'This Incredible Gift of This Practice'



Cambridge Zen Center’s November retreat will be lead by Terry Cronin, JDPSN. Born in Worcester, MA in 1956, he is currently guiding teacher at Northern Light Zen Center, in Topsham, Maine. Cronin first began to explore Christian and Zen meditation in 1980 as a graduate student in theology at the Yale Divinity School. After practicing in the Japanese tradition, Cronin settled into the Kwan Um School of Zen—and into a career as a chaplain based in hospices, tending those at the end of life. Cronin received inka, or permission to teach, from a fellow hospice caregiver, Barbara Rhodes, also known as Zen Master Soeng Hyang, in 2014.


Q. You go to work, someone dies on Tuesday, someone dies on Wednesday. Do you find being a hospice chaplain hard?

A. Like anything else, it is constantly different. It is not ever any one thing all the time. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s pedestrian. Sometimes it’s profound. Sometimes it’s all of it, constantly changing.


Q. Do people ever want a Christian chaplain? Do people learn you are a Buddhist and become dissatisfied?

A. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I can count on one hand the number of times that somebody came out and asked what I believe or what my tradition is. The role of a hospice chaplain is a very broad one. People hear the word ‘chaplain’ and they project onto that. A starting point of my job is to get a feel for what are they projecting onto it. Often, it’s ‘Oh, he’s a chaplain, so this is about religion. If I think religion is a lot of baloney, then he’s got nothing for me.’ I need to help folks understand what a broad role I am in.


Q. How have your Zen practice and your occupation affected each other?

A. Every day as a hospice chaplain—every day—I am with folks who are either approaching the end of their own life or witnessing and supporting a loved one who is approaching the end of life. So it is a powerful teaching for me of impermanence. Death is waiting there for all of us. It’s not waiting. It’s coming. Waking up ... this opportunity we have now to wake up is indeed precious. That word gets so overused, but it’s true! Often the words I tell myself are ‘Terry, don’t squander this opportunity.’

Our practice is just being with things as they are. . . to really see clearly what is this, right now. Not what do I want it to be, or try to manipulate it. Just what is this, right now? Nothing that is unfolding is ... wrong. It is what it is. To be able to just be with things as they are appearing is often a great support and assist to the individuals or families going through hospice care. To help them, as much as possible, simply relax into this moment. It’s often a confirmation for me of this incredible practice that we’re given and what that means for us.


Q. Some people think Zen is a tough, macho thing. For someone thinking about trying a Zen retreat, what would you tell them? 

A. One of the values of retreat is seeing that it’s constantly changing. Our idea ahead of time about what it will be is almost never what it is! [He laughs.] That’s a powerful experience: for folks to see their preconceived ideas of the way things are not the reality of what it actually is. A retreat is nothing special. Our practice is: moment by moment by moment, can I see clearly, and act well? Moment by moment by moment, can I really perceive clearly what is this? Can I see this moment and respond appropriately?

And when I become aware that I am not really in this moment -- that through imagination or memory, that I am lost in the past or future, then I simply return at this moment. You become aware of that. What am I doing right now? Just resume doing it.

For most of us, our moment to moment world seems so complicated. There is all kinds of stuff going on. All kinds of sensory stimuli. Retreat is really an artificial structure where the situation is simplified to the Nth degree.


Q. A Zen retreat can be pretty repetitive.

A. It is very, very much a simplified situation. The schedule is set. Our roles are clearly defined. Because it is so simplified, there is a great teaching opportunity there for us to see how our minds work. To see how often we aren’t just doing what we are doing. We are caught up in our fantasies, our memories. We are not 100 percent just doing what we are doing.

The simplified environment of the retreat helps make it obvious to us that ... all I am doing right now is sitting still on a cushion, on the floor, doing my practice. And yet here I am, arguing with my boss, or debating the debate I have had one thousand times with someone. It jumps out at you. It is so obviously not what this moment is ... that it is almost laughable. We often don’t notice it because the situations in the rest of our lives are so complicated, with so much going on.


