‘Right livelihood’ at $17.3 million a year?

October 23, 2023

We were both surprised and dismayed when we received an email from a well-known and respected leader in the Insight Meditation tradition touting his on-going dialogue and work with one of the key corporate leaders of the automobile industry, and whose company is currently engaged in a bitter labor dispute with striking workers.

The strike, which began 15 September 2023, is over wages, hours of work, and benefits. Autoworkers labor under difficult conditions; their work is hard and grueling. Yet, they have seen their standard of living reduced in real terms while thousands of workers have been laid off. Meanwhile the pay ratio between top corporate officials and auto workers continues to rise. For example, the Ford Motor Company CEO, Jim Farley, earns 281 times what the median worker earns.

Jack Kornfield’s interview with Bill Ford

At a time of heightened tensions between auto workers and the companies, Jack Kornfield, a founder of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock, sat down with Bill Ford, the Executive Chair of the Ford Motor Company, to engage in a dialogue on ‘Capitalism, Right Livelihood, and the Next Generation’. The interview was posted on 27 September to Kornfield’s website as part of his Heart Wisdom video series, but was originally recorded for the Inner-MBA program, a certification program and online community created by the multi-media company, Sounds True, to help business students ‘master the new paradigm of business to achieve exceptional results.’

Kornfield and Ford discussed a number of topics, but the focus was on the need for business leaders to  be concerned about more than just their own enrichment and power, as well as their companies generating higher profits. Those in top management need to have a set of humane values which promote teamwork, mutual respect, and participation. They also need to learn how to become more mindful and centered, less reactive, so that they can make better decisions and not get burned out in the context of a very difficult work environment. This message was directed to young business students in the Inner-MBA program who are just beginning their careers.

Bill Ford, who earned $17.3 million in 2022 from stock awards, salary, and other perks, talked about how, after meeting Kornfield, they developed a close relationship and how he found Kornfield’s support and teachings so helpful to him. Ford explained the various ways in which mindfulness and a more compassionate approach has helped him to navigate the difficult times faced by the Ford Motor Company. According to Ford, Kornfield has developed similar relationships with other top executives.

During the interview, Kornfield asked Ford his views about capitalism in general. Ford acknowledged that in recent years capitalism (and capitalists) had become more focused on narrow self-interest – Ford lamented the problem with this generation’s obsession with ‘me, me, me’ – and that business could be a very tough environment. Ford recounted several times when he had to make very difficult decisions that negatively impacted many people. Still, he argued, capitalism was fundamentally a productive system. The problem is not the system but that too few top managers are mindful and compassionate.

Compassionate capitalism?

We are concerned with precisely the view expressed in the interview that by bringing Buddhist-informed mindfulness practices to leaders in companies and other institutions (such as John Kabat-Zinn’s presentation of mindfulness to a military unit), we are somehow making these institutions more humane, that if there are compassionate leaders at the top, they can create compassionate institutions.  Such an assumption ignores the reality that corporations, by their very nature, cannot and will not prioritize the development of a liberating pathway for their workers or promote human flourishing for all.

Teaching mindfulness to managers and supervisors can have an impact, but the changes are at the margins and don’t alter the basic dynamic and objectives of corporations. Perhaps a more mindful manager or supervisor will be a little more sympathetic to a worker who is struggling and needs time off to take care of a sick parent or to deal with their own illness. But the bottom line for corporations is to make the most profits possible for their shareholders, no matter what the human costs.

The lack of compassion and concern for others in our economic system is deeply rooted. Despite Bill Ford’s personal commitment to mindfulness, the Ford Motor Company still runs as a profit-making business which has over the years caused much harm to its employees and society both by their policies and the very products that they manufacture.

The Ford Motor Company has a long history of conflicts with and mistreatment of its workers. The autoworkers union (UAW) faced severe repression from company officials and thugs when it first tried to organize a union in the late 1930s. Under pressure from a strike and concerned that the U.S. government would deny the company lucrative contracts during World War II, Henry Ford finally gave in and agreed to a union contract in 1941.

1937: Ford Motor Company thugs beating up union organizers at the company's River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan

With their union, workers at the company progressed for many years in the post-World War II era, achieving wages and benefits that allowed families to have an improved standard of living and expanded opportunities for their children. Workers’ real wages increased, and a strong benefits package gave Ford workers and their families good health care and an economically secure retirement.

But that progress ended in the late 1970s as Ford and other American auto companies faced more competition from foreign companies, difficult economic conditions, and the trend toward globalization. In response, the companies made aggressive efforts to reduce labor costs. They moved production facilities to areas with lower wages (foreign countries like Mexico and the U.S. south), shut down factories and laid off thousands of workers, and demanded that the UAW agree to concessions in contract negotiations. The union responded rather weakly to the companies’ aggressive efforts and accepted many of the companies’ demands. The result was that wages have been stagnant or, in the case of new workers, have actually declined while benefits have been cut. These conditions have led to the current strike at Ford and two other automobile companies, General Motors, and Stellantis.

