Dr. Van Buren was a world renowned acupuncture master, healer and pioneer. Having practiced acupuncture for more than 50 years, he founded the International College of Oriental Medicine (ICOM) in 1972. Since then, ICOM has turned out some of the best acupuncture practitioners in the world.
This is an interesting and inspiring interview with Dr Van Buren from 1988 made by one of our then students, Sandra Hill. Dr Van Buren talks about his life and the inspirations behind opening ICOM in 1974. Our college is still going strong today and students are taught to an exceptionally high standard.
I was born in Java on November 27 1921 of Dutch parents. My grandfather was Lieutenant General, Head of Medical Services in Java. My mother was also born there. I lived in Jakarta for the first four years of my life, then I was put into boarding school in Holland during my parents’ divorce.
When I was six, my mother was remarried to an Englishman, and from that time we lived in Holland and England going backwards and forwards, which upset my schooling no end. I had to learn English and re-learn Dutch several times. I was in Holland from my ninth to my fourteenth year, and then we moved to India, where I attended High School.
My parents were Theosophists, and we lived in Ardyar, near Madras, where the Theosophical Society has its headquarters. So I had a grounding in Eastern philosophy from a young age. My parents used to hold terrific conversations over the dinner table and I absorbed it all like a sponge. And of course, I had to learn Indian history and all that at school.
Dr. Arundale, then President of the Theosophical Society, was Commissioner of Scouts for Madras Province which is an area the size of England – and through him I was very active in the scout movement. I set up a group in the school and also another group in town. It was Dr. Arundale who taught me the practical application of Indian philosophy – especially Yoga. I practised hard and learnt to do many things that are not all practical for life! But it gives you a certain inner discipline, which is what it really amounts to.
So I followed High School until I was eighteen, when the war broke out. The Dutch were called up wherever they were, so I was sent off to Java to join the forces. My father had always taught me to make the best of a bad situation – which I promptly started to do! I became a Sergeant Instructor and by the time I was twenty I was acting Sergeant Major – mainly because I knew my English. All our weapons were English with English instructions and I was the only one who could read them!
In the beginning it was quite a good situation, but the Japanese invaded on 16th May 1941. There weren’t many of us, we were basically a maintenance army, not a fighting unit: in total only 20,000 men to defend an area four times the size of England. 10,000 were sent to the East and 10,000 were sent to the West of Java.
The centre was supposed to be defended by the Americans, but they didn’t turn up. It was my battalion that was asked to ‘volunteer’ to defend the middle part of Java, and of those 1,000 men there were only 15 survivors.
We were taken as prisoners of war for three years and ten months. We were moved from one camp to another, basically to make aerodromes for the Japanese. In the beginning it was all right – tough going of course – but later on the Allies would bomb us every day. There were thousands in the camps – English, Australian and Dutch. Fifty two per cent died. We used to bury twenty a day at one stage, which is tough on those who had to dig all the holes! They died of dysentery mainly.
We had what was called the Death Barracks: you would go in at one end of the barracks, and as your sickness got worse you would be moved up until finally you were moved out the other end and into the graveyard. At one time I had already reached the third bed from the end when a Dutch doctor came in and asked for a volunteer to try out a medicine made by a local man who claimed he could cure dysentery, so I said ‘I’ll have it!’
I drank one pint of the medicine in three stages during the day: it was extremely bitter. In reaction to the medicine, the colon blew up like a balloon – it was extremely painful but after that I was completely cured. I could eat anything – which was a very useful thing under the circumstances! But because of the side effects the doctors decided not to use it anymore, I don’t know why.
There was also a fellow in the camp whose mother was a herbalist and of course in his young life he had picked up quite a few hints about what this or that plant could do. We had no other medicines, so he would say, “If you take the sap of that tree it will do that” – which helped us no end.
We were all suffering from tropical ulcers, which in western medical terms are practically incurable, but we used to stick a knife into one of the trees, called sonnakabang in Malay. The sap was like a red varnish. We would clean out the wounds in the sea, scrape them with the sharpened end of a teaspoon then paint on the varnish to seal them: they would heal without scarring – so I have no scars to show you! The same stuff taken internally, by mouth, cures sprue – which was something else we all had, as it is a malnutrition symptom.
The war ended on The 12th of August 1945 and we were finally released on September the 6th. I was sent home to India, where I stayed in Madras for six months until I was repatriated to Holland. Back in Holland life was very difficult. The Dutch didn’t help their ex-prisoners at all, and everyone advised me to go to England.
