The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind

The Next Forty Years?
Insight Teachers Survey

By Matthew Brensilver & Kim Allen

“It looks like the next generations of teachers will need to figure out how to create systems that better support themselves and also keep the Dharma available... while the older ones have to figure out how to handle the growing needs of old age. With our non-village culture, and being non-monastic lay teachers in a Western materialistic society, it’s a new game. Good luck to us.”—Jack Kornfield

It has been just about forty years since Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Christina Feldman, Christopher Titmuss, Ruth Denison and other pioneering teachers introduced insight meditation in the West—and the founding teachers are moving on. What will the next forty years look like?

According to a recent Buddhist Insight Network (BIN) survey, 44% percent of current teachers are aged sixty or older. Only 30% are younger than fifty. As our insight teachers age, many face new challenges, like what to do when health issues interfere with their ability to teach, thus disrupting their incomes and draining whatever savings may have been accumulated. Meanwhile, meditation centers like Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society are training new teachers, attempting to cultivate greater ethnic diversity and a younger population. Changing demographics raise new issues.

“I like to bring my daughter on retreat,” said Diana Winston, who sits on the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and is mother to a five-year-old. “Not only does it not disturb practice but it encourages metta. The heart is wide open when a little one is there.”

Monasteries in Asia may often have children participating, but retreat centers in the West tend to be rarefied atmospheres where silence is highly valued. Another difference between Asia’s monastic culture and that of lay insight teachers in the West is that here, the dana (payment by donation) model is often inadequate and too inconsistent to cover the expenses of raising a child. As one senior teacher told BIN, “I’d speculate that younger teachers are less likely to make a livelihood purely from retreat-teaching dana. They’re more likely to also be doing psychotherapy, teaching secular mindfulness or needing to find other more-conventional means of income. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it will influence their needs in terms of support, and their availability for teaching.”

The West’s founding insight teachers all practiced and in many cases ordained at Theravada monasteries in Southeast Asia, where they learned the intensive silent practice that today characterizes retreats at Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, Gaia House and elsewhere. Alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation in quiet, tranquil settings, interspersed with Dharma talks and individualized practice discussions, has proven conducive to helping practitioners develop meditative insight. As in Southeast Asia, insight teachings in the West are traditionally offered freely. There may be a charge for room and board, but retreat leaders are not paid to teach; they rely solely on donations from retreatants.

Given the burgeoning interest in insight practice, the increasing number of trained teachers and changing demographics, the time seems ripe for dialogue about issues affecting our teachers, their communities, and the evolving insight movement. But there is no single organizing force behind the insight movement. Unlike some Buddhist movements and traditions, the insight community is relatively decentralized, even if strong connections exist between individual teachers and across institutions. This leaves a gap in our knowledge of how our teachers are faring and the kinds of support they need. Enter BIN.

BIN grew out of the 2010 InterSangha meeting among twenty-eight sanghas. It serves as a meta-sangha, a dynamic hub with the intention of connecting and serving insight teachers, leaders and sanghas as they deepen and broaden Theravada Buddhist teachings in the West.

In December 2013, BIN conducted a survey to assess trends and needs among lay insight meditation retreat teachers. BIN emailed the survey to 173 retreat teachers (compiled from the Teachers Councils of major insight retreat centers, teacher conferences, Inquiring Mind and other sources, including the twenty-six current members of the IMS/Spirit Rock teacher training), and received 104 responses. BIN followed traditional statistical conventions for reporting trends and group differences, solicited open-ended feedback from all of the teachers, and explored the results in conversations with several additional senior teachers.

Here is a summary of the survey’s findings, as well as some important reflection questions that BIN believes emerged from these findings.

Demographic Characteristics
Forty-four percent of teachers are aged sixty or more. Thirty percent are younger than fifty years old. Only 47% of current trainees are younger than fifty. Their ethnicity is predominantly white: 89% of fully trained teachers and 81% of current trainees identify as white. Of all teachers surveyed, 50% percent are female, 48% male and 2% transgendered. Thirteen percent chose not to respond to the question regarding sexual orientation; of those who did respond, 88% are heterosexual and 12% are gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer.

Teaching Activities and Income from Retreat Teaching
For the entire sample, the average number of retreat nights taught annually is thirty-eight. Fully trained teachers teach an average of forty-five nights per year, while trainees average eighteen nights per year. The median amount of income that fully trained teachers earn from retreats is 21% to 40%. This skews higher for those serving on a Teachers Council at a major retreat center: the median quintile for that group earns about 50% of their income from residential retreats, while teachers who are not on councils earn far less, approximately 10%.

Two comments from teachers are relevant here. “There is limited access to teaching opportunities at the major centers for those who are not on that particular Teachers Council. Although I’m a member of a Teachers Council, I’m concerned by the way this creates a clique that can be problematic, even if it simultaneously protects some important qualities.” For some teachers, finding and maintaining opportunities to teach creates significant anxiety: “I often experience a deep sense of uncertainty, insecurity and worry around invitations to teach at major retreat centers. Specifically, I’m unsure if single opportunities will become an annual invitation. I’m also concerned about how the large number of teacher trainees might affect my opportunities and status within the teaching community. As a consequence, I’m hesitant to sit longer retreats for fear of losing teaching slots.”

In contrast to membership on a Teachers Council, none of the demographic variables—ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation—are associated with proportion of income from retreat teaching. Some teachers are also involved with secular mindfulness (programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, meditation in schools, etc.), but the majority of teachers, 76%, earn less than 20% of their income from secular mindfulness teaching.

