Sek Koh Sam (释高参Shi Gao Can) 1886 - 1960
He was a mysterious man, not even his disciples knew a lot about his life and background. After his death a lot of effort was made to research his life. Especially by Mr Liang Junyi, who wrote a big article on Shi Gao Can's life. The information presented here is largely based on his work.
When he was alive, nobody talked about these things and nobody asked him about it. It has been said that is name was Zhen Hechang, others say Xue Baochang and still others say his name was Lin, given name unknown. His real name was difficult to find, but he indeed had the family name Lin (林)before he became a monk. His given name was Ah Hoong (林亞鴻Ya Hong), which means 'Welcome' and another name was Dien Pah (天豹Tian Bao), and he had the nickname of "Fei Tian Bao 飞天豹", which means 'Flying Leopard'.
He was born on the 27th of December 1886, and his hometown was Hailou Village, Lingtou Town, Northern Gate Outskirts, Huian County, Fujian Province, China. 福建惠安北門外嶺頭.
There were four brothers in his family, and he was the second son. Master Gao Can was a kindhearted person from a young age on. He was determined to help the distressed and succor those in peril in his childhood. He was very fond of medical science. During a long period of arduous time, Gao Can had studied many medical books energetically and practiced assiduously. He knew that if he wanted to help the distress, he must weed out the wicked; and if he wanted to weed out the wicked, he must learn Martial Arts well.
So he left his parents in tears when he was only 13 years old in 1899, and went to find a famous South Shaolin Martial Arts Master named Cao Biao曹彪 (or Cao Bao曹豹). He was a ace escort, an profession in ancient China, who protects others' properties for a fee. Gao Can learned Wu Zu Quan (Ngo Cho Kun 五组拳) and most likely also Luo Han Quan (Lo Han Kun 罗汉拳 ) vigorously for 3 years and 4 months (time should be until min 1901). He was very proud to have Cao Bao as his master. Cao Bao adopted 5 students and Shi Gao Can was the top one.
Shi Gao Can traveled to Singapore (新加坡) for the first time accompanied by his elder brother Lin A Ya林亞尖, making a living as a boatman at the age of 16. In 1903, when his brother died when boating, he returned to China. He was so sad, he didn´t eat for 3 days.
At the age of 18 (in 1904) monk Xing Liang (行亮) shaved the head of Shi Gao Can at the Huian Qingxing Temple惠安清興寺. Xing Liang was his teacher for Buddhist culture文事.
He was ordained at the Putian Meifeng Temple 莆田梅峰寺 by the temple abbot Wei Jia微嘉. Monk Wei Jia came from Xi Shan Chan Qing temple in Fuzhou 福建州怡山西禪寺
As he became a Buddhist monk he was given a new, Buddhist name. His name was from now on Gao Can, or Shi Gao Can (Sek Koh Sam). 'Shi' is short for Shijiamouni 释迦牟尼 which is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit 'Sakyamuni'. And Sakyamuni was the original name of the first Buddha, before he became an enlightened being. 'Shi' can be translated as 'Reverend'. In fact when you become a monk you leave your family behind and you are given a new family name: 'Shi' . A respectful way of addressing a Buddhist monk is using the word Dashi which can be loosely translated as Great Master. So Reverend Gao Can is sometimes also referred to as Gao Can Dashi.
Almost all sources agree on that Shi Gao Can studied Chinese Medicine (Zhongyi) under Master Chee Leow in Cheng Tai Mountain Temple. The location of this temple remains unknown. Not clear is when this happened; some say this was during his 6 years of travel around China.
In around 1905 Gao Can started his 6 year travel around China. He visited many places in China: Putian, Yishan Mountain, Zhaowa, Wutaishan Mountain, Zhentaishan Mountain, Jiuhuashan Mountain, Huangshan Mountain, Emeishan Mountain and Yuanluoshan Mouintain. During his travels he not only made a lot of intimate friends, but also called on many Martial Arts experts, thus enriching his knowledge of the (Shaolin) Martial Arts. It is unkown to the public exactly how many styles he studied, but among them are: Hup Gun, Phoenix (Hong Nnan; similar to the Chukka style), White Crane (Peh Hok 白鹤 ), Five animal element styles and the styles previously mentioned.