So what to do in England? At that time there were only two jobs available for foreigners – factory work or nursing – so I took up nursing. I became an S.R.N, and worked as a senior staff nurse at the Whittington Hospital in North London on the neuro-surgical ward, so I learnt my nerves very well! During the last year of my training, I studied part-time at the Northern Polytechnic to catch up with my education and then in 1951 started a four year course in Osteopathy and Naturopathy at the British College of Naturopathy and Osteopathy.
After my final exams in 1954, I was taken on as assistant to Arthur Jenner, Vice Dean of the college, and he also taught me Homeopathy. It was about this time that I did a course in blood crystallography, which is not heard of now. It is a way to crystallize blood and examine it under the microscope to look for traces of TB etc., so as to understand the background of the symptoms. The teacher was a very charismatic woman – a Polish countess who was also a bio-chemist, called Madame Chrapowicska. She was a very knowledgeable woman, and lectured to groups of doctors. She broke more ice between alternative and orthodox medicine than anyone else – and it was a completely new thing in the early 1950’s.
One day I was given the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine by an old lady of eighty two. She said, ‘This is your life!’ – just like that! I had always been looking for answers; orthodox medicine had nothing, no philosophy – I always wanted to know ‘Why?’ – but no-one had the answers. It was the same with osteopathy and naturopathy. But when I started learning acupuncture the light went on I got answers. And that’s why I stuck with it.
I studied alone, and observed patients very carefully in my osteopathic clinic, but it was many years before I ever used a needle. In 1966, Lavier came to England and taught a group of us for a fortnight. We studied every day from 9:00am to 9:00pm, Saturdays and Sundays included. He gave us a very good grounding: when he closed his books he said, ‘That’s enough for two years’. Some of those present never moved on.
At the end of 1968, I went to Taiwan to take the Doctorate exam. When I arrived, I was met by a group of doctors and an interpreter, and we chatted away for some time. Then they just went off, leaving me for about an hour. The exam had already begun, and they were waiting to see how I would react: if I had got angry I would have been sent home. So I just sat there quietly, and eventually one of the assistants came back, asked a few questions, which I answered, then went away again!
The exam lasted for ten days – and ten nights. Sometimes a patient would be brought to me in my hotel room at night -I would have to get up from my bed – let the patient lay down and treat him there and then. I didn’t know Chinese, and often there was not an interpreter, so not a word was spoken. You had to treat what you found, which made it very interesting. For ten days they observed my treatments and asked questions through an interpreter – and a lot of questions can be asked in ten days!
Because I had lived in the East, I knew a little of the social background, which turned out to be very useful. For example, when I arrived, I was given a mug of tea , which I drank immediately as I was thirsty, and it was filled up again. Then I remembered that tea is given as a kind of welcome, but you must never drink it all leave just a little bit, or it suggests that the welcome has not been sufficient. And it is the same thing with eating, always leave a little – no matter how hungry you are! These things matter to the Chinese.
the end of the ten days I was given a certificate by Wu Wei Ping. It was signed by him, and then taken to the supreme court of Taiwan for legalization. Then we had to go to the Ministry of Education for countersigning, and then the Foreign Ministry for registration – it was a lengthy process which took almost as long as the exam.
In 1971, I was asked by a group of students in England if I would teach them. And that was how it all began though if I had known what I was letting myself in for I might have said no! Then there was a group in Holland who also wanted me to teach them, and later another group from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, so it wasn’t long before I was teaching there as well. For about three years I was travelling each month to three different countries, though where I got the energy from, I’ve no idea! In 1972, I travelled to Australia to increase the standards of the teaching material there.
Then in 1974 I went to Korea to visit the Oriental Medical School of Kyung Hee University in Seoul. I had been given a book by Chang Bin Li, director of the medical school, which introduced me to the traditional teachings of Stems and Branches. The University is a huge place with 20,000 students. There is an orthodox western medical school and an oriental medical school, with a hospital in between. The patients would choose what treatment they wanted.
I saw many cases of cancer being treated in the oriental medical hospital, though, of course, they do not use the name cancer, but usually refer to it as attack by Damp/Cold. They treat with acupuncture and herbalism, and they say that they have an eighty per cent cure rate, which is very high. They treated all kinds of cancers, cancer of the liver, cancer of the bladder, you name it…
Stems and Branches Chart
Chang Bin Li’s book was being translated for me in England by an ex-student of mine. He was Chinese, am had studied acupuncture in Hong Kong for two years before coming to the college. When he graduated he set to work translating various texts for me, including the Stems and Branches book. So the basis of the Stem and Branches taught at the college is from Chang Bin Li but I have developed the practical side.
