Forrest Gump is a Zen Master

Forrest Gump. A man so ridiculously successful he makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like that slacker with a reserved seat in after-school detention. Forrest Gump just may be the greatest example of how ignorance equals bliss—or perhaps he’s just the greatest Zen master of all time. I’m a fan of both theories, though the brilliance of Forrest Gump is best understood for the genuine life he lived, a golden standard that spans the entire spectrum of human accomplishment executed with the mastery of Zen.

I remember a casual conversation I once had with someone who seemed nothing less than jealous that he hadn’t become a shrimping pioneer and billionaire war hero from the South. His famous critique of the movie was always:

“Forrest Gump was a guy who was always at the right place at the right time.”

It’s a cheap assessment that seeks to explain away the extraordinary outcomes of a man whose intellectual handicap would seem to place him behind the black ball at an early age. But evidence for the brilliance of Forrest Gump lies within the simplicity of how he made choices that would affect his entire life. Each path was chosen with a Zen-like mastery, absent of the self obsession often promoted by our culture. In this way, Forrest’s lack of “intelligence” becomes a catalyst for a series of crossroads navigated without a hyper sensitivity for perceived limitations, doubt, and worry—which only seem to complicate even the simplest of choices.

So if you haven’t seen the movie, see it. But if you have, perhaps this list might provide you with a whole new perspective on a story that has more to teach if we’re willing to learn.

Education.

Pursuing higher education was a no-brainer for Forrest Gump because he literally didn’t even think about it. As he tells the story of how he got to college, he begins by saying, “It used to be that I ran to get where I was going. I never thought it would take me anywhere.” Drafted for his natural running ability after accidentally running onto the field of a scrimmage in play, he regarded his college experience as being completed “after only five years of playing football.” The dude got a full-ride on a football scholarship and was on the All-American Team because he cut through a field while running away from some bullies. He didn’t question the offers given to him; he didn’t calculate his worth to negotiate with other sports clubs; he didn’t worry about failing out of class or breaking under pressure; he just ran. There’s a moment after a kickoff when Forrest is staring aimlessly off into the distance—this while in the midst of a huge crowd screaming their heads off. Zero pressure. He’s not thinking of the last play, the next play, or even the play that was currently happening, until his teammate hands him the ball and says, “Run!” Forrest answers, “Okay!” and takes off to glory.

Morals.

Standing up to injustice is more difficult than it seems— especially in the case of a public event or conflict. Not for Forrest Gump. Forrest doesn’t get embarrassed and yield to awkwardness; he blissfully acts with no heed to the anxiety of social scrutiny or scorn. Being fully immersed in the moment, unadulterated by self-consciousness, Forrest doesn’t give a damn about what others might think and never reflects on his own self-image. During the televised desegregation of his school he picks up the notebook of an African-American student when she drops it, saying, “M’am, you dropped your book.” Racism? Not a problem for a man who sees everyone as a person. The macro psychological implications of race never dawn on his simple mind. Forrest turns out to be a feminist, too, thwarting the advancement of male chauvinism and the oppression of women by coming to Jenny’s rescue when she’s sexually harassed by men in the audience of her guitar show. When her hippie military boyfriend slaps her in the middle of the Black Panther congregation, Forrest has no trepidations about beating the dude up for hitting a woman, saying, “He should not be hitting you.” In his Zen mastery of conflict, the egocentric pitfalls of gender roles are easily eclipsed by the feelings in Mr. Gump’s heart. Without the capacity to think deeply, there’s little chance of condoning injustice through self-deception. You don’t have to be smart to know the difference between right and wrong.

Modesty.

For Forrest Gump, praise and accolades are of no value to him. This is made apparent by the gifting of his Medal of Honor to Jenny before she leaves Washington. To him, the medal does not create nor preserve his ego and sense of accomplishment. He says to Jenny, “I got it just by doing what you told me to [Run, don’t be a hero]”. His limited intellectual capacity also limits his capacity to attribute all outcomes to his personal abilities. Even when Forrest strays slightly from the moral ideal by endorsing a ping pong paddle for some money, he identifies the lie as “a little white lie” which “everybody knows isn’t true.” It’s a lie that hurts no one and represents the most harmless and simplistic forms of deception. This exemplifies the understanding that no one is perfect, but that even in his wrong doings, Forrest does so without true malice. This is an important point as the intention of malice requires a concrete understanding of one’s self and an emphasis on personal gain where victims become targets. Forrest pursues neither of these with such intent because he does not think of himself so concretely.

Friendship.