Besides the places mentioned he traveled in Shandong Province and in Zhejiang Province, in the latter one he was going to stay for 10 years.
It was the Reverend Hui Jing 慧精 of the Nanhai Puji Temple (南海普济寺 ) on Putuoshan Island 普陀山岛, Zhejiang Province 浙江省 who would accept Shi Gao Can as his disciple for martial teachings武事 in 1909. Reverend Hui Jing was of the 48th generation 2nd chamber of the South Shaolin Tradition.
Shi Gao Can practiced Martial Arts in the Shaolin tradition. Nobody is claming that he was an monk from the actual Songshan Shaolin temple in Henan province. Martial arts were (are?) practiced in many temples in China, since the Shaolin Martial Arts and Buddhism are one. There are many different schools of Buddhism, and Buddhism from Shaolin (Chan Buddhism) incorporates the Martial Arts as a way of cultivating the mind and spirit. So, although the actual teachings left the Shaolin temple a long time ago, Shi Gao Can Martial Arts can still be called Buddhist style. Therefore many other styles of Martial Art can be called 'Layman Styles' (Su Jia Pai). Even the Martial Arts at Songshan Shaolin temple today are a mix of Buddhist and (modern) laymen styles, since after the last destruction in 1928 there were no qualified and fully trained successors left to reintroduce the complete Martial Arts to the Shaolin temple in the beginning of the eighties.
South Shaolin and North (Songshan) Shaolin come from the same sect. Songshan Shaolin in Henan Province is the forefather of Chan. Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of the sect. After Bodhidharma there were another 5 patriarchs; together they are known as the 6 forefathers of Chan Buddhism.
They can roughly be divided into a South school and a North school. There are 5 Chambers in the style of Shaolin. These chambers are correlated to the five branches of 'Chan'. After the fiftht patriarch of 'Chan', after the founder Damo, the practice of 'Chan' went south in China. Huineng惠能, the sixth and last forefather and sixt patriarch, was the leader of the South school.
This style is seen as the second chamber or style/school of Shaolin, also called the second chamber of Shaolin. This school was very prosperous till the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. According to Bodhidharma's will, sixth forefather Huineng did not ‘hand down the Mantle' anymore. From then on, the names of the Chan Masters are no longer recorded. It is unknown to me who started the lineage of Shi Gao Can or the lineage names of the monks were.
But the 'Door to enlightenment' was passed on to the Nanhai Puji Temple in Zhejiang Province. Master Hui Jing was assumed to be the 48th generation after Huineng.
For ten years, until 1919, Shi Gao Can trained the martial arts in the traditional Shaolin tradition. Eventually he was going to represent the 49th generation. Besides Buddhism and the martial arts, he was also taught traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. In the end he got superb medical skills and he tried to eliminate disease for everybody in the world and relieve people in need. Hui Jing had only 3 adopted students and Shi Gao Can was the only inner circle disciple (入室弟子) of his master. Shi Ga Can took a sacred oath and promised never to disclose the art to the outside world.
He visited Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. In every place he visited he treated the sick and spread Buddhism, for which he eventually would gain his greatest fame. He stayed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) for 21 years and became the abbot of the Zhen Yuan Gong (镇元宫Cheng Yuen Kong) temple in Medan. He was responsible for the construction of nine Buddhist temples in the area of Medan.
Only when he was becoming older he asked for permission to spread the Shaolin teachings. He learned so many Martial Arts and considered it to be a waist if he didn't teach others. He send a letter to his teacher in China asking his master for permission to teach, only to find out that Reverend Hui Jing had already passed away years ago. Then he made an important decision; he broke the promise to his teacher not to teach. This is where he really broke the mould and broke the secrecy of the Shaolin Martial Arts. He was already past 50 years before he began accepting students and teach the Shaolin martial arts. This was at the beginning of the second world war (1940?).
