Henry Look Interview
Copyright: Pai Hui Ke Enterprises 1990
When Knives Are Sharp!
An Interview with Henry Look
In October of 1994, my wife Andrea and I had an opportunity to spend four days with Master Henry Look in San Francisco. I found Master Look's openness and willingness to share his knowledge with us very refreshing and inspirational. He is, in my opinion, a man of action and change.
At sixty-seven years, Look Shr Fu is a literal fireball of energy, and we were hard pressed to keep up with him. He is a dedicated teacher, rising early each morning to be at his 7:00 a.m. class in a nearby park. We were there each morning with him, in the invigorating San Francisco morning air, observing his class and meeting with his students. Then it was off to morning Dim Sum and tea in their regular restaurant, where the conversation turned to all sorts of interesting topics. Over dinner we discussed philosophy and he told stories about this teacher or that practitioner to illustrate his points of view.
As an interviewee, he is very easy to talk to, articulate in making his point and just takes off with the question and runs with it. A man at ease with his knowledge.
All in all, I found Look Shr Fu to be a most extraordinary man, and rather than spoil it for you, I will let you get acquainted with him yourselves as we start with this three part interview with Master Henry Look.
HJ. Perhaps we will start with your history, when you started studying, your teachers, etc....
First of all, I was born here in Sacramento, California, and when I was two years old, my parents took us back to China. When I was growing up as a child in China, people always talk about Gung Fu and such.
So, a couple of my uncles were real top notch Gung Fu practitioners. One of my elder uncles was the black sheep of the family. The younger one was real timid and of easy going manner. The reason the younger uncle of mine want to learn Gung Fu was so that he can defend himself against his own brother, who was very temperamental.
HJ. Really? (Laughs)
Yeah. (Laughs) So, my older uncle, considered to be the black sheep of the family from my mother's side and the oldest of nine children, was my third uncle. And the other one was my number nine uncle, the youngest son.
So, they wanted to teach me Gung Fu but, as a kid, I was not interested. But, when I was about seven or eight years old, I learned how to do a standing horse, and I even learned the staff and the duel staff. My brother and 1, we both learned, so we practiced together with the staff. But, I was never really that interested in it so that I would pursue it. So, after living in China for about nine years, I had seen a lot of Gung Fu demonstrations and Chinese Martial Arts, it still did not enter into my mind that I wanted to learn Gung Fu.
After my return to the United States, my mother decided to settle in San Francisco. So, I attended school around here, and I always loved sports. So, I went into sports like Basketball, Track, Soccer and I enjoyed it. (Laughs) I really liked Sports so much, that I wanted to be a coach of basketball as well as track.
In 1945, when the 2nd world was still on, I got drafted and I went into the marines. I served three years there. And during my course of training in the marines I had some training in Judo. I was made an assistant, since my coach thought I picked up Judo pretty quick. I also did a little boxing while I was in the service. Only had six bouts. Won five by knockouts, one by decision. I quit after that. Because I felt my nose was flat enough. So, these are the things that are somewhat related to Gung Fu.
After serving about three years in the service, everybody thought I should go back to school, because I had delayed my schooling in this country. I only had six months of high school before I went into the service. So, everybody said I should really go back to school and I said no I think I better work. So, one thing motivated me that I should go back to school was that as a veteran, if you go to school, you could get seventy-five dollars a month! So, I said oh I think I'll go to school and get that seventy-five dollars a month!
I didn't know what I wanted to take up. So, I went to San Francisco City College to make up 2 1/2 years of high school. And so I got into architecture kind of by accident. I bumped into a couple of old school mates and the junior asked me, do you love artwork, and the other one said, well I know you love physics and you don't like chemistry, so the third guy said, well, why don't you take up architecture. And I said Architecture? What the heck is that? I didn't even know what the term was. So, I thought, well okay I'll try that and after a year of that, I decided that this was going to be my life. So, eventually I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1954 and got my architectural degree and then passed the state board a few years later in 1958. So I started my practice about that time, and I've been out there ever since.
The reason I'm mentioning all that is because it is related to my training in martial arts. Since at the time when I was the architect for BeniHanna restaurants throughout the nation, and I was the architect for twenty-six Beni Hanna restaurants throughout the U.S. Because of that, a lot of traveling, the daily schedules, hotels, airports, what have you, created a lot of stress and pressure, and I started to have migraine headaches, allergies, ulcers and all the bad stuff to go with it! So, back in 1968 1 went to Hong Kong, and my cousin saw me and said I have a problem. He said, really when you go back to San Francisco, look for a good Tai Chi teacher, who can help you to relieve all those mental and physical stresses.