Sometimes being a good friend means saving the people you care about from themselves. The tortured and masochistic lieutenant Dan was dead set on neglecting what potential his life possessed to fulfill his “fate” of dying on the battlefield—just as his ancestors had. Perhaps his forefathers might have fared better with a friend like Forrest Gump. In a moment of anger and desperation he says to Gump, “I was lieutenant Dan Taylor,” to which his friend replies, “you still are…”. There is no consoling with campaigns of sympathy that pretend to know how his friend feels, and no attempt to insist that Dan look on the “bright side” or “get over it.” Gump simply provides him with one simple truth: you are still you. And of course, no friendship is complete without the fulfillment of promises. “I had made a promise to Bubba and I always try to keep my promises.” Even after Bubba’s death, Forrest ensured that his best-good friend’s dreams of shrimp lived alongside his share of the profits, which would go directly to his family.

Love.

True unconditional love would seem easy enough: love someone no matter what. Not so easy in reality. Ego plays a large role in what tenderness lovers are willing to show each other when things aren’t going well. Jealousy over and judgement of our lover’s behavior can often cloud our expression of love for them. We get angry about how the person we love is “not doing the right thing” or making us feel less important than we wish to be. Love isn’t a problem for Forrest; he does it effortlessly. The love he exhibits for Jenny is truly unconditional. He never tries to control her decisions, never judges her misdeeds or desire to leave him behind. He always respects her decisions and lets her know that no matter what she does, no matter where she goes, he’ll be waiting for her when she gets back. Even when Forrest engages in fighting with other men Jenny encounters, it’s always in the context of protecting her from their sexual advances or blatant mistreatment towards her. In his love for Jenny, Forrest is truly selfless, never demanding his own needs for wanting her to be around and respecting her requests for time apart; it’s the ”let her go and she’ll come back” approach without the scheming itself. That’s Zen.

Religion.

God makes a short appearance in this Chock full o’Nuts of a film. A lot of people miss this one; it happens shortly after receiving the medal of honor, when Forrest goes to NYC to visit his friend Lieutenant Dan. Dan starts going off on a drunken tirade bout his experiences at the local VA where it’s always “Jesus this, and Jesus that. Have you found Jesus, yet?” He casually mutters to Gump. The subtly of Forrest’s response to the religious nature of the conversation that ensues is an example of complete Zen mastery—a stark contrast to the common element of zealous outbursting which occurs in discussions of God. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him.” Forrest replies. At this, even Lieutenant Dan’s firm grip of anger softens and he laughs. When reflecting on his amputated legs, Dan expresses great anger over the possibility that he may one day “walk in the kingdom of heaven.” His anger both implies his disbelief in heaven and in the certainty that he would ever “get in.” Gump chimes in simply, “I’m going to heaven.” No church recruiting. No preaching. No telling Dan or others what they should believe. Simply stating what he believed and nothing more—the embodiment of the American ideology of religious freedom with a perfectly Zen execution.

Wealth.

Now because Forrest is so successful, and because he’s been such a good friend, financial gains are just as simple for this Zen master. Dow Jones? Market manipulation? Risk management? Nope. Mr. Gump’s investment strategy can only be described in its most succinct elegance as simply “other.” “Other” means giving all your money to a friend and hoping they A.) know what to do with it, and B.) don’t suddenly end up on a milk carton. But alas, Forrest and his hands-off approach prevails as he becomes a millionaire after lieutenant Dan invests his money in the seed that would later become Apple Inc. It’s also important to note that The success of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Corporation was due, mainly, to captain Gump’s weathering of a very vicious storm that destroyed other shrimping boats simply because they were docked near land. Withstanding discomfort and traversing uncertainty with an open mind are pillars of living a truly Zen life. And, finally, as a demonstration of his lack of attachment to wealth, Forrest cuts grass for free.

Celebrity.

Running without purpose made Forrest Gump famous. A shallow enough pool of thought provides him no reason to simply stop, and so he keeps going. This entire montage of the movie is a crash course for kicking ass in life-goal achievement. He starts small, thinking about each stage only for the moment and then setting to work. First the driveway, then the county line, then the state, then the country. He didn’t talk a big game beforehand, telling all his friends and neighbors about all the running he would try to accomplish, he just DID IT. And soon, people started to notice him for his actions—not his words (mostly because he had so few of them to mutter). Even when he had achieved the height of fame for running, people couldn’t believe that he wasn’t doing it for any particular cause or personal message. He only replies, simply, “I just felt like running.” Totally Zen.

THE BOTTOM LINE.

Forrest Gump was able to accomplish all that he had because he wasn’t thinking too deeply about the consequences: Financial consequences, self image consequences, political consequences, the consequences of losing relationships, the consequences of failing, etc. Forrest Gump was a man truly living in the moment. There’s a scene in which he enters the bus to Army boot camp, where he comments that “it seemed as though I had made a mistake.” However, the moment Bubba invites him to sit down, this thought disappears; he no longer ruminates about the POSSIBILITY that he MIGHT have made a mistake. This is an important point as it speaks to the power of living in the moment, where the imagined doom we so often conjured cannot last long enough to hinder our growth and progress. This is the message of the movie, and in my view, the power behind that message.

Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician