Recently, I spent a weekend with a truly remarkable man, my teacher, Sifu Share K. Lew. He had visited my home town of Long Island, as he does every year, to teach a workshop in Nui Gung (internal energy cultivation) from his system, Tao Ahn Pai (Taoist Elixir School).
At 94 years of age, this was the sixth workshop my teacher conducted this year (May, 2012), a testament to the efficacy of the system he teaches.
There are many teachers these days that use the title “Master”, “Grand Master”, and even “Great Grand Master”. And, while Share K. Lew is worthy of being called “Master”, he prefers to simply be known as Sifu (seefoo), which means teacher/father. He prefers this title because he views his students as his children, and he considers their welfare his responsibility.
I first met Sifu Lew (hereafter referred to as Sifu) in Japan in 1986. My good friend and member of the International Martial Arts Community living in Japan, David Brickler, arranged for Sifu to come and teach two weekend Nui Gung workshops. When he asked me if I would be interested in attending, I resoundingly replied in the affirmative.
Although I had been practicing Nui Gung for about six years upon meeting Sifu, when I was introduced to his teaching I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary man, and I could see that his system was a cut above what I had been previously exposed to.
I can still vividly remember that first workshop I took under Sifu. Whilst holding the postures of the set, he urged us to listen to our bodies, to breathe slowly and silently, to be relaxed, and to not hold the positions beyond comfort level. Of course the problem was none of us wanted to be the first to come out of the postures. Our egos were getting in the way as we tried to out-muscle each other. We were doing the exact opposite of what should have been done. Fortunately, we gradually started to understand what our teacher was trying to impart upon us.
One other thing that stands out from that first weekend was Sifu asking some of the group to attack him with full force. Even though some very accomplished martial artists tried, none was able to connect with him. He smoothly and effortlessly avoided the attacks while moving simultaneously into a position from which he could have, if he had chosen to, launched a devastating counter attack.
If, before my initial studies with Sifu, I had harbored any doubts about the importance of internal energy cultivation, they were quickly dispelled upon meeting him. As the Chinese saying goes, “If you practice external, you must practice internal; if you practice internal, there is no need to practice external.”
Of course, this saying does not imply external training lacks importance; rather this is a Chinese way of emphasizing the importance of the internal work and that it should be given priority.
Since that first workshop meeting, I have faithfully followed Sifu's teachings, and I continue to learn various sets in the Tao Ahn Pai system. By the time we had met, Sifu was no longer teaching the martial side of the system; instead he focused on the energy cultivation and healing aspects. However, I was fortunate to witness him demonstrate his Kung Fu, and I was fully aware of the high-level skill and power he was able to generate in a seemingly effortless manner.
From 1986 until 1995, David and I brought Sifu, his wife Juanita, and his daughter Shaolan to Japan to conduct workshops and to continue our private studies with him. I also went to San Diego (his home base) several times across this time period for corrections. Upon moving to New York in 1997, I, along with a group of fellow students, have arranged workshops for Sifu to teach each year.
In addition, each April a group of his senior students gather at Camp Cedar Glen just outside of the town of Julian in San Diego County for a mountain retreat. This get together entails a week of meditation, Nui Gung practice, and mountain hikes. Evenings are spent listening to Sifu's stories from his long and amazing life. He is entertaining to say the least, and his memory is sharp and clear.
So what is Sifu's background, and how did he come to be in the United States? I will try to relate some of his story as I have understood it pieced together over the years. I will also refer to an interview with Sifu that had been conducted by my late friend and fellow student of his, Dylana Accola, and published in a Japanese newspaper. As Sifu speaks a dialect of Cantonese, all Chinese words will be written with Cantonese pronunciation.
Sifu Share K. Lew was born 94 years ago in the southern Chinese coastal town of Toisan. He led a normal village boy's life until his parents were both killed in a Japanese bombing raid. As fortune would have it, he met a Taoist monk who would change the entire course of his life.
The Monk, named Chen Poy, was a powerful man who was highly skilled in Taoist martial, healing and energy cultivation arts, arts which Sifu would later discover and excel in.
Describing his first meeting with Chen Poy, Sifu recalled,
“One day I and four friends met a Taoist monk in the village who was selling medicine from his monastery. We asked the monk if we could go with him to live in the monastery. I knew we would be safe there as the Japanese were superstitious about bombing religious places, and besides I had always wanted to study Taoism and martial arts. He looked at us sternly and told us life in the monastery was not easy, but, if it was fine with our families, it was ok with him.”