When I got back to San Francisco, I asked around and I started reading up on Tai Chi, doing research on Tai Chi and so forth. And everybody points to an old man in a park in Chinatown. He said, that's Master Kuo, Kuo Lien Ying. So, that's how I got started in the martial arts. Still, even then, I had no inkling, or interest in learning anything, besides just Tai Chi for health! I think I was so fortunate that I found Master Kuo. We had a good relationship together, and as a result, he taught me a lot more than I could learn during the time I studied with him, because I was with him for over seven years. And there were some personal reasons why I finally told him I had to leave (laughs), and the strangest thing ever happened in that he agreed it was okay for me to leave.
Just as soon as I had left his training, a very good friend telephoned me and said, hey, you know there's a famous Hsing-I teacher from Hong Kong over here in San Francisco. And I said, really? Gee, can you get me an introduction? And finally, he accepted me, cause I told him I had just stopped training with Master Kuo. At the time, I did not realize that they were martial arts brothers. Because when I met Master Han, it was said he was a top disciple of Wang Xiangzhai, the best Hsing-I fighter in his time.
Of course, I didn't know too much about it. I told them when I was studying I with Master Kuo, the one that started me out on it, he gave me a little flavor of what Hsing-I and Pa Kua is, besides the Tai Chi. Because it's very, very hard, as you already know, Mike, to go to any depth through the process of learning the old style or the old fashion way. But, anyway, when I was learning from Master Han, one day (laughs), he said to me, whatever you don't understand, you just go ahead and ask me. So, all these light bulbs lit up in my mind. I thought, oh wow, here's an opportunity! All these years, Master Kuo would tell me "sung yi dien" I didn't understand! Here's my chance! So, I asked him the question that all this time I didn't understand. So, he was really nice. He not only explained it to me, but he demonstrated it to me. Because, in those days you know (laughs), especially when he had a few drinks you know, his judgment at times was not quite what he intended. When he hit you in the chin, sometimes he thinks it just a little bit, but, he really whacked you here or there, not realizing his internal power, you know? He'd think he just barely touched you, (demonstrates a light blow) he'd go like that (demonstrates a hard blow) and then the next thing you know (demonstrates again), you could really feel it, you know, your arm, your chin or whatever. So, because of the opportunity I had with Master Han, I got answers to many questions that for years had built up in my mind while I was with Master Kuo that I didn't understand.
Like I said to you before, many people would complain about how they were not getting any teaching. I have a problem with that. He tried to teach me so much I couldn't understand. You know? Too much information, too soon. Because, well as you know, Mike, when you are learning any kind of internal art, intelligence and education (laughs) is not part of the game. You have to have patience and a blank mind and it takes time. I don't care how clever or how smart you are, you will not obtain it with impatience. You need time to nourish and gain all that is in store. So, that's how I got started in the martial arts world.
My training with Master Han, well, he goes back to Hong Kong, and then he comes over here sometimes. So, when I was doing business in Japan, since I specialized designing Japanese restaurants, at least twice a year and sometimes three times a year I would have opportunities to go back to Japan to be with my clients, meetings and so forth. Actually, I was able to set it up that way so the company would send me there and pay for all my expenses. So I It would take advantage of that and then I would go visit Master Han in Hong Kong and train with him! If he was not coming here, then I would go over there. So, I got a lot more out of him, even though I couldn't see him every day. When I did see him, he gave me a lot of important training information and instructions. Every night after I met with him, I would go back to my hotel room and sit down with my little black book and jot down all the teaching that he'd been telling me through the day. And even today I still refer to that little black book once in awhile, but it is not hard to see that there are so many things that I have forgotten. Many things I have not been practicing.
And then, before all this, back in the '70's, one day one of my martial arts brothers under Master Kuo, Martin Lee, asked Master Kuo a question; "today who is the best martial artist, or Gung Fu Shr Fu in China?" And Master Kuo said well, the only person he respected was Professor Yu, Yu Pung Shi. So, we thought, oh wow, this guy must be very high skilled. Because, see we would always ask Shr Fu: Shr Fu, so and so, what do you think? And he would never knock anyone. He just won't answer you. He walks away. (Laughs) So, he knows something. But, that's one thing we learned from him, never say bad things about other people. So, he just shut up and walks away. Now, I think that is a very good way for us. We should acknowledge and use the same way. Instead of just sit there and start knocking, knocking, knocking. And sometimes we don't even know how true that is about people.
