Ramana Maharshi was illumined and although he never did very much intense work, he taught and guided his disciples, working in the ashram that grew up around him, preparing food and so forth. Swami Sivananda was the same. He did not stop work, but continued to express himself in many different ways, from writing books to working in the ashram. Endless other examples could be given of other sages who continued to act in the world. There seem to be no exceptions, they all combined illumination with external work. They all worked in the world, but with awareness of the underlying nature of everything.
A point to remember is that illumined people can work in the world in a subtle way that is not obvious to gross understanding. Though a great sage may not appear to do very much physically, he may be expressing himself powerfully at more subtle levels. This applies to sages who seem to do a lot of work and those who don’t.
All the sages that we have mentioned and the countless ones that we have not mentioned through lack of space, continued to work in the world. They integrated the realm of the phenomenal and relative (samsara) with the transcendental (nirvana). They combined the limited with the unlimited. They acted as a crossroad between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. They balanced the inner with the outer, they balanced the ida with the pingala.
Zen Buddhism continually emphasizes this balance of the outer with the inner. The Zen masters strongly imply that spiritual life should be in the world of everyday events and they practised what they preached. This is perfectly illustrated by the following Zen story given in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps: “Hyakujo was a Chinese Zen master. He worked with his disciples even when he was eighty years of age. He would work in the garden, clean the ground and prune the trees. The disciples were not very happy to see the old master work so hard, but they knew that he would never stop. They decided to hide his tools. For three days the master took no food. Then the disciples realized that he was angry and that they had better return the tools. As soon as the tools were returned the master again ate food. In the evening he told his disciples: ‘No work, no food’.”
Follow the example of these illumined sages. Don’t reject work. Change your attitude to work, try to be more detached, renounce the fruits mentally and be aware, but don’t stop. If you are lost and totally involved in external actions, as are most people, then take steps to unfold inner awareness (ida). Start to practise yoga. On the other hand, if you are excessively introverted with a tendency to brood about your problems and deficiencies, then we suggest that you try to take more interest in the outside world (pingala). Do intense one-pointed work, but try to be aware at the same time. The important thing is that there should be balance between the ida and pingala. Follow the example of the wise, for this is the way to open up your potential and understanding.