Q. You began meditating in the Christian tradition?

A. When I was at Yale, my last year there, there was a monk named Peter McCarthy from a Trappist monastery in Lafayette, Oregon, Our Lady of Guadalupe. He and I became fast friends. He is the person who introduced me to contemplative practice. He also was practicing with Bernie Glassman at the time. He introduced me both to Zen practice and Christian contemplative practices and the incredible similarities between those.

After finishing at Yale Divinity School, I thought that perhaps life as a Trappist monk might be of interest to me. I tried that on for size. That was a fascinating time. The abbot of the monastery and Peter, the Director of Novices, were key people trying to reinvigorate the Christian contemplative practice. They were humble enough to recognize the importance of working with a teacher. They had connected with Robert Aitken Roshi, who would come to the Pacific Northwest and lead retreats for them a couple of times a year. I had the opportunity to sit some sesshins with Aitken Roshi and with other teachers in that tradition.

I returned to Maine from the Trappist monastery in Oregon but was trying to stay with that particular Zen school. I saved my money, and would try to fly out to retreats there when I could. On one of those trips, one of the teachers said, ‘You know, it would be far more important and beneficial to you if you made a connection to a Zen tradition closer to home.’ This teacher said, ‘... and I have heard good things about Zen Master Seung Sahn and the Kwan Um School of Zen. They’re in Rhode Island.’ That’s how I got my start with the Kwan Um School. That was 30 or more years ago. I’ve been coming ever since.


Q. Some people who go to divinity school want to be scholars, they want to be in academia, they want to spend their lives in a big room with a lot of books.

A. I did not have a clue when I went to divinity school. I was still a Roman Catholic at the time. I had decided I probably didn’t want to be a Diocesan priest. Looking back on it, what I can see is that I was trying to figure out God. I was trying to answer these big questions of life and death. The only way I knew at the time to do that was through my intellect. I was a decent student. So of course—you go to graduate school. I was going to figure out God.

By my last year there, I had hit a brick wall. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t gather my thoughts. I didn’t know where I stood. I had this sense I could play a language game a certain way, and use certain words—’God,’ ‘person,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘Jesus’—and make sense of them. But I had enough integrity to realize that I could use different words and play the game differently. How do you know what is real? What reality is there behind those words?

I really got into what in the Christian tradition we would call a ‘dark night’ period. In our tradition, we would say ‘great doubt.’ Some of the professors that I studied with were very intellectual. Some of them said, ‘Oh, you’ve been in school too long. Take a semester off. You’ll be fine.’

But my Trappist friend ... I met him right at that juncture. I barely knew him. But I had the sense to share with him the dilemma I was in. He just laughed at me.

He said, ‘Terry, don’t you get it? Your intellect has taken you as far as it can! You are trying to figure things out that can’t be figured out! What is your practice?’ I looked at him and said, ‘What’s practice?’ [He laughs.]

That says it all in terms of how intellectual the academic theological pursuit is. [Laughter.] Thank goodness for me that he taught me what practice is. He gave me that gift.


Q. What does the closing ritual of the circle talk tell us about our practice?

A. Gratitude. Gratefulness. People are invited to share whatever they choose. They don’t have to say anything. The recurring theme is people expressing gratitude. Gratitude for the food. Gratitude for the support of each other through the day. Grateful for the teachings. When we just do this practice, it opens our heart, it opens our mind, it opens our being in love, in compassion, in gratitude. That is the biggest takeaway. This practice opens us in love. If that isn’t what this suffering world needs more and more of, I don’t know what is. It’s just been this constant reinforcement of this incredible gift of this practice and that it transforms us.

From one perspective, we are transformed. From a clearer perspective, there is no attainment and nothing to attain. It’s what we always were. What we always are. But we lose sight of that.