Norbu Chen

"Tibetan" Healer

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Norbu Chen 1974

William A. Nolen M.D.
Chapter 11, on Norbu Chen

Extract from Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle (1975)
(fair use under copyright law, noncommercial, for research purposes only)

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Norbu Chen is a difficult man to put on paper. He is pompous, arrogant and vulgar; he is also humorous, warm and clever. He is a master of double-talk, and some of the things he says are prime examples of the "bullshit" to which he so often refers. He contradicts himself constantly and if you question him about these inconsistencies, he looks at you as if you were so ignorant as to be beneath his contempt. After spending four days with him I left liking him very much, but in the way you might like a clever huckster who you know is laughing at himself and the whole human condition. Before long I got the impression Norbu knows this is a dog-eat-dog world – you either eat or get eaten – and goddammit, he is going to be one of the eaters. Perhaps a few excerpts from our random conversations may give you a better idea of what he's like:

Norbu often referred to his lama and the advice the lama gave him. "My lama asked me once, 'What's worse than wanting?' Do you know the answer?" Norbu asked me.

"No," I answered,


Then he explained. "It's like the story of the queen who looked into the magic mirror and said, 'Mirror, Mirror, grant my wish / Make them bigger than a fish,' and all of a sudden she's got tits that stick out to here." Norbu moved his hands to outline for me the queen's new shape.

"So," he continued, "the king sees what happened and he steps up to the mirror and says, Mirror, Mirror, on the door / Make it hang down to the floor.' And all of a sudden the poor son of a bitch hasn't got any legs."

"You know why I got this big Cadillac and this big house and the Porsche and all this stuff?" Norbu asked. "Because my lama told me to get these things. Over here they're symbols of power, so I have them. Hell, there's nothing to getting money. I can fart Cadillacs all day long."

Ten minutes later Norbu got on the subject of Billy Graham. "He doesn't care for people – no minister does. Shit, if he really cared for people, you think he'd be living in a big house and driving around in a Cadillac? What kind of Christian bullshit is that? Christianity and Mohammedanism are the two biggest curses of mankind."

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Other Healers

Once we got into a conversation about other healers. Here are Norbu's comments:

"Kathryn Kuhlman [1] makes me sick. She holds a big rally in Texas and they fly in cancer patients from all over. Thousands of really sick people get jammed into an auditorium, and who gets cured? Fifteen arthritics! I call that 'shotgun therapy.' Kathryn Kuhlman is bullshit. The American people deserve her."

Mister A is a healer publicized in Ruth Montgomery's [2] book Born to Heal. He was flown to Alabama to work on Governor Wallace. Norbu says, "Mister A is nothing but a seventy-nine-year-old broken-down mechanic. He couldn't cure a pimple.

[1. ]

[2. > ]

"They wanted me to fly to Alabama and work on Wallace, but I refused. I'm afraid of what that man might do if he was well."

Of Olga Worral [3], another well-known healer, Norbu said, "She's nothing but a mixed-up old lady. Shit, she talks about her astral body flying around in the sky and how the golden cord that connects it to her physical body keeps getting tangled up in the trees. What kind of nutty talk is that?"

[3. Wife of Ambrose Worral, and healer in her own right. /healing/articles/ambrose-alexander-worrall.htm ]

On the psychic surgeons of the Philippines [covered elsewhere in Nolen's book], Norbu feels: "Out in the back country there's some real healing going on, but Tony Agpaoa and the rest of those 'famous' healers over there are 'nothing.' "

[4. See ]

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Every now and then Norbu would talk about the gullibility of people. "A few years ago this 'past-life reading' stuff was popular, so I pretended to do it. Some guy came to me with narcolepsy (a condition in which the patient often drifts off to sleep unwillingly and at any time). He was six feet four inches tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, and all man. I told him that in one of his past lives he was a hermit and lived in a cave, and some guy used to come in once in a while and suck his dick. He didn't want to remember that, so he kept dropping off to sleep.

"An old woman came to me and I told her that in one of her previous lives she was the Queen of Sheba. But she had stuck a corncob up King Solomon's ass and that's why she's white now.

"And can you imagine? They both believed me. How dumb can you get?"

To a female employee of Norbu's who came to work with a scratched-up face and a swollen lip: "You look like someone shot at you and missed, and shit at you and hit."