From then on he started spreading his teachings all over Southeast Asia. The style would become famous under the name Fo Jia Quan (Hood Khar Kun 佛家拳 ), which means Buddhist Boxing, (In Cantonese one would write 'Fat Gar Kuen') or Fo Jia Pai (Hood Khar Pai 佛家派 ), which means Buddhist Style. In Medan he adapted only 5 students. They were an Indonesian prince and: Huang Jinzhang黃錦章, 莊慶錦Zhuang Qingjin (nicknamed ‘old monkey’老猴), 莊順來Zhuang Shunlai and林金聚Lin Jinju (deceased).
The Martial Arts of Shi Gao Can, though, can be called true 'Buddhist Style' (Fo Jia Pai /Hood Gar Pai 佛家派 ) because it was practiced by (Shaolin) monks only. (Although he learned martial arts during his travels in China; one might assume that he people he learned from were not all monks) Shi Gao Can was the only fully trained and closed door disciple Hui Jing Dashi 慧精大师 , and therefore the only 49th generation successor in this lineage. After 49 generations of cultivating and refining the art, it left the Buddhist society as Shi Gao Can was the first in the lineage to teach his complete knowledge to non monk disciples (Su Jia Di Zi). One exception would be Monk Fachuan in Medan, Indonesia.
As said before; his teachings compasses many different topics. As we may assume he spread and taught Buddhism everywhere he came. But preaching Buddhism also means, in this case, preaching Martial Arts and other related subjects.
Shi Gao Can taught many different things to many different students. Although he did taught many students (at least 50 in Singapore alone), the number of his actual disciples is said to be restricted to 18. In Chinese Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha had 18 disciples (of which Bodhidharma was one), so in the Buddhist tradition Shi Gao Can was said to have had 18 disciples only; that tradition is observed by all true Buddhist teachers. It is my belief that the students were trained in the 'athletic associations' set up by Shi Gao Can and that the disciples were taught in the temples. The disciples were probably also living in the temples.
They were solemnly initiated personally by Shi Gao Can; they had to burn and eat the ashes of a "fu" (yellow paper) each signifying obedience, accepting disciplinary actions, not to follow another teacher/master and not to disgrace the name of Shaolin. And if they did leave due to bad conducts or get "kicked-out" of Shaolin by the Master, they were forbidden to use the name Shaolin in the schools they formed nor say they practice Shaolin kungfu.
In the summer of the 1954 Shi Gao Can founded the Singapore Sao Hua San National Arts Association 少华山国术健身社, which opened up a new way propagating Chinese Martial Arts in Southeast Asia. It was the first school outside the Shuanglin temple where Shaolin Martial Arts were practiced. The school is now located at 276B MACPHERSON RD. He also founded the Seow Tin San Athletic Association 少雄山國術健身社 in 1954.
On 16 September 1954 the third successful renovation of the Shuanglin temple was completed with a big celebration.
Later about 10 other schools founded by his students, followed. Many of the associations had the words 'Sao' (or Seow) and 'San' in them, and almost never use the term 'Shaolin' in the name of the association. It is not certain why this was, but even to this day it means that the schools are easily seperated from other branches of Shaolin, although there are exeptions to the 'Sao .. San' rule.
Note that in the past years some of these associations have closed due to lack of financial support. Please be aware that Shi Gao Can's organizations are non-profit.
Shi Gao Can and Quek Heng Choon
Other associations sprung up that can be traced back to his teachings like the Hui Hwa Pugilistic Association 星州惠华国术研究社 , 少南山, 少忠山, 少林得英堂, 少林佛山堂... etc. Some of the students still run martial arts schools, many of them have already passed on and others lead lives in which the martial arts no longer play any role. He accepted approximately 50 students and disciples, all of them living in or in the direct vicinity of the temple.
