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.
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.
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.