The Ford Motor Company has also caused harm to various communities and society as a whole. Massive layoffs have devastated many communities and Ford’s production facilities have released toxins and pollutants which have harmed people’s health. At the same time, the company’s product – automobiles - and the transportation system that autos are embedded in, greatly contribute to global warming.  

Now, Ford is not worse than other corporations in these respects. In some ways, by recognizing early on the need to transition to electric cars, they’ve done a good thing. But overall, they are a powerful corporation which has hurt workers, communities, and society as a whole.

Ford is a powerful player in an economic system based on private profit, the control of the means of production by a small elite of powerful businesspeople, and a wide division in power and wealth between the economic elite and workers. They have to compete in a system in which the ‘survival of the fittest’ is based on which companies are most efficient in cutting costs and increasing profits. The system itself impels the corporation to act in certain ways, regardless of the level of compassion of their leaders. The issue then is not whether the company’s executives are compassionate or could become more compassionate; it is that the economic system itself is inherently uncompassionate, that in its functioning it necessarily does harm to people and the environment. To have a real impact in actualizing Buddhist ethics in the economy,  we thus need to make transformative, systemic changes.

A ‘blind spot’ in contemporary Buddhism

We tremendously respect and value Jack Kornfield’s role as one of the founders of the Insight meditation tradition, which is the form of Buddhism we first encountered and practiced. Kornfield’s writings and dharma talks provided us with an essential starting point to cultivate meditative skills and to understand core Buddhist concepts. Even as we moved toward a secular Buddhist approach which goes beyond Insight Meditation’s ‘modernization’ of Buddhism, we have continued to find value in Kornfield’s wisdom and insights.

Jack Kornfield has also been an activist, an advocate of progressive causes within the Buddhist community and with regard to broader issues in society.  He has supported efforts to respond to climate change through the One Earth Sangha and other groups; as the founder and a key leader at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, he has been in the forefront in facilitating more diversity among meditation teachers and making the Insight movement more inclusive; and he has spoken out against the violence committed by Burmese Buddhists against the Muslim Rohingyas. In general, Kornfield has ‘walked the talk’ in integrating Buddhist perspectives on mindfulness and compassion with efforts to make society more just.

Recognizing Kornfield’s sincere commitment to social engagement oriented toward progressive goals, his interview with Bill Ford reflects a serious limitation in Insight meditation and other forms of Buddhism when teachers and practitioners don’t recognize the need for systemic change. That blind spot enables Kornfield to chat easily with Bill Ford about their common interests in compassion and meditation while ignoring the larger social context or, more specifically, the current conflict between the company and its workers.

Rethinking ‘right livelihood’

As noted, the title of Kornfield and Ford’s dialogue is ‘Capitalism, Right Livelihood, and the Next Generation’. But what does ‘right livelihood’ mean in our contemporary context? Is a person following ‘right livelihood’ when they earn a huge amount of money each year (many times more than what the workers employed by them receive in wages) to manage a corporation like the Ford Motor Company while being committed to mindfulness and compassion as key values?

In Buddhism, ‘right livelihood’ is one of the eight aspects of the eightfold path, which describes a set of virtues and skills required to lead an ethical, meaningful life. This aspect is about the need to earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The early Buddhist discourses or suttas discuss certain occupations which are not examples of right living as they cause harm and thus violate the Buddhist ethical precepts of non-harming, not stealing, and speaking truthfully.  In the Anguttura Nikaya (5.177), the historical Buddha, Gotama, identified the following harmful occupations: ‘Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.’ Thus, arms trading, prostitution, and drug dealing are specifically identified as prohibited forms of livelihood.

Bill Ford is not involved in any of these activities but given his position and power within a corporation whose primary objective is profit rather than the satisfaction of human need, is he engaging in right livelihood? That is the question which we wished Kornfield would have explored, not in the form of a moral rebuke to Ford, but as a genuine concern.

If we understand that social and economic structures can cause harm and if we broaden the notion of harmful occupations beyond the limited examples provided in the Pali Canon, then we need to consider the following questions in evaluating occupations, professions, and projects with respect to right livelihood:

  • Does the organization/company/government agency I work for enable its employees to advocate for their needs and participate fully in ways which promote their flourishing?
  • Do the production processes or forms of service provision of the organization/company/government agency cause more harm to employees and society than what it contributes to the satisfaction of human needs and flourishing?
  • Does my role in the organization/company/government agency reinforce and support these harms?
  • Are the primary objectives of the organization/company/government agency oriented toward the satisfaction of human needs and human flourishing?

