The Selfish King and the Compassion of the Tree Spirit

Doing some dharma study this weekend, I came upon this wonderful story in a document I downloaded from internet years ago. I regret that I no longer know the source of this, but the message is a relevant as ever:

A long time ago there lived a selfish king. He wanted to build a large palace so he ordered the cutting down of the largest tree in the forest.

Deep in the forest his men found such a tree. It was very tall and stood surrounded by many other smaller trees. They told the king that they had found what he wanted: The King was very happy and went to sleep

However, the king had a strange dream that night. He dreamt that a spirit, which lived in that great tree, appeared before him.

“O King,” it said, “please do not cut down the tree in which I live. If you do so, each cut will hurt me and I shall die.”

But the King answered, “Yours is the finest tree in all the forest. I must use it for my palace.” The spirit pleaded, but the King insisted the tree would be cut down. The spirit must die.

Finally, the tree spirit said to him, “All right, you may cut it down. But please do it like this. Do not cut it down from the bottom. Instead, have your men climb to the top of the tree and cut it down bit by bit. First have them cut off one piece, then another, until they have cut down the whole tree.”

The King was astonished and said, “But if I have my men do as you say and cut through your tree many times, it will cause you much more pain than if they cut it down just once from the bottom.”

The spirit answered, “Yes, this is true. But it is better for the other creatures in the forest if you do as I suggest. You see, my tree is very tall. If it falls down in one big piece, it will fall down on the other small trees around it and kill many small animals. Many birds and insects will lose their homes and many smaller trees will be destroyed. But if you cut it down bit by bit, it will not do so much damage.”

Then the King awoke. He thought, “That spirit would have let itself be cut many times so that the small animals of the forest would not suffer. How brave and kind it is! And how selfish of me to want to cut that tree down for my own pleasure and pride.

Instead of cutting it down, I should honor it! This dream has taught me that I should also be kind and gentle to everyone.” The King went into the forest the next day and decorated the tree. He was a kind and just ruler from that day onwards.


If you’ve read my other blogs, Goodheart’s Extreme Science and Berkeley, Naturally! you know how much I love nature and the creatures of this amazing planet we call Earth. And you know how often I write about the perils our ecosystems face due to pollution, climate change, and destruction of habitats.

When I read this wonderful story, it seemed to me that the tree spirit could be seen as the voice or spirit, so to speak, of an ecosystem, or even of our dear planet, where life itself began and which gives us so much.

The reality is that humans need to eat, to create shelter, and use natural resources in order to live and survive.  But surely, as the “kings” of this planet, we humans could bring more of the spirit of loving-kindness and care for other creatures that the tree spirit exemplifies in our use of natural resources. Surely we can strive to do as little harm as possible when we farm, mine, and make places for people to live on this precious “pale blue dot,” to use Carl Sagan’s famous term for our planet.

Maybe instead of selfishly seeing ourselves as the “kings” of this planet, we should see ourselves more as stewards, or even brothers and sisters of the plants and animals that share this planet with us.  The fact is, the interconnectedness of all things makes this spirit of care for our world more than just a “nice” or “soft-hearted” thing to do.  Care for nature is care for ourselves.

The growing environmental crises we face show we can’t be ecologically-minded only when it’s convenient!  The very survival of countless creatures, as well as the quality of life of billions of humans, largely depend on whether or not we respond to our our place on this planet with loving-kindness, compassion, and care for the well-being of all beings, not just humans.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

Global warming and the Loss of Earth’s Coral Reefs

We’re Killing Our Oceans

The Moral Math of Climate Change

Krishnamurti on a Nature Walk


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

7 Responses to “The Selfish King and the Compassion of the Tree Spirit”

  1. Stumbled across your blog – I am having a large maple tree taken down tomorrow. With a heavy heart. It is rotting from the inside out and hangs over a road. I worry that it may fall on it’s own and hurt or kill someone. I want to honor this tree.. should I create something with the fallen branches? I intend to plant another tree in the same spot… it is very heart breaking.

  2. Great pictures and article I’m glad to have stumbled upon here.

    I just added some video’s on Robert Thurman, he has some pretty good stuff also!

    take it easy 🙂

    -Simranjeet Singh

    • Simranjeet, thanks for stopping by! I couldn’t agree more that Robert Thurman has some “pretty good stuff” and I think that his many free videos are a generous and wonderful gift to the world.

      He has a great way of explaining difficult concepts in Tibetan Buddhism, and I love his sense of humor, too! I recently read his book “Anger,” which I highly recommend.

      All the best,

  3. Nice story, Steve. It got me started thinking about why it’s so difficult now to strike a balance between consuming nature, as if swallowing it whole, and using it wisely for our own benefit and that of future generations.

    Then I thought to myslef, “Stupid! The answer is simple. There are way too many of us!”

    • Hey Jan! Thanks for your comment. Yes, overpopulation is what drives almost all the other environmental problems we face. I hope our race can “grow up” in time. (I know you are not sanguine about that!)

      In the meantime, whatever we can do to foster and further that steward/loving spirit toward our surroundings, can help. The beauty of your amazing site helps remind people of all we have to lose, and every little bit helps.

      Best wishes, as always,

  4. Engaged Buddhism at its best. Thanks, Steven.

    michael j

    • Thanks Michael J! This story really “got” me in the heart, maybe because I love trees and nature so much! And as I know you’d agree, if Buddhism isn’t “engaged,” it isn’t Buddhism. Loving-kindness is the very heart of our practice.

      With metta,

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