Satisfaction with Amount of Teaching
When asked how satisfied they are with the amount of retreat teaching they do, 49% say it is “about the right amount.” Twenty-eight percent teach less than they would like, while 23% teach more than they would like. Individuals on Teachers Councils are more likely to say that they are teaching too much than too little. Of the Teachers Council respondents, 57% are satisfied, 38% teach more than desired and only 5% teach less than desired. Conversely, 36% of those not on Teachers Councils teach less than desired; only 18% are teaching more than they would like. Demographic variables, including age, sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity, do not relate to satisfaction with amount of teaching.

Satisfaction with the Dana-Based System
In the overall sample, 74% of respondents report being very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the dana-based approach to teacher compensation. Only 13% say they are dissatisfied. Neither gender, sexual orientation, amount of retreat teaching or membership in a Teachers Council relates to satisfaction with dana. No differences are found except for one variable: ethnicity.

Teachers of color view the dana system less favorably than white teachers. Teachers of color and white teachers are equally satisfied with the amount they teach; they derive similar proportions of their income from retreat teaching and they teach a similar number of retreat nights. However, while only 8% of white teachers are dissatisfied with the dana system, 33% of teachers of color are dissatisfied. This finding may have various explanations and is worthy of our collective attention. BIN did not collect data to determine if teachers of color are supported at lower levels (i.e., receive smaller amounts of dana) than their white counterparts, but this would be one plausible explanation for the difference in satisfaction.

Insurance and Retirement
Eight percent of respondents lack medical insurance. Forty-three percent pay for their own medical insurance, while 7% receive it through a Dharma organization. Other types of insurance are less common: 81% do not have long-term-care insurance, 80% do not have disability insurance and 50% do not have liability insurance. One teacher wrote, “I feel the burden of insurance should not really land on the teachers, as most can barely survive on dana. Might we consider a fundraising effort on behalf of the teacher community—perhaps in the form of a small incremental increase to registration fees to create a fund? In Asia, monastics are cared for by the community and monastery. The society is structured to support that life. In the United States, the dana system is embedded in a different social context. Would it be possible to check a box to donate $5 for this purpose in a registration process? Could insurance be purchased for teachers at retreat centers, or could we create a health insurance package that teachers could opt into and pay for alongside the staff? Our centers have a stake in considering how best to support the teacher community over the long term.”

Another teacher states that the “most serious concern is the absence of a retirement plan for me and the many teaching colleagues with whom I’ve spent decades leading retreats on a dana basis. I expect that I’ll be all right, but in the event of a health problem that made teaching impossible, I’d be in trouble.” Another echoed this sentiment: “Financial support for aging teachers who wish to decrease their teaching activity or fully retire is urgently needed. Something like a pension fund is necessary!”

Teaching Constraints: Retreat Center Size and Registration Cost
Asked, “Over the past three years, how often do you feel the capacity of the retreat center has constrained participation in your retreats,” 13% respond “Frequently,” 33% say “Sometimes” and 54% answer “Seldom” or “Never.” Members of Teachers Councils are more likely to feel constrained by a center’s capacity than those who are not on a Teachers Council.

When asked whether the registration cost has constrained participation, 17% answer “Frequently,” 48% “Sometimes” and 33% “Seldom” or “Never.” It is of note that two-thirds feel significant constraint with respect to retreat cost. The affordability of retreats likely has adverse effects on the economic diversity of retreatants.

Looking to the Future
Ninety-one percent of teachers surveyed anticipatea modest or large increase in the demand for mindfulness retreat practice. With only 30% of current teachers younger than fifty, it is important to train younger teachers. The gender balance of the teachers approximates general population distributions, as does sexual orientation. This is not the case, however, with regard to ethnicity; teachers of color comprise only 13% of BIN’s survey sample, and the current cohort of teacher trainees is not appreciably more diverse. It is notable that the first three cycles of the Community Dharma Leaders Program featured similar underrepresentation of people of color. In the most recent round of training (CDL4), diversity is increasing: more than 35% are people of color.

Many retreat teachers rely heavily on dana for annual income. While BIN’s survey indicates general enthusiasm for the dana system, more than one teacher expressed concerns about how the dana system constrains who can teach. Specifically, an overrepresentation of teachers with independent wealth was noted.

One teacher said, “The dana system was set up long ago by a handful of dear people in their twenties. They had limited experience with finances, and lived and ate in the retreat center, so the requisites of living were mostly taken care of. Now, most lay teachers have different lives but are stuck in the same situation. The current system limits who can teach and the amount of time that nonwealthy teachers can teach. It also accounts in part for the lack of diversity among teachers and thus students.”

This, combined with survey results showing that teachers of color view the dana system less favorably, suggests that the system works better for those who already have other, ample financial resources, or have few expenses. The survey’s open-ended questions reveal considerable interest in models of retreat teaching that support all stages of life, from young parenthood to retirement.

The survey results leave us with questions for reflection:

• How might we generate funds to supplement teachers’ medical and retirement needs? How might these funds be administered and distributed?
• How can teachers who have family responsibilities be better supported when they teach retreats?
• What further institutional efforts are necessary to enhance the ethnic diversity of retreat teachers?
• What is the insight movement’s relationship to secular practices like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?
• What distinguishes insight practice from secular mindfulness? Will secular mindfulness change how we understand the Dharma? What leadership might insight teachers and institutions take in the dissemination of secular mindfulness practice?

For the complete survey, with charts and graphs illustrating the results, please visit

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, served as a Buddhist chaplain at the University of Southern California for four years and teaches about the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Trained by Noah Levine, Brensilver teaches with Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in San Francisco and is in the Spirit Rock/IMS teacher-training program.

Kim Allen cofounded the Buddhist Insight Network (BIN) in 2011. Former board president of the Insight Meditation Center, she now serves at the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz. Her practice includes intensive retreat, sutta study and community teaching. She completed the Sati Center Buddhist Chaplaincy training program and has worked in environmental sustainability and organizational systems.

© 2014 Inquiring Mind