It took the group several months traveling on foot to reach the Wong Lung Guan (Yellow Dragon Monastery) situated on Luo Fo Mountain and Sifu's home for the next thirteen years.
Soon after arriving there, Sifu learned that Chen Poy was the second head master at the monastery and that he was held in great esteem for his highly developed skills.
Although eager to begin his studies, Sifu was at first dismayed to find himself and his friends performing menial tasks, such as sweeping and cleaning the monastery and drawing water from the well and carrying it up steep, rough-hewn steps. However, at this stage he was not able to see things so clearly; nonetheless, such frequent and vigorous work was forging his young body for the training to come.
After six months at the monastery, one of the boys left. Later two more members of the group decided to leave. Finally, only Sifu and one friend remained.
During the time the group had shrunk from six members to two, Sifu only saw Chen Poy at morning prayers. Frustrated by this, one day he approached Chen Poy, and he asked him for some instruction.
In respect of Sifu's request, Chen Poy instructed one of the older disciples to begin his training. At first, he was only taught the various standing postures of the system. These had to be held for extended periods to strengthen his legs and forge a solid foundation for further development. Sifu, however, would not receive formal training from Chen Roy until he competed five more years of preparation work and demonstrated to his teacher that he was ready to move to the next step.
When Sifu was ready for formal training, he began by learning meditation and Nui Gung. Later, Sifu accompanied his teacher on trips in the mountains to collect herbs, was taught how to make medicine for various conditions, and learned how to use the energy developed from Nui gung practice to heal himself and others.
Sifu eventually learned the complete Tao Ahn Pai system from Chen Poy. This system can be traced back over 1300 years to founder Lu Tung Bin. He was one of the eight Taoist Immortals, and his teachings included the martial, healing and energy cultivation arts and, of course, Taoist philosophy.
As his knowledge of the Tao Ahn Pai system advanced, Sifu became especially adept at energy healing and using herbs, liniments and massage to heal traumatic injury to tendons, bones and connective tissue, as many of his patients, including myself, can testify.
Sifu stated that his relationship with his teacher was on a level of closeness that few, if any, in today's world can hope to experience. He recollected,
“Chen Poy was an incredibly powerful man; his powers and energies were highly developed. He could do things bordering on the miraculous; yet, he was very humble and gentle. He embodied the ideal of a good Taoist. Chen Poy also followed the laws of nature. He knew the order of things: that one needs to strengthen oneself first by cultivating inner energies and by becoming as healthy as possible; then he or she must assume the duty to help and heal others.”
Sifu left the monastery at the request of his Grandfather, who was living in America, and with the blessing of Chen Poy in 1947. He then left China in 1948 as the Communists were starting to take over. As the communist party gained control, the monastery was closed, and Chen Poy was arrested. He was forced to spend three years in prison and an additional four years in a labor camp. But, despite this hardship, Chen Roy remained strong and committed to his ideals up until his death in 1978 at the age of 117!
Upon his arrival in America, Sifu embarked on a 12-year study in San Francisco's Chinatown under the guidance of his distant uncle. His uncle, Lu Bin, had been a very powerful man and a renowned 4th generation master of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu. He also was the first Chinese master to open a public Kung Fu school in the United States, although this school had been exclusively only for the Chinese community.
During his studies, Sifu had observed that much of true Chinese martial arts had died out in China due to secrecy, and he realized that to preserve his system he would need to teach anybody who was willing to learn with full commitment. However, his uncle, like most Chinese masters of his time period, felt that these arts should only be taught to Chinese students.
As an act of respect, Sifu waited several years following his uncle's passing before breaking with tradition and accepting his first non-Chinese student, Johnny Leonie, a Hawaiian 7th Dan, master of Kempo Karate. And, in 1970, Sifu began to teach openly what had hitherto been kept a closely guarded secret – the Tao Ahn Pai system.
After Sifu opened the door to all willing students, other masters did the same, and so his impact on the spread of Chinese martial arts and Nui Gung in North America cannot be overestimated.
Sifu has made many teaching trips to Europe and Japan over the years, but now he teaches only in the United States, both privately and in workshops. When not traveling, Sifu lives in a quiet suburb of San Diego with his lovely wife of 34 years, Juanita. Juanita is herself an advanced practitioner of Nui Gung, and she takes charge of organizing workshop and travel plans, as well as ably assisting Sifu in his teaching. They have one daughter, Shaolan.
