Monday, 8 November 2010

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – A Buddhist allegory?

Following on from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha which I mentioned in a previous blog - another book which had a profound effect upon me as a student was Jonathan Livingston Seagull by the writer Richard Bach which was first published in 1970. It is a very short book that can be read in a single sitting by a quick reader and one that is definitely worth the effort.

The story concerns a seagull called Jonathan Livingston Seagull who is different from most seagulls that mill around and pick up scraps from the beach or by following in the wake of fishing boats or scavenge on rubbish tips for their sustenance. He is much taken by flying and spends a considerable time practising and perfecting the art of flight. However his obsession makes some of the other seagulls jealous of his prowess and for his sins he is thrown out by the Flock Council. Shorne of the dependency on the fishing boats which most of the flock follows he is forced to learn ways of surviving and is free to fly and perfect his craft each and every day the way he wants to.

One day he meets two seagulls who say they have come from the flock that cast him out and for the first time they are able to soar and swoop move for move with him and they take him higher in the sky than he has ever flown before. He believes he is in heaven and wonders why so few seagulls have ever been there before.

This ‘guru’ Seagull who is called Sullivan says it takes many lifetimes to reach this point and the Elder Gull who is close to death informs Jonathan that there is no such place as heaven and that heaven is simply the act of attaining. He also tells Jonathan he must be able to achieve perfect speed, which if he can achieve - is the same as being in heaven already. He adds that if a seagull can brush aside simple travel to attain perfection, then just by thinking it the gull can be anywhere he wishes to be. So Jonathan achieves this with the enlightenment to know that you have already arrived and that seagulls are ultimately unlimited in their freedom.

The next move says the Elder Gull is that you must be ready to fly to the next level which is that of kindness and love. Once he has told Jonathan this he shines brightly with an inner light and then disappears, and at this point Jonathan decides to return to his former flock. He thinks there must be other rebels similar to himself, who are awaiting the same insight. Jonathan discovers there is – and begins to teach the new outcast Fletcher Lynd Seagull. Within the space of a month he gains seven students. They decide to have flying practice over the beach to persuade all the other seagulls to join in.

Soon all the flock is following in his wake so Jonathan decides to leave his friends to teach other flocks with Fletcher being left behind to spread the message and continue the teaching. This simple book has been interpreted in many different ways. The most obvious to me is that the story is a simple but powerful allegory for Buddhism and the Buddhas (enlightened ones) that are to come and one that elects to teach in the here and now instead of personal transcendence and ascension to Nirvana.

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