The employee laughed. Norbu is the sort of person who can say things like that and get away with it.

Finally, an example of Norbu's ambiguity when asked to explain how he works. This is from an interview in the Cosmic Echo, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 1972); [not found] the newspaper subsequently folded.

As to my technique it is a long involved process. Like Truth, unexplainable. For the inadequacy of words do not lend themselves to be understood, if you are placed in the position to define. If you are only to describe, yes, but fortunately no other thing exists like this so therefore, nothing to describe from, only to define. One who works like this knows, they don't have to speak. Like if you know Truth, Truth is communicable with unspoken words between two Truth knowers.

This speaks for itself.

Over the next few months I learned all I could about Norbu Chen. I wanted to know how much of what he had told was fact.

One day while I was in Texas, I had lunch with "Dr. Sam Jones," a well-trained, intelligent surgeon. I asked him how he happened to get involved with Norbu Chen.

"I met him at a racing meeting," he said. "Norbu is a sportscar racer and so am I. We got talking and I found out not only that he was living in a house I own – I had rented it out through a real estate agent – but that he knew quite a lot about acupuncture. I was getting interested in the subject at that time, and I asked him to tell me what he knew. With the acupuncture, the house and racing, we've kept our friendship up."

"Do you know anything about the healing he's doing?" I asked.

"Not really," Dr. Jones said. "I don't see that much of him. I keep busy enough with my practice."

"Someday you ought to talk with Norbu about his healing powers," I said. "You might find it interesting."

"I might do that," Dr. Jones answered.

We got onto other subjects – the politics of surgery in Texas in particular – and I let Norbu drop. I didn't want Norbu to think I was turning Jones against him, and I figured that Sam Jones could easily look into Norbu's activities if he chose to do so. It was up to him.

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Wasted Money, Dashed Hopes

While Dr. Jones couldn't offer me any leads, through other contacts – who at their request shall remain nameless – I was able to talk with a number of patients other than those whose names Norbu had given me. Here are the reports of three typical patients.

1. Mr Baker

1.) Mr. Baker, who runs a successful office-equipment manufacturing business, had taken Steve, one of his associates, to Norbu Chen. "Steve is thirty-three years old and a very bright fellow; I'd call him brilliant. But he has been badly crippled by multiple sclerosis and when I read that Edgar Mitchell thought Chen was a remarkable healer, I decided I'd fly down to Houston with Steve. After all, Mitchell was an astronaut; he had to be a wise man.

"Steve was skeptical, but he agreed to try Norbu – what did he have to lose? By this time – it was May of 1972 – Steve couldn't walk at all, though his arms were still strong and he got around his office in an electric wheelchair.

"I didn't like the idea of leaving him alone, but Chen insisted. Steve told me later that he shared a room with a heart patient and that he drank so much grape juice he thought he might turn purple.

"The next morning when they brought him into the treatment room Chen introduced him to two doctors – chiropractors – who were there to observe Chen at work. Norbu howled for a while in front of an altar and then 'hit' Steve. Steve told me later that after the hit, Chen asked, 'Did you feel tingling or did you feel heat?' Steve answered, 'I felt heat,' and Norbu said, 'That's very good. If you'd felt tingling, it would mean I hadn't got a good hit. Heat means you should do well.' Steve told me later he hadn't felt a damn thing, 'but since I had to choose between tingling and heat, I chose heat.'

"When I picked Steve up the next morning, Norbu told me what he'd done. 'Multiple sclerosis is a nerve disease,' he said, 'so I concentrated all my energy in my brain and then hit Steve's brain. Don't expect anything for three months; then the energy from my brain will make his brain work. Then he will get better and better.' When we were driving to the airport Steve said, 'I think it's all a crock of shit.' "

"How's Steve now?" I asked.

"Worse," Mr. Baker answered. "Six months after his visit to Chen he decided he'd better move to a nursing home; his arms had been getting progressively weaker, and even with the electric wheelchair, he could barely get around. He insisted that his wife divorce him so that she could get remarried while she's still a young woman. Reluctantly, she did.

"I still see Steve two or three times a week – in fact, he still works for us. His brain is as sharp as ever, but his body is failing fast. It's sad."

"How does Steve feel about Norbu Chen?" I asked.

