Cleveland Zen Buddhist serves as Ask a Monk' online Sharing good karma

by Janet Fillmore, Plain Dealer, December 8, 2007

Cleveland, Ohio (USA) -- When the Ven. Shih Ying-Fa parks his 5-foot-10 frame before the computer in his home office in Cleveland, he never knows who will be seeking his help.

It could be a high school student in Baton Rouge, La., who asks the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism for a class.

Or a poet in Tallahassee, Fla., who wonders if attending a Zen Buddhist group is for him.

Or a hospital worker in London who has practiced martial arts for 20 years but isn't sure if they are compatible with Buddhist teachings.

Ying-Fa is the human behind "Ask a Monk," an online information and advice service for Buddhists and those who want to know more about Buddhism. The 55-year-old abbot of CloudWater Zendo, the Zen Center of Cleveland, receives at least 20 e-mails a week from as far away as China, Japan and New Zealand.

Religious advice forums aren't new; for decades, pastors and other religious leaders have answered questions in their weekly bulletins, monthly newsletters or denominational magazines. With the Internet, "Ask a . . ." Web sites have proliferated. Ying-Fa has answered Buddhist queries for 10 years, ever since his teacher, the late Ven. Shih Shen-Lung of St. Louis, recommended that he include the feature on the Zen Center's site,

"It's a wonderful way to answer the many, many questions people have about a tradition with which they're probably not that familiar," Ying-Fa said. "Plus, for those who are already on this path, it can be an invaluable resource, particularly for those who do not have ready access to a teacher."

The majority of people ask about specific aspects of Buddhist meditation and teaching, Ying-Fa said, and he has posted a selection at Some people question his answers, but the monk said that is good: "The Buddhist tradition insists that you test things out for yourself and not believe things just because someone said them."

There are times, though, when Ying-Fa can only shake his head in sadness and frustration at what people write.

Several years ago, he received an e-mail from a man who claimed to be an accomplished Zen student because he was able to get into the minds of animals he was hunting before he shot them. The man said he could "be one with the animal," which enabled him to track them efficiently.

Ying-Fa was disappointed because Buddhists respect life and, as such, try to keep the taking of life to the minimum. He responded: "That may make you a great hunter, but it also makes you a lousy Zen student since you use your meditative concentration to take life instead of preserving it."

The man never wrote back.

Most people, however, are grateful for his replies. These range from students who are rushing to complete an assignment in comparative religion and need help with definitions, to adults who have no other place to turn with a concern.

The poet who inquired about joining a Zen group is James Kimbrell, a 40-year-old creative writing teacher at Florida State University. "I felt a little disinclined to go to a group," he wrote in an e-mail to The Plain Dealer, "and yet I felt the urge to explore the various groups in my area now."

Kimbrell said Ying-Fa responded within a day and explained "the positive aspects of sitting with a group -- sort of the difference between working out at home and doing it at the gym; you can draw on the energy of the group and gain a greater focus and perhaps a more disciplined experience." Kimbrell said he planned to visit two groups this month.

Dave Symon, 41, a medical records clerk at St. Helier Hospital in south London, said by e-mail that he had used several Buddhist sites for scripture but found "Ask a Monk" especially informative and prompt. Ying-Fa's response to his question about the martial arts and Buddhism was that it all "comes down to intent. . . . Martial arts are neither inherently good nor inherently bad; they are simply a form of physical, mental and spiritual training. It is how one employs this training that determines whether it goes against the Buddhist teachings."

Ying-Fa said he spends six to seven hours a week responding to "Ask a Monk" e-mails. It helps, he said, that he's "a fairly good typist," the result of years as a TV and radio journalist in several states, including Ohio, using his legal name, Michael Bonasso. Then, in 1982, he began working for the Veterans Administration, but after three years found he was "a very, very unhappy, angry and stressed-out person." His search for meaning led him to the Cleveland Buddhist Temple, where he began meditating regularly and found his first teacher. He took his novice vows in 1990 and was ordained as a monk in 1998.

In 1994, he founded CloudWater Zendo, which is primarily a Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist temple that also teaches Pure Land Buddhism and general Buddhism.

Ying-Fa said he tries to answer "Ask a Monk" e-mails within 24 hours, giving priority to those writers with a family member or animal near death, or those experiencing other life crises. A speedy response can be difficult when he travels, however, as the monk does not have a laptop ("My karma has not been such that I currently own one"). On occasion, his wife, the Ven. Shih Ming-Xing, assistant abbot at CloudWater Zendo, has filled in for him.

That won't be necessary any longer.

Sitting in a coffee shop last month, his shaved head gleaming under the pendant lights, Ying-Fa brandished an iPhone, an early Christmas present from his wife. (Ying-Fa and Ming-Xing give gifts but don't observe a religious side to the holiday.)

Now he can check e-mail just about anywhere.

"It's the perfect gift for the monk on the go," he said, his face dissolving into a beatific smile.