the translation to achieve gender neutrality or inclusion are indicated with brackets.)