As one of us noted in a previous article, the point is not to create a binary opposition of right livelihood and wrong livelihood. Between a social worker and the manufacturer of nuclear bombs lies a whole range of jobs for which the criteria to determine individual and social harm are not so easily applied. All of us, no matter what social role we play, are, in some sense, complicit in the continued functioning of a system which causes harm. The issue is not one of establishing a rigid test for occupational correctness, but of recognizing that right livelihood has a social dimension that goes beyond direct harming. It is this recognition that was sadly missing from Jack Kornfield’s dialogue with Bill Ford.



7 Replies to “‘Right livelihood’ at $17.3 million a year?”

Winton Higgins

Excellent, Mike and Katya! As I began to read your piece, I thought the spirituality-packaged bromance between Jack Kornfield and Bill Ford must be a spoof. Spirituality-washing on this scale must surely beggar belief. Then I realised that it could convince many people (perhaps even Jack and Bill themselves!) because it evokes a common delusion. The delusion holds that today’s climate emergency and galloping inequalities arise directly from the greed and nastiness in the heart of each of us. Good old human nature is to blame! By learning to meditate and becoming nicer individuals, we solve all the big problems (and double our incomes while we’re at it).

As all serious analysts of the capitalist system tell us, it really is a system, and if you don’t play the game, you lose. Back in the 17th century, when the system was in its infancy, Thomas Hobbes lamented that we were entering into an economic war of all against all, and there was no longer any place for ‘the moderate man’ content to live in modest comfort. Marx showed us how a generous and humane capitalist would soon go broke and cease to be a capitalist. Then in the 20th century we have Max Weber’s classical study of bureaucracy that applies to corporations like Ford as much as public bureaucracies. When we work inside one of them, we put aside our own private ethics and adopt the goals and criteria of the corporation instead. We evaluate ourselves on how well we perform our functional roles and meet the relevant criteria in advancing those goals (these days: maximising shareholder value), not on the ethics or sustainability of what we’re actually doing.

Over the last hundred years capitalism has efficiently produced more than consumer goods, pollution and inequality – it has produced some great moral alibis to cover its destructive tracks. In the 1930s it gave us ‘the soulful corporation’. In the postwar period we got ‘the managerial revolution’, followed by CSR (corporate social responsibility). None of it made the slightest difference to the functioning of the system, but it sounded good. Now we have the corporate McMindfulness that Jack and Bill want us to buy (and which Ron Purser has aptly named and analysed).

Give us a break! If we want to survive we have to replace the system that will go on generating global warming and egregious inequality for as long as we let it.

Petra Hunsche

Thank you so much for this brave and true comment on this issue, i agree fully that it is the system that needs to be changed and not to be reinforced by teaching our ”holy” dharmatechniques learning some individuals to deal with the pain of oppression. That is really a mindfuck (excusé le mot) of the greatest order. Next step? How can this capitalist system change in something better…(coöperative/ecologist ways of living). What is the right attitude to reach in that direction? Thank you again for this whole inspirational newsletter!

Claudia Mausner

I am just beginning to understand the perspective offered by Secular Buddhism, especially the importance of considering systemic hard/solutions and not just the individual. I would encourage interested practitioners to consider the impact of egregious CEO compensation packages on U.S. healthcare system. Northwell Health, the largest New York State provider, compensates CEO Michael Dowling more than $7 million. I believe Chairman and CEO of Pfizer earned $30 million last year. https://www.healthaffairs.org/content/forefront/nonprofit-hospital-ceo-compensation-much-enough This is a good link.

Thanks, Mike and Katya, for this compelling essay. Like many other secular Buddhist practitioners, I found my way into meditation and the ethical principles of Buddhism through the teachings of the Insight Meditation Society, and have always been grateful to Jack Kornfield for his contribution as an original co-founder of IMS. His book “A Path With Heart” was an essential part of my early learning, and still holds a prominent place on my bookshelf. So it saddens me a bit to discover him cozying up to a corporate titan such as Bill Ford and not seizing the opportunity to point him toward a more critical understanding of the huge gap between capitalism’s callous concern for profit and Buddhism’s compassionate concern for people. I would like to think that this piece, and the comments it has already evoked, will serve as a wake-up call to Jack, but even if it does not, I trust that it will serve as a clarion call to the secular Buddhist community, encouraging us to persist and persevere in our efforts to reverse the continuing harmful trend toward systemic wealth-inequality in our country, and in the world at large.