In 1955 Shi Gao Can had already passed 70, his hair was completely white, but still the traveled to Malaysia in order to develop the Shaolin Martial Arts there. There he founded the Penang Shuang Qing temple (Penang Siong Kheng See 摈城双庆寺 ) on 59 Jalan Perak.
In Penang Shi Gao Can again accepted students and taught the Shaolin martial arts and Chinese medicine.
The temple is still there and can be found behind the Zhulin Temple, but it has changed a lot since the time of Shi Gao Can's presence. Sadly there are now no traces of Shi Gao Can or martial arts left inside the temple grounds. Even the name Siong kheng See is no longer there at the back.
With the help of his student Quek Heng Choon 郭逢春 he opened the Penang Sao Lim Athletic Association 槟城少林国术健身社 which he founded in 1956.
The Penang Sao Lim Athletic Association had a Grand Opening ceremony at the New World Park and Shi Gao Can and all his students incl. monks were there to perform various feats. One performance by Shi Gao Can was "contraction" of his bone structures...he was a tall man and in the feat he became quite small, this was a very advanced form of kungfu I was told.
A storm was brewing and Shi Gao Can did a "special" prayer, he had compassion on the huge crowd attending, whether it was coincidence or not the skies cleared; everyone there was able to stay for the whole occasion. Then, there was fantastic kungfu using just umbrellas etc to demonstrate one can use anything as a weapon.
Other schools were opened by his students in Penang, and the same structure in the names was used as in Singapore. The art still flourishes in Penang, and all over Malaysia for that matter, until today. Some practice in privacy and behind closed door, other promote the art more openly. Other schools opened by Shi Gao Can are: the Penang Seow Chu Sang Association, the Penang Seow Seet San Health Culture Association, and the Persatuan Jasmani Seow Hay San Pulau Pinang.
Here a short anecdote from Pei from Penang, whose father was a student of Shi Gao Can at the time he was residing in Penang:
"Yes, my encounter with the old master (the monk from China):I was just a young kid then, I don't know his name but my dad asked me to address him as "tse-kung" (grandfather), my dad was a student there. Used to go early in the morning and evening to practice.
My dad came home from practice one day and told my mom: When he first joined SaoLin the old master observed his students during the practice; that's when my dad got injured (I think either his shoulder or knee). The old master rectified the injury right there on the spot using acupuncture and manipulation. Then he told him that his body built was not suitable for the kungfu they were practising and advised that he used the twin swords instead; since then he taught my dad that.
One day my dad took my mom and me to a temple-like building with a big courtyard to meet with this old master (not the building in Muntri St) (Shuang Qing Temple). I guess he wanted to meet with us. There we performed some rituals and had tea and in the conversation he said when I'm a little older he'll teach me kungfu too. Unfortunately, before I was "old" enough he passed away. My dad was very sad and he left the twin swords in the Muntri St Bld in memory of him.
I got injured as mentioned and my dad went to the bld. on Muntri St to get help and it was the 5th disciple (the 5th disciple used to live at Muntri St with his wife and children and I've met them all when my dad took me there occasionally) who came to our house. I was in pain and had problem breathing and lying across the sofa chair; this "tse-heng" (elder kung fu brother) of my dad pressed on pressure points on my body and that relieved my pain and discomfort. Then I had to take Chinese Medicines for sometime. I heard from my dad that the 5th disciple learned alot from the old master."
After one year, in 1956, Shi Gao Can returned to Singapore.
In 1958 Gao Can initiated the Nanyang Siao Lim National Arts Association 南洋少林国术总会, in Singapore and he himself took up the post of the Chief Instructor, teaching the students in Southeast Asia the orthodox Shaolin Martial Arts. The Association is located at 54 SOMME RD (Jalan Besar).
They are one of the oldest Wushu association in Singapore and was well known in the 60's, 70's and even 80's as the Head Quarters of all Wushu Associations teaching the Shaolin form as taught by the late grandmaster Shi Gao Can.
