There used to be an almond tree to the north of Bhagavan’s [Sri Ramana Maharshi] hall. Chinnaswami (the ashram manager) asked a workman to clear it of dead leaves, which would later be used for making leaf plates. The man started chopping with his billhook right and left.
‘Bhagavan winced and called out to the man: “Hey, what are you doing? You are torturing the tree too much. Don’t you know it is alive?”
‘The workman explained that he had been ordered to cut off the dry leaves.
Bhagavan kept on admonishing him: “You people can do nothing without causing pain. Imagine what would happen if I suddenly grabbed you by the hair and pulled. Your hair may have no life, yet you would feel it. Better leave the poor tree alone and go away!” 
What makes a person holy? What attributes express his or her innate spiritual nature? Is it his learning and knowledge? His capacity to perform miraculous feats? His knowledge of the future? I believe that the answer lies in none of these directions. Rather, his essential holiness is expressed by his identification with all living creatures, and his ability to sense their oneness of being – by his sensitivity to life.
A story is told by the Bratslav Hasidim about Rebbe Nachman. One day, the Hasidim were out in the fields praying with Rebbe Nachman when all of a sudden he let out an anguished cry: “Oy, Oy”, he screamed, “you are trampling on me.” The Hasidim all stopped their prayers and turned towards their Rebbe.
Rebbe Nachman opened his eyes and looked over at his Hasidim: “While I was deep in prayer”, he told them, “I suddenly could feel the pain of the grass as you walked upon it; it was so excruciating that I could not help but cry out.”
Rebbe Nachman taught that a spark of God animates everything that exists. Everything has its own vibration or song of praise that it sings to the Creator. If we are sufficiently spiritually sensitive, then we will hear the unique song of each creation. We will be able to attune ourselves to its frequency and raise that spark back to its Supernal Source.
Rebbe Nachman was not the only Hasidic Master with such sensitivities. Rebbe Zusya of Anipol also had a great reverence and affinity for all forms of life. One day, as Reb Zusya, was walking along the road, he stopped and looked at the ground and exclaimed:
“Earth, Earth, you are better than I, and yet I trample on you with my feet. But soon I shall be under you and be subject to you.” 
On another occasion, Reb Zusya was going from village to village trying to collect funds for pidyon shevuim, to ransom prisoners. When he came to an inn, he wandered from room to room asking the people for a donation. In one of the rooms, Reb Zusya came upon a large cage with all kinds of birds. Seeing the birds, Reb Zusya felt a great pity for their plight. Thinking to himself, he said, “Zusya, here you are walking your feet off to ransom prisoners, but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be than to free these birds from their prison?” So saying, he opened the door of the cage and the birds flew out into freedom. 
Such love for all creatures is universal among the saints of the world religions. Saint Francis of Assisi was well known for his profound connection to the Natural Kingdom. Once while he was on a journey, Saint Francis discovered a multitude of different birds perched on the branches of the trees by the road. Immediately, he saw in them a ready audience for the Lord’s preaching, and at once began a sermon on gratitude.
“’My sister birds! You owe God much gratitude, and ought always and everywhere to praise and exalt Him, because you can fly so freely, wherever you want to, and for your double and threefold clothing and for your colored and adorning coats and for the food, which you do not have to work for, and for the beautiful voices the Creator has given you’…
“But after this, our holy father’s words, all those little birds began to open their beaks to beat with their wings and stretch out their necks and bow their heads reverently to the earth, and with their song and their movements showed that the words Saint Francis had said pleased them greatly…And when Saint Francis had finished his sermon and his exhortation to praise God… all the birds flew up at once and twittered wonderfully and strongly and flew away.” 
Saint Francis’ love was not confined to living creatures. In one of his most famous prayers, Canticle to the Sun, he addresses the sun and moon as Brother Sun and Sister Moon, extolling their beauty and glory. Then he goes on to praise humble Sister Water and mighty Brother Fire. Finally, he expresses his gratitude to sister Mother Earth for the nourishment Her fruits provide and the joy that Her trees and flowers bring.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook saw the power of nature, and the flow of life on all of its levels, as an integral part of the spiritual life. Everything has its natural place and function, he taught, within the totality of the Divine Structure of Reality. The heavens and the earth are one reality, one unity, one living entity. To separate the spiritual life from the larger natural flow of life is to lose everything – to destroy true spirituality. 
This love for the Natural Kingdom did not turn these spiritual masters away from their fellow human beings, nor did it lessen their concern for the condition of the world around them. On the contrary, all these great teachers were powerful instruments for the healing and uplift of humankind. No one cared more for others, no one felt more compassion and showed more kindness, no one treated each person with greater love and equality – no one wept more over the suffering of others, as if it was their own. These very qualities are what distinguished them as “Knowers of God”. These attributes revealed them as great souls who dwelt in the consciousness of Oneness.
Disturbed by Sri Ramana Maharshi’s assertion that we should see the Self everywhere, a devotee one day turned to him and asked: “Should I not see the world at all?” “You are not instructed to shut your eyes from the world”, replied Sri Ramana. “You are only to see yourself first, and then see the whole world as the Self.’” 
It was this unitive experience which gave these realized souls such great patience and compassion. They knew that there was no separation between others and themselves. They saw all others as part of their own being. They recognized everyone as their own Self. As Swami Turiyananda once explained:
“If accidentally, the teeth bite the tongue, hurt and cut it, do people take a piece of stone and break the teeth? No, because the teeth belong to the same person to whom the tongue belongs. Since the one Lord who is in me also resides in others, it is improper to find fault with them.” 
Anyone can develop a certain love and affinity for the natural world. We can come to an intellectual understanding of the truth that all forms of life are sacred and to be cherished. We may even cultivate a profound feeling for the unity of all of Creation. However, it is only by directly experiencing the Divinity which underlies all of existence that we will actually know that the same Consciousness illuminates all living creatures – that everything is truly One.
Copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick
- David Godman, Power of the Presence, Part III, p.88↵
- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 249↵
- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 245↵
- Johannes Jorgensen, Saint Francis of Assisi, p. 132↵
- Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot Hakodesh I, Shaar I: The Revelation of the Sacred Light # 126↵
- Munagala Venkataramiah, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk # 273↵
- Swami Turiyananda, Swami, Ritajananda, p. 89, based on the Bhagavatam↵