Arif Pervaiz

There appears to be a pattern emerging here. I saw a youtube video where Mr. Kornfield, alongside another person, is interviewing Sam Altman, the CEO of AI firm Open AI. Leaving aside the cotton ball questions Mr. Kornfield gently flung at Sam Altman – where many important and challenging questions could have been posed to someone posing as a compassionate person who heads a business that started as a non-profit working on averting dangers of AI and which has now morphed into a profit-making firm racing ahead to develop and deploy AI tools that have the potential to do immense damage to individuals and societies – what left me agog was when he said something along the lines that he (Kornfield) had got to know Sam over the last so many years and can say with confidence that he (Sam) has a golden heart. That a mindfulness teacher of his stature would claim to know what is in someone’s “heart” and then issue a certificate to the effect was truly cringe-worthy. I don’t know Mr. Altman but it would be a reasonably fair to say that anyone who occupies the position he does is probably known more more their ambition to dominate and acquire power than for Buddhist principles like kindness, compassion, regard for others, truthfulness and the like. On the positive side, it was a timely reminder to see all teachers as flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and to remain wary of their pronouncements.

Rick Salay

It is easy to criticize capitalism. It does feed upon our greed. It does lead to concentrations of power. It is values monetary wealth exclusively and does not consider values like human welfare or our impact on the planet. Despite this, it has its place, and in its place it is very effective. I do not know of any large-scale flourishing society that doesn’t include some form of capitalism. But I think it’s wrong to assign it too big a job and capitalism must be balanced with other systems to mitigate its negative effects.

There have been attempts to fit other values directly into the capitalist model – for example, by costing carbon or the triple bottom line. In my opinion, this is not the best way to go because it dehumanizes these other values by abstracting them and turning them into just another cost that must be minimized. In the past when the western world was much more collectivist than it is now, the culture itself contained a strong emphasis on personal responsibility to others. This surely helped to counter-balance greed. But in today’s increasingly individualist culture the focus is almost exclusively on personal rights rather than responsibilities and this can super-charge the effect of greed. Most flourishing societies today address other important human values by having a government that puts a strict regulatory framework around capitalist activity and provides social programs funded by taxation. Is this the best approach?

I can’t speak to Jack Kornfield’s motives but it seems to me that he is working on yet another approach. By helping to integrate secularized Buddhist practices into peoples lives and into corporate culture it will eventually have a transformative effect on how societies operate and how capitalism is carried out. He is working with the way things are right now rather than fighting them, which I think is eminently Buddhist. This will clearly not be a fast process, but given our experience of the effectiveness of these practices I think it has a good chance of succeeding. Maybe it is the next logical evolutionary step for modern individualist societies.

Lance Hilt

Thank you for addressing this issue. I imagine it was a difficult essay to write, not pleasant to be critical of an icon like Jack Kornfield, but I think you made points that were needed to be made.

Jack Kornfield is traveling down a well-trodden path. I am mainly familiar with Buddhism in China and Japan, and the history in those countries is of the Buddhist clergy incurring favor with the rulers for patronage and influence. Chinese rulers were also notable in having a tradition of consulting with hermits and holy men. There is no such tradition in the US and unlikely to be one, but perhaps Mr. Kornfield is hoping to effect change in one influential person and light a flame that will spread to others.

Unfortunately talking about compassion, or even instilling some measure of it, as a generic placebo against injustice is insufficient. Taking specific steps to ensure that all of us are equal participants involving decisions that affect us is enacting compassion. While Buddhist monks and teachers may have had ameliorating effects on various rulers throughout history, they never changed the system of decision-making, which always remained autocratic. The US, an oligarchy, or more specifically a plutocracy, will not be changed by exerting moral influence on one person at a time. As a previous commenter pointed out, that is a slow process. I am afraid it is so slow that by the time one person has changed three more have sprung up to take their place. Over one thousand years of Buddhism in China did not produce an egalitarian society, we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking it will here.

The richest 1 percent of the world’s population produced as much carbon pollution in 2019 as the five billion people who made up the poorest two-thirds of humanity, reveals a new Oxfam report, “Climate Equality: A Planet for the 99%.” These outsized emissions of the richest 1 percent will cause 1.3 million heat-related excess deaths. Most of these deaths will occur between 2020 and 2030. The poorest countries, who reap the fewest benefits from industrial capitalism, will suffer more of the consequences. Perhaps Jack Kornfield will conduct an interview with one of the many residents of one of the small island countries who have lost their home due to the rising sea levels, or, failing that, a member of the UAW to provide some perspective.

The problems the world faces require political solutions. Personal transformation is still a highly valuable endeavor, but it is not a substitute for political action for producing systemic change. It is a companion to that process. Perhaps the conceptual error committed is to think of society as a mere composition of individuals, with no ontological status of its own. The opposite extreme is to think of the individual as a mere construct of society and neglect our unique, personal, existence. We meander down a middle path, realizing the importance of both.

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