Shi Gao Can

Shi Gao Can (chin.: shìgāocān 释高参 1886 - 1960) or widely known as Sek Koh Sam, was a Chinese monk who brought traditional Shaolin teachings from Mainland China to South East Asia. 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. When he was alive, nobody talked about these things and nobody asked him about it. In Singapore the name on his ID was Seng Hesang (chin.: sēnghéshang 僧和尚), meaning “Buddist Monk”. One news paper called him Xue Baochang (chin.: xuébǎochāng 学寶昌), meaning Knowledge living treasure. Others called him Zhen Hechang (chin.: zhěnhéchàng 畛和畅), meaning distinguish gentle and pleasant (like breeze). This caused misunderstandings about his name.

Although many insists that the great Master was born on the 8th of December 1886 the historic facts point us that Shi Gao Can was born on the 27th of December 1886 ( Qing Dynasty, first year of emperor Guang Xu’s (chin.: Guangxu Emperor (chin.: Guāngxùdì 光緒帝, August 14, 1871–November 14, 1908) reign, the 12th month, 3rd day), and his hometown was the Hailou Village, Lingtou Town (chin.: lǐngtóu 岭头), Huian County, Fujian Province (chin.: Fújiàn Huì’ān 福建惠安). His real name was difficult to find, but he indeed had the family name Lin (chin.: lín 林) before he became a monk. His given name was Ya Hong (chin.: yàhóng 亚红) and his formal name was Tian Bao (chin.: tiānbào 天豹), and he had the nickname of Fei Tian Bao (chin.: fēitiānbào飞天豹), which means “Leopard Flying in on the sky.”

There were four brothers in his family, and he was the second son.

His parents died when he was young and he lived with his brother Lin Yajian (chin.: línyàjiǎn 林亚简) and his sister in law. They were very poor and had to work hard to make a living.

He left his family in tears when he was only 13 years old in 1899, and went to find a famous South Shaolin Martial Arts Master named Shi Cao Biao (chin.: shìcáobiāo 释曹彪) . He was an ace escort, a common profession in ancient China, who protects others’ properties for a fee. For 3 years Gao Can learned 5 Ancestors Boxing (chin.: wǔzǔquán 五组拳) and most likely also studied Luohan Boxing (chin.: luóhànquán 罗汉拳).

After three years he returned home and travelled to Singapore with his brother. Master Gao Can was 16 years old at that time. His brother worked as a boatman and both had a hard life for 3 years. In 1903 when he was 18 years old his brother had an accident, fell into the sea and died. After his funeral Gao Can didn’t eat and cried all day. He saw no hope for the future. At that moment he decided he wanted to become a monk.

He returned to China and he became a disciple of Buddhism, studying the doctrines under the guidance of monk Shi Xingliang (chin.: shìxíngliàng 释行亮) in the Qing Xing temple (chin.: qīngxìngsì 清兴寺) in Hui’an and was officially installed as a monk in the Plum trees peak temple (chin.: méifēngsì 梅峰寺) in Putian (chin.: Pútián 莆田). This happened under the guidance of monk Xingliang (行亮).

In 1905 Gao Can started his 6 year travel around China. He visited many places in China: Putian, Yi Mountain (chin.: Yìshān 峄山) in Shandong, Java (chin.: Zhǎowā 爪哇), Wutai Mountain (chin.: wǔtáishān 五台山) in Shanxi, Huang Mountain (chin.: huāngshān 荒山) in Anhui, Emei Mountain (chin.: Éméishān 峨眉山) in Sichuan etc. 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 Shaolin Martial Arts and medicine. 

Master Shi Hui Jing (chin.: shìhuìjīng 释慧精) a 47th generation South Shaolin master after Hui Neng in the Nanhai Puji Temple (chin.: Nánhǎipǔjìsì 南海普济寺) on Putuoshan Island (chin.: Pǔtuóshān 普陀山), Zhejiang Province accepted Shi Gao Can as his disciple.

It is believed that here the foundations of Shaolin Martial Arts of Gao Can found his way into existence.

For ten years, until 1919, Shi Gao Can trained the martial arts in the traditional South Shaolin tradition. Eventually he was going to represent the 48th 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. Shi Gao Can was the only inner circle disciple (chin.: rùshìdìzǐ 入室弟子) of his master; which means that he was living with his master. Shi Gao Can took a sacred oath and promised never to disclose the art to the outside world.

In 1926 Shi Gao Can started travelling throughout Southeast Asia. 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 Indonesia, then occupied by the Dutch and called Royal Dutch Indies, for 21 years and became the abbot of the Zhen Yuan Gong (chin.: zhènyuángōng 镇元宫) temple in Medan the capital city of North Sumatra province, Indonesia.

When he was 56 years old, he felt that, he should teach martial arts to strengthen the physical conditions of his patients. He sends a letter to his Master asking him for permission to teach. Reverend Hui Jing’s brother in Dharma replied to him and informed Gaocan that Shi Hui Jing passed away. He also granted the venerable master the permission to teach martial art and encourage him to train his successors.

When Master Gaocan gave his teaching on martial art, he ensured that all students took their vows before Buddha that they would never use the skill for any impure motive.

From then on he started spreading his teachings all over Southeast Asia. The style would become famous under the name Buddhist Boxing (chin.: fójiāquán 佛家拳).

Shi Gao Can had the habit of teaching different things to different people; this lead to variances in the teachings of some of today’s schools linked to Shi Gao Cans disciples. Although he did taught many students the number of his actual disciples is said to be restricted to 18; something which was based on the Buddhist Tradition.

The disciples who went to the temples of Shi Gao Can to learn kungfu 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 they were forbidden to use the name Shaolin in the schools they formed neither say they practice Shaolin kungfu.

After the second world war, in 1948 Shi Gao Can travelled to Singapore to the Shuang Lin Temple (chin.: shuānglínsì 双林寺). For six years the old master was the Director Abbot(chin.: Zhùchí 住持) of the Temple. On May 6th, 1954, the Great Master was inaugurated as Abbot (chin.: fāngzhàng 方丈) of the Temple; with thousands of monks, shouts of joy, firecrackers banging and music. He served as the Abbot of Shuang Lin for 13 years.

The Great Master came from a poor family, he had gone through all the vicissitudes of life, he had scaled mountains and forded rivers, travelling thousands of kilometres 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 passed away, aged 74.

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 Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (chin.: guāngmíngshān pǔjuéchánsì 光明山普觉禅寺) and was attended by more then 7.000 mourners.

After he was cremated, there were some white balls of bones left 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.”