I personally feel blessed to have met Sifu when I did and to have been his student these many years. His meeting with Chen Poy not only changed the course of his life, but the lives of all those individuals fortunate enough to have studied with him. And, a list of those individuals who have trained under Sifu over the years reads like a “who's who” of American martial artists and healers. I wish him many more years of happiness and success teaching the art he loves.
Sifu and Juanita with various groups of students have made a number of trips to China since 1987. Although the Wong Lung Guan had been destroyed in the turmoil following the Communist takeover in China, it has since been re-built. But, sadly, Sifu has been only able to find one monk from pre-communist times still living on the mountain during recent visits.
Sifu has always wanted to visit the monastery Gee Lum Guan in Sichuan Province where Chen Poy was trained. My Father-in-Law and I tried to track it down. However many documents have been lost, and some monasteries were destroyed or turned into factories or military bases. And, more recently, many monasteries have been renovated and given different names, or what may have once been a Taoist monastery is now inhabited by Buddhists. This has made our search very difficult, perhaps impossible.
Although Sifu had personally taught thousands of students over the years, no one has learned the entire Tao Ahn Pai system. In the early days, some were privileged to learn the martial aspects, but they may not have paid as much emphasis on the inner cultivation and healing. Later, Sifu only taught the Nui Gung and healing components of the system. Some students learned a little; some quite a bit more..
While it is Sifu's wish that the Tao Ahn Pai system will be carried on to future generations, he is very clear that it can only be transmitted from teacher to student. For this reason, although he has been approached to write books and make videos, he has always declined. Even though such offers may be lucrative, he knows that without personal corrections from a qualified practitioner, the movements and postures may be wrongly practiced, possibly leading to a distortion in the student's energy. Sifu feels strongly that everyone should benefit from Nui gung and experience no harm. This is a Karmic responsibility, he says.
On July 15th, 2012, about a month after I wrote this tribute, Sifu Lew passed away. My mentor died peacefully at his home with family at his side following a brief illness. A memorial was held in San Diego a few weeks later to celebrate his life and achievements. Sifu is survived by his wife, Juanita, and daughter, Shaolan.
Sifu Lew touched many lives as a teacher and healer, and he is sorely missed by those who knew him. I first met Sifu in 1986, and since this time he has had a tremendous impact on my life. I feel extremely fortunate to have known and been a student of this rare and wonderful human being. My aim is to pass on his teachings to the best of my ability, so that his legacy may live on.
Shortly following Share K. Lew's passing, many of his students expressed their memories of their teacher on MOI. Some of these recollections are reprinted here as a concluding respect for this incredible man:
“I first met Sifu in 2008 and was immediately struck by his presence. I once heard Sifu say, ‘To be a good Taoist, you must help people.’ Those words have echoed in my mind ever since, making me increasingly aware that helping others deepens my own journey.
Every moment spent with Sifu was special to me.”
— Michael Talish
“Knowing Sifu for about 16 years, how does one put his influence on my file in a few lines of type? I firmly believe that it was Sifu's teaching and, in turn, my practice of the Tao Ahn Pai that saved my life and aided my recovery from I.C.U. in December, 2011. A truly remarkable man, I will miss Sifu's presence, but I know that his spirit will be with me forever.”
— Gerard McGirr
“What stands out for me most when I think of Sifu Share K. Lew was his presence, his spirit, and his eyes. He seemed all seeing—always sharply aware of his surroundings. Even when it seemed like he didn't need to be paying attention, he was. It was also clear by his subtle form corrections that Sifu saw much more than just the surface. I am deeply grateful to Sifu for his teachings and dedication to his students in transmitting the Tao Ahn Pai Nui Gong. He will always be a powerful presence in my practice.”
— Kim Rosado
“His was a path of enlightenment, and he shared his great experience, knowledge and wisdom with anyone who was willing to listen and had a mind open to infinite possibilities. There was a pure honesty about him, the way he was able to convey the meaning and intent of his Style of Meditation and Martial Arts, his treatments, the way he lit up when telling his students and friends the many stories of his life, his experiences, and the history of his Style. Everything about him seemed to have great meaning and purpose.”
“In his teaching he was very direct—precise even—without arrogance, giving students enough information to be able to understand and apply what he showed them without overburdening them with more information until each one was ready for it.”
“My wife and I are forever grateful for having the opportunity to have studied and spent time with this remarkable man..”
— Boris Litvinov