So, Martin Lee, who is a high level Professor of Physics, with a Ph.D. working at Stanford University. So, he is such a high level physicist, that after Communist China opened up, they invited top physicists, all Professors to go to Shanghai and exchange high tech knowledge. So, from the United States on the first trip, Martin went over there, back in 1980 I think. Somewhere around that time. So, he got to Shanghai and tried to locate Professor Yu. But, because Communist China was squelching Gung Fu at that time, nobody dared to mention him, so they said "Oh he's dead, he's dead." But there was no proof that he was dead. Just everyone would say this to protect him from the Communist government. At this time he was a Western M.D. you know. He graduated from Germany University, trained in Western Medicine. So now as a government doctor in China he was a dermatology specialist. Anyway, Martin came back discouraged because he couldn't find him.
But then, the following year he went back to Shanghai again. That was like 1981 and he had an opportunity to go back there again. This time he found him and Madam Yu. And he was showing Martin some of the internal power of Chi Kung that he would do with Madam Yu, (pauses) the Kong Jin (empty force). She was jumping up and down like a yo yo (gestures), and Martin came back and told me "Oh man, when I saw all that, I got scared!" Shr Fu said to him "Do you want to try that?" Martin said "Oh no, no, I don't want to try that!" So, anyway the good news is that they told Martin yes they did have some interest in coming to the United States. So, when Martin told me that, I said look Martin let's split the expenses, whatever it is, and get him over here. Kuo Shr Fu said he's the best, we'll get him over here. So, that's exactly what we did. Martin went back there and told them.
Then in the mean time, Martin, because he's affiliated with Stanford University, right? And the Professors there were also interested in Chi Kung and the Nei Kung. Also, Professor Benson from Harvard. I think his name was mentioned many times on that Bill Moyer program too. And the next thing (laughs) I know, Martin got both schools sponsoring them to come over here to test the Chi. To analyze the internal energy and all that. So it ended up that I didn't have to spend any money, Martin didn't have to spend any money.
So, we finally got them over here and they were staying at Martin's house. So, I was the first one to welcome them to the United States with Martin, and we started having some private training with them. At the same time we set up a class down in Los Altos. So every week we would go down there and learn. And we wanted them to set up a class here in town. Finally, one of my Hsing I martial art brothers, Fong Ha, set up a class in Fort Mason every Sunday. So in the mean time, when he comes up here from Los Altos, we would have private lessons with them over at Fong Ha's home. And I started mentioning Y.C. Wong's name all the time. So one day, Professor Yu said, "Sounds like you want Y.C. Wong to come to our private class." I said yes Shr Fu, he's my martial art brother and I would like to have you accept him also. So, then we end up with the three of us training with him every morning.
Throughout the years training with Professor Yu, I learned a different aspect of Yi Chuan and Chi Kung. So recapping, with Master Kuo basically was Tai Chi, and I got into the Pa Kua art and a little bit of Hsing-I. And with Master Han, basically it was about 95% Hsing-I. And with Professor Yu 10% was Hsing-I and the other 90% was Chi Kung and Fah Jing. Basically that was part of my training. Unfortunately in 1984, all three of my Shr Fu passed away that same year. One February, one in April and then July. So I did not have too many years of learning from the top level Shr Fu. But I felt very fortunate to have what I had learned and practiced.
Another thing was that I didn't know for awhile, until later when I discovered that all three of them were martial arts brothers. You know it's funny I never questioned that. Master Han would come over and say, "I want to go see Master Kuo Lien Ying, pay my respects." That was his Shr Sheng (martial art elder brother), you know, I didn't know that! So, Professor Yu come over here, and his wife wish to do the same thing. They want to visit Master Kuo out of respect. Then I discovered that there was one book, a Hsing I book by Wang Xiangzhai, and number one listed on the family tree was Yu Pung Shi. That's Professor Yu. Second and third from the top, I forget the name. Number four was Uncle Han, my Shr Fu's older brother. And number five is Han Shr Fu.
And that is the reason why a couple of years ago I went back to China to see Uncle Han because I thought perhaps he could help me clarify some questions. Shr Fu Han passed away at such a young age. So, I sort of miss the teaching and so I spent a week over there talking to him and just listening to him explain certain philosophy to me about Hsing I. And also, he demonstrated several things and very similar to what I learned from Master Han. So that's where we are. What else do you need?
HJ. I have heard, and you have already verified this in the last couple of days by some of the stories you told, that Professor Yu had and extraordinary level of internal energy. Could you perhaps share one anecdote with us that sticks out in your mind?
