Most seagulls are only concerned with eating and fighting with one another for scraps. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is different, though. Jonathan wants to really master the art of flight. He spends all his time practicing dives and rolls, and sometimes even forgets to eat.
After the Flock Council witnesses a particularly daring move, Jonathan is cast out. Jonathan finds his true freedom living alone in diving for fish below the water’s surface and insects on land. He is no longer dependent upon the fishing boats for sustenance, and he is free to practice the art of flight all day long.
One day, Jonathan meets two gulls who claim to be from his former flock. They keep up with Jonathan move for move, and then tell Jonathan it is time to go home. They take Jonathan up into the sky, higher than he has ever flown before.
Jonathan believes he has entered heaven, and his body is transformed into the perfect gull. There are other gulls in this strange new place, and they are all practicing flight. Sullivan becomes Jonathan’s flight instructor and counselor. When Jonathan asks why so few gulls are in this place, Sullivan answers that it takes most gulls many lifetimes to become ready to seek perfection.
The Elder Gull, who is almost ready to move to the next world, tells Jonathan that there is no such place as heaven, that heaven is merely attaining perfection. He tells Jonathan he must master perfect speed, which is the same thing as being there already. If a gull puts aside travel to attain perfection, the gull can be in any place or any time simply by thinking it.
Under the Elder Gull’s tutelage, Jonathan masters this technique. The real trick is to know you’ve already arrived, as gulls are limitless in their freedom. After mastering perfect speed, the Elder says that one must become ready to fly up to kindness and love.
The Elder Gull turns bright and disappears, theoretically into the next world, and Jonathan decides to go back to his old flock. He supposes there must be other outcasts like himself, awaiting instruction. Jonathan finds the recently outcast Fletcher Lynd Seagull and begins to teach him. In a month, Jonathan has seven students.
Jonathan decides to take them all back to the flock to teach them the limitlessness of flight. They hold flying practice on the beach until all the others join. Jonathan is alternately accused of being the Son of the Great Gull and the Devil as flight miracles occur. Once the flock is all practicing, Jonathan leaves his flock to teach other flocks. Fletcher is left behind to continue flight instruction.
This simple tale can be interpreted in many ways. The most obvious is that the tale is an allegory for Buddhism and the Bodhisattva who decides to teach instead of ascending to Nirvana.