The teaching were much more than the use of hourly open points, which tends to be taught in China now. I didn’t even know of hourly open points then – that is the most boring part, and the lack of understanding is colossal, understand that the Chinese universities have come together and decided that Stems and Branches should not be taught to foreigners. They cannot talk about the philosophy, it is not allowed. And that is the reason that there is such a concentration of Eight Conditions material coming out of China now: it is all they are allowed I teach.
Stems and Branches theory can be put into two categories, the seasonal aspect, then from the seasons to man and that includes the Eight Conditions, which is the last thing you do. The Eight conditions must not be seen as if it is a separate subject, but must be linked in with all the philosophy. Later, I added the left-right law: that is, not using the left or right leg at certain times of the year, and over the past four years I have developed the ten day cycle of the hands: and it gives good results if you stick with it.
When the book was finished, I went back to Korea to check that the translation was correct. This time I was the guest of the Chancellor of the University, which was very nice.
I went to Japan after that to look at various clinics and to observe treatments: and there I felt that Japanese acupuncture, although it is more philosophy orientated, is based on Earthed Man. They tend to think that they cannot influence Heaven, so forget it, but they forget that Heaven is within you. Many of the treatments that I saw were on the back and the abdomen, not so much on the arms and legs, according to the laws of the Five Elements. And Mainly by moxa, not so much by needles. Some time after the visit, I was appointed as adviser to the Japanese Acupuncture Association.
Q. When I was living in Japan, it was often mentioned that Buddhism, and the various forms of martial arts had remained their most pure in Korea. Do you think that this is also true of acupuncture?
Yes, I’m sure it is. When acupuncture was banned in China in the eighteenth century, 6,000 acupuncturists emigrated to Korea. And, of course, the Korean flag has always retained the Tai Ji symbol and the four trigrams.
Q. As a student at the college, I felt that it was your philosophy to encourage students to find their own way.
I tried to make them think for themselves – which worked in some and not in others. The Nei Jing mentions the superior physician and the inferior physician: the superior physician uses his higher intelligence, which belongs to Heart, the inferior physician uses memory, which belongs to Spleen. The student has the option to do what he or she wants.
Q. Would you say that intuition plays an important part in treatment?
I don’t know how to define intuition: but there is a feeling you get, subconsciously or consciously, and you know, the moment the patient walks through the door, if you can help them or not. Very often, at the same time, certain points come into your head, and you have not even talked to them yet. Then when you start asking questions and taking a case history, it becomes crystallized.
Although we usually take a case history before we treat, it should be done afterwards, in my opinion, because it gives you a bias. Your mind is not free. It becomes cluttered up with information which has been gathered by other people, often doctors, which is always clouded by their own point of view, and this can influence what you do. When I was treating the patients in Taiwan for my doctorate exams, I could not talk to them, so in a way the treatment was more pure, because I was not clouded by opinions. That is why the asking should come afterwards, more to verify what you have found, and what you have done.
Q. How do you see the college developing in the future?
My vision for the college is that it should grow as a complete unit of Oriental Medicine, and that must include herbalism. Then there would be a five year course. I don’t think the college should necessarily grow so much in terms of numbers, it is better to have quality students, than a quantity of students. There is always the problem of providing enough clinical experience, but as more and more English people qualify, it might get better.
I would like to see the college have more facilities for research. In Holland I had lots of patients who were in the university, and they used to carry out tests for me, and give me feedback, which actually tells you, for example, exactly what a certain point does. So we should have, for example, X-ray interpretation or blood analysis, just to see what acupuncture can do physiologically.
In the early days, I had to be a kind of pioneer. Thirty years ago things were very different, especially trying to break ground with the medical profession. I have certain qualities of a pioneer, which brings about a kind of love/hate relationship with everyone.- But it was time for things to be consolidated, and that’s why I chose Peter (Firebrace) to take over. He’s doing a wonderful job. The college is really improving, and will continue to improve. There are certain problems, but we are aware of them, and it takes time for the college to mature, and hopefully be accepted as a true centre of learning in acupuncture and oriental medicine.
Dr Van Buren Was talking to Sandra Hill
(The International Register of Oriental Medicine (UK) Review
No.3 October 1988)