Well, going back to something I said to you the other day, my first experience of Nei Kung was with Master Kuo. Many years back, I was talking with a fellow student in the studio. And as I turned to leave the studio, on my way out the front door, it happened that instant Master Kuo was walking in at the same time and I bumped into him. Bam! I went back about ten feet! I said to myself, wow, that old man is pretty strong! It felt like I ran into a pile of rock. I just bounced back like that. (Gestures) At that time, it was so early in my training, I didn't realize that was all from Nei Kung, you know? That's a very strange feeling, Mike. You know how you turn around and someone, bong (gestures), like that. I'm sure that you have had it playing basketball or football or something. You turn around and try to run that direction and all of a sudden someone is there and boom. (Gestures) It rocks you back. So the same thing with Master Han, you know, how he would project people.
And so one of things is that, a lot of people can do it, but they do it with external energy. And they get all muscled up and all that, and you don't feel good about it. Even when you can project. But, to do it easily, very relaxed like it was nothing. And the other person doesn't realize that they're flying back either because it's so comfortable like. So, Han Shr Fu always said to me, "If you do it correctly, you both feel comfortable. But if you do it wrong, you both are not comfortable." And that is very, very true.
So, in regards to Professor Yu, well you know I don't want to make any comparisons with him and Master Han and Master Kuo. But he had his own unique style of Kong Jing. When I first witnessed some of the exercises he was doing, I kinda scratched my head, you know, it was kind of hard to conceive of what he was doing. He would just wave his hands without touching (gestures), and Madam Yu would go bouncing back like a bouncing ball (gestures again). See in the beginning, before he trained any students over here, he wouldn't do it with anybody. He would make us stand in meditation day after day try to sink our Chi. And gradually, he started teaching us how to do Fah Jing and how to jump like a bouncing ball so that you won't fall on your head when you were pushed backward, see?
And the only way I can explain that Mike, is my own experience. Because when you go up and try to push Professor Yu or Madam Yu, there is definitely some form of invisible force and energy coming at you, because you cannot get near them. But, by the time when you get to push on Madam Yu or Professor Yu, well, the majority of the time most of your energy is gone and you are so weakened. But when you push them, all of a sudden very lightly you are thrown up in the air. See, (laughs) I'm the type of guy that doesn't go in for putting on a show. I want to really try to do it. So, I remember the first time I pushed Madam Yu, and she was standing just a foot or so from the edge of the wood deck which is three feet off the ground. So I said, "No, if I push you I will push you right off the deck." (Laughs) So she said, "No matter, you come, you come." So the first time I pushed and I could not move that woman. So finally I said I'm gonna really let her have it, so I got all my force of energy like that (gestures) and whoom! She didn't move an inch, and instead I went flying back! So, this is one experience I had. And Professor Yu, he was a lot stronger. So, we don't like to talk about these things because it's hard for people to believe, unless you really experience it yourself.
So, now after all these years of practice, there are only a few, no more than three students, I can feel their energy come pulsating. Now, I just go like that (gestures), I just let out some energy and bom, bom, bom, they go back like something hit them. Just like two energies come colliding together (gestures) and then you know something happens. So that is my own experience. So, I see myself doing it and I don't believe it. I do pushing hands with only some of my students who can do that, and I just grab them in here and (gestures) like that and their feet come off the ground. And you tell them to go jump that high and they cannot do it. They jump all day long and they can never get up there. But when I'm doing that with them, sometimes I go (gestures) like that and they go flying back, or sometime (gestures) like that and they go upward.
So, in fact one of these days what I would like to do too, I know I can do it. Because this is recorded on film when I pushed hands with Professor Yu. And he lifted me up so high I had no idea I was so far off the ground. And yet, when he would do it to you, you don't feel all that. And then you see it in a movie and you think, wow, he really did lift me off the ground. So, this is my own experience. And I don't like to go around telling everybody. People see, and say "Aw, I don't believe all that." And I say, yeah, I don't even believe it myself sometimes. (Laughs) Because it is kind of unbelievable when you see it being done. So now, sometimes I practice with my students, but I don't go around telling everyone I can do it and so forth, because that is not my thing. I tell them, when I'm doing it I don't believe it. I don't believe that I'm doing it, but I am doing it, see? So how can you tell anyone else to believe it, see? So that is my biggest experience in the Nei Chia or the Kong Jing exercise we study all these years. In fact, Professor Yu said at one time that one of the reasons we don't do it with just any outside people is that you have to train yourself to the point that, just like a radio station, you have to have a transmitter and you have to have a receiver. So, you have to get the right frequency. Because we all have electricity within us. A lot of people do not realize that.
