"Right livelihood" at $17.3 million a year?

By Mike Slott and Katya de Kadt

As long-time left activists and current DSA members, we have found mindfulness meditation and the Buddhist ethical values of care and compassion to be essential supports for sustaining our activism in the labor movement and other political movements. We see mindfulness and a secular form of Buddhism as offering valuable insights and as complementary to the radical political perspectives we have long held. However, while most U.S. Buddhists are progressive in a broad sense, they tend to ignore the ways in which corporations in the capitalist system cause harm to workers, the community, and our environment. This is evident in a dialogue which one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in the United States, Jack Kornfield, recently had with Ford Motor Company executive, Bill Ford. 

The dialogue occurred at a time of heightened tensions between the auto workers, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the “Big Three” auto companies: Ford, General Motors,  and Stellantis. The workers went on strike on September 15 over the issues of wages, hours of work, and benefits. After a six-week strike, the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Ford Motor Company reached a tentative agreement on October 26 which provides for significant gains in wages, job security, and benefits for workers. Shortly after, the UAW reached contract settlements with Stellantis and GM. Under new reform leadership, the unions engaged in an aggressive, unified, and democratic struggle. Along with the Teamsters' contract gains in their negotiations with UPS and major victories by higher education and health care unions, the labor movement appears to be reviving.

However, when the strike was less than two weeks old, as DSA members were organizing strike support across the country,  we were both surprised  and dismayed to receive an email from Kornfield touting his on-going dialogue and work with one of the key corporate leaders of the automobile industry whose company was then engaged in a bitter labor dispute with striking workers.


Jack Kornfield’s dialogue with Bill Ford

The dialogue between Kornfield and Bill Ford, the Executive Chair of the Ford Motor Company, is called Capitalism, Right Livelihood and the Next Generation

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’ 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. 

Ford, who earned $17.3 million in 2022  from stock awards, salary, and other perks, talked about 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 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 their discussion, 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 doesn’t  alter the basic dynamic and objectives of corporations.  Despite Bill Ford’s personal commitment to mindfulness, the Ford Motor Company runs as a profit-making business that has caused much harm to its employees and society both by its policies and the very products it manufactures.

The 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 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 achieved wages and benefits that allowed families to have an improved standard of living and expanded opportunities for their children.  But that progress ended in the late 1970s as Ford and other American auto companies faced more competition from foreign companies and difficult economic conditions. In response, the companies made aggressive efforts to reduce labor costs. They moved production facilities to areas with lower wages, shut down factories and laid off thousands of workers, and demanded that the UAW agree to concessions in contract negotiations. The union responded 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. To make matters worse, corrupt national UAW leaders focused more on their self-interest than the needs of their members. These conditions created anger among the membership and support for a militant strike. 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 that  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.  

Ford competes in a system which impels corporations to maximize profits 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.


A ‘blind spot’ in contemporary Buddhism

We 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.  He 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  has been in the forefront in facilitating more diversity and inclusion within the Insight meditation movement. . 

Unfortunately, his interview with Bill Ford reflects a serious limitation in Insight meditation and other forms of Buddhism twhen teachers and practitioners don’t recognize the need for systemic change. That blind spot enables Kornfield to chat easily with 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 to manage a corporation like the Ford Motor Company?

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, peaceful way. The early Buddhist discourses or suttas discuss certain occupations that are not examples of right living as they cause harm and thus violate the Buddhist ethical precepts of non-harming and not stealing.  In the Anguttura Nikaya (5.177), the historical Buddha, Gotama, identified the following harmful occupations: ‘Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.’ Thus, arms trading, prostitution, slavery, and drug dealing are specifically proscribed as forms of livelihood. 

Bill Ford is not involved in any of these activities but 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 company or organization 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 company or organization cause more harm to employees and society than what it contributes to the satisfaction of human needs and flourishing?
  • Does my role in the company or organization reinforce and support these harms?
  • Are the primary objectives of the company or organization agency oriented toward the satisfaction of human needs and human flourishing?

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 that 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 missing from Jack Kornfield’s dialogue with Bill Ford.


Katya de Kadt participated for 20 years in a Theravada sangha that she left to join the Secular Buddhist Network. She is an anti-racist activist, a retired New York State judge and currently an herbalist. Mike Slott is a long-time political and labor movement activist. He is the editor of the Secular Buddhist Network (SBN) website and its monthly newsletter, Rethinking the Dharma/Reimagining Community.

An earlier version of this article was  originally published in the Secular Buddhist Network website at https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/right-livelihood-at-17-3-million-a-year/