Teaching there greatly contributed to promoting the Shaolin Martial Arts and building up the health of many people from different countries of Southeast Asia. It also serves as the headquarters of many, if not all, the different schools opened by Shi Gao Can's students in Singapore.
Until this day training continues: They conducted training 3 times a week. For Saterday training, it starts at 2.30pm. Their training gym is very well equiped. Mirrow, supporting bar, weapons, a gym, all sort of conditioning equipment to practice iron hand, etc.
Shi Gao Can's actions contributed to in heightening the unity of the Shaolin students in Southeast Asia, to make making friendly contacts between people and Shaolin students from different nations. To build people bodies and catering to the needs of different people in the society.
The Great Master came from a poor family, he had gone through all the vicissitudes of life, he had scaled mountains and forded rivers, traveling thousands of kilometers to relieve people in need. But at last, he broke down from constant overwork, failed to respond to any medical treatment. Unfortunately, on May the 16th 1960 Shi Gao Can parinirvanaed (passed away), aged 75.
His mortal remains were placed in the temple for a period of 7 days for his students, disciples and Buddhist monks to pay their last respect. His cremation took place on the 22nd May 1960 on the Guang Ming Shan (Kuang Ming Hill) crematorium and was attended by more 5 to 6 thousand mourners. After he was cremated, there were some white balls of bones left after cremation (apparently only found in people of very advanced levels of kungfu) and they were sent to different schools in remembrance of him. His memorial tablet was set up in the Singapore Shuanglin Temple.
"Teaching and explaining the method by using my own experience as an example, being magnanimous and tolerant, helping the needy and relieving the distressed will make everybody happy."
The Great Master always regarded this verse as the maxim of his life. He often economized on food and clothing, raised money to buy medicines and donated them to the poor. He also taught the poor Martial Arts for free, and never thought about fame or wealth. He practiced the Martial Arts to the highest degree, he got excellent medical skill, profound knowledge and noble character, so he was admired and respected by millions of people.
People still cherish the memory of him, the Great Master is immortal! Portraits of Gao Can were hung up in all the branches of the Nanyang Siao Lim National Arts Association for people to remember the Great Master. His student mourned for him, and made a poem for him:
"Gao Can was born in Fujian Province, he had experienced a time of tribulation in his childhood. He left his hometown in tears, traveled across the ocean to get a livelihood. He was proclaimed a Buddhist, then studied the Buddhist Sutra energetically, and studied the Martial Arts and medical science assiduously. His charitable and pious deeds was spreader all over Southeast Asia, and he had performed immortal feats. He worked his heart out in Shuanglin Temple and initiated the Sao Hua San National Arts Association. He taught students in Nanyang Siao Lim National Arts Association painstakingly, and he had students everywhere. His heroic posture was known by all the Martial Arts learners in China. He will go down in history as a shining example in Songshan Mountain."
Abbott Shi Gao Can was respected by countless individuals mainly for his Buddhist compassion and medicine, also for his martial arts traditions and pure spirituality.
Shi Gao Can life's is mysterious even to Singaporeans. They were told that he sleeps on the roof top of Shuanglin temple, he was able to leap 10 feet walls etc...
Traditional Shaolin Kungfu nowadays is not so popular in Singapore for reasons unknown, perhaps I guess maybe too difficult to learn and not enough Shaolin masters. It seems it is dying art there...
One of the last wishes of Shi Gao Can was that the Shuanglin temple continuous to promote the Shaolin martial arts and that within the temple grounds the Damo Hall would facilitate training.
The life story I present here has been reconstructed from different sources. Fact is that his course of life was filled with mysteries; the story above is most likely full of mistakes and inconsistencies. So if you have ANY additional information (including anecdotes) to give me (being legend or fact), or wish to correct some errors, please do so! All mistakes are mine: please forgive me ...
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Shi Gao Can's picture from inside present day Singapore Shuanglin Temple.