When Professor Yu came over to this country. The Professors from Stanford and Harvard wanted to measure his Chi. They wanted to have Xrays taken of that happening. So they put (laughs), it's funny they put that headgear on him and he was afraid they were going to electrocute him. It had all these wires on it. So, they told him "Just relax, just relax and nothing will happen." So you see like an X-ray copy, right, blank. And then they say "All right, send out your Chi." And all these stars come out all over. Like, well you've seen an x-ray right? The bone structure down there? And actually, you see that. So, they would say, "Okay, now pull your Chi back." And nothing. And now "Okay, send out your Chi." And again the stars.
HJ. Would you tell us a bit about your particular style of Hsing-I, where it comes from, and what kinds of things you emphasize in your training and teaching?
Well, I'm not quite clear exactly what style of Hsing-I that we do, because my Shr Fu would never mention what "style" of Hsing-I we were doing. I believe it is the HeBei style. The only thing he ever said to us was that his father, and his older brother Han Hsing Chiao, had started studying with Wang Xiangzhai, and he was just tagging along at the beginning. When he first started I think that Wang Xiangzhai was teaching the Hsing-I and then later the I-Chuan. Then later he called it Hsing-I Chuan, have you ever heard about it?
Also called Da Cheng Chuan. Basically, we are doing chi development and controlling the use of chi. We're talking about the same thing, just using different words to define it. We say I-Chuan is the mind and the fist. And Hsing-I Chuan is heart, mind, fist. We all talk about feeling. All the internals are feeling systems when we talk about the training for them. But, that is something that is hard for the naked eye to understand. Because, how can anyone see how you are feeling when you practice? But the person who practices, as you stand there, gradually it begins to come to you. As an example, have you read the book by Kenichi Sawai, called "TaiKiKen?" He was a young Japanese martial artist, who holds a fifth degree black belt in Judo and was well trained in Kendo, etc.
H.J. Yes, I have read that.
On the back cover it talks about Wang Xiangzhai. So, if you've read that then you know that Wang Xiangzhai told Sawai when he went back to Japan, "One day you will understand what true power is all about." The internal power. So, I understand he went back to Japan and practiced standing meditation for something like eleven years and one day he felt "Oh wow, that's what real energy is!" So, I've sort of adapted this philosophy and I have gone through the same thing. There are a lot of things that I am doing today, that I don't quite really understand. I do things that I don't believe. I did it, but I don't believe I did it! Could this be the essence of "Da Cheng Chuan?"
HJ. When you teach your students, what do you think the most important things for them to learn first are in relation to Hsing I?
Well, of course when I was learning, Shr Fu never went into the kind of detail like I go through with my students now, pointing out the relationship between the elbow and the wrist and so forth. But one thing he used to say whenever I would stick my palm out, he would grab my elbow and yank down on it and say "Sink down, sink down." So, often times I tell my students that if you can't remind yourself to do this, then go get a couple of fishing weights of a couple -ounces and put a rubber band through it, then hang it from your elbow. Maybe then that will remind you to sink your elbows. Sinking your elbows is necessary for relaxation. Another thing in relation to that is to shape like a bow with a bowstring. (Gestures a proper palm alignment while drawing an imaginary string from shoulder to fingertip)
One strong point that most do not quite really understand is the phrase "sung yi dien" (relax more, or softer). Now, after so many years I think perhaps that may be the key. Although the most important thing of not just Hsing-I, but all the internal systems is Sung, relax. You know how hard it is! How do you define Sung in English? So many implications, you can't. So, you're not completely relaxed. I don't know what terminology you use, but I have a heck of a time translating that into English! The only reason I was able to analyze that better than most people is because I do speak Chinese and can do the interpretation.
It's like when you look up anything. Some people misinterpret. I think Sung is a very, very hard word to define. For that reason, when I went back to China a couple years ago and saw uncle Han, my Sifu Han's elder brother, Han Hsing Chao, who lives in Pearl River now, that was the first thing I asked. I was always told "sung yi dien, sung yi dien" what does that really mean? It is a long, long way to define Sung, you cannot define it in just one or two words. Basically, it means you are relaxed but yet energy flows throughout, not flacid, so how are you going to describe that?
HJ. There have been many things written about Hsing-I as far as posture, how to hold the body, etc., so most people have had a lot of access to material to try and learn those things. But, one of the concepts that is almost never talked about is the "I", the actual intention as you practice. How to hold the mind and what to think about. What are your thoughts?
If you like to read the remainder of this interview with Henry Look, you may purchase it on the Hsing-I Journal CD at left!