"Just as he did at the time; he thinks the guy is a complete phony. But he's able to laugh at the experience. Steve is a remarkable man."

2. Mrs Hayes

2.) Mrs. Hayes told me of her experience with Chen's treatment of her dying fifteen-year-old son. "We were desperate," she said. "Jimmy had a brain tumor and had gone into coma. He was being kept alive by artificial methods – respirators, heart stimulators, all those things. Our doctors told us there was nothing that could be done.

"We couldn't accept this. We refused to give up. We're comfortably off, and so for two weeks I called all over the world trying to find someone who could help Jimmy. Finally we reached Norbu Chen. He agreed to fly here and treat Jimmy. The doctors, since they had nothing to offer, agreed to let him try.

"We talked to Mr. Chen before he entered Jimmy's room and told him that the doctors had given up. He told us not to pay any attention to that talk – doctors didn't know what they were doing – that he wouldn't promise but he'd certainly try.

"Then he went into the room and did his thing – you've seen him. Just as Norbu 'hit' – this is almost funny, if you can forget the circumstances – the machines that made the bleeps and the tracings that recorded Jimmy's heart and breathing rates went sort of crazy. The lights and tracings bounced around all over the place for about a minute.

"Norbu got very excited. I think he was actually shocked and wondered if he had caused these bleeps – wondered if he really did have some strange power. He spent the next half-hour examining the machines. We knew from experience that these bleeps meant nothing; even static electricity could cause them. We'd seen the machines do this dozens of times over the previous two weeks, so we didn't think it was anything to get excited about."

"Did Norbu help your son?" I asked.

"Of course not, Dr. Nolen," Mrs. Hayes said. "You know better than that. Oh, he told us he'd had a good hit, and for a day or two we were hopeful, but nothing really changed and five days later Jimmy died. It's almost two years now, but it still hurts to talk about it. I guess it always will."

3. Mrs Cheever

3.) Mrs. Cheever, forty-seven, had gone to Norbu for treatment of persistent headaches. "I read about him in The Tattler," she said. "He sounded wonderful. I'd had trouble with headaches for years and no one had been able to do anything for me. I had a thousand-dollar bond put away – all the money I'd ever managed to save – and I hated to part with it, but it sounded as if it would be worth the investment. Besides, I understood I'd get my money back if he didn't cure me.

"I cashed the bond, bought a ticket, and flew to Houston. When I got to Norbu's home, nobody even talked to me. They stuck me in a bedroom at three in the afternoon and I didn't get out till they came for me at ten the next morning. No one to talk to, nothing to do; I thought I'd go crazy.

"In the morning a woman assistant came and took me to this strange healing room with an altar. Norbu Chen came in and I started to tell him what was troubling me, but he wouldn't listen. 'No need to tell – I know' was all he said. Then he started baying like a wolf in front of the altar and doing a lot of crazy moving around. Finally he pointed at me, blew on my head and left the room. I couldn't believe that was the whole treatment, but it was.

"His woman assistant took me out to the front hall and I gave her my check for five hundred dollars. Then I told her I wanted to talk to Dr. Chen, to find out what was the matter. He came in for about ten seconds, said, 'You will be all better in three weeks,' and left. I wanted to ask questions but they wouldn't let me. 'Your taxi is waiting,' his assistant said, and rushed me out the door.

"If I'd had any sense, I'd have stopped payment on the check right then – but, idiotically, I thought I'd wait the three weeks and see. After all, I had been promised my money back if I didn't get better.

"After three weeks I was no better, but just to be certain I waited another two weeks before writing. There was no answer to my letter. I wrote again after another month and once again two weeks after that. Still no answer. Finally I got ahold of the man who had written the article and complained to him. That got me a note from Norbu's secretary saying they'd never received my letters – odd, because I'd had a return address on the envelopes and they'd certainly received the letter I sent to make the appointment. But, I thought, now at least they'll send me my money. They didn't. I wrote a fourth letter – still no answer – and gave up. I've lost seven hundred dollars – five hundred to Chen and two hundred for transportation – and I've still got my headaches. I feel like an absolute fool. I can't understand how a reporter can write such glowing reports about a man like that."

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Irresponsible Journalism

I'm going to digress for a moment to raise the point of journalistic responsibility. Many of the patients to whom I spoke had read about Norbu Chen – and the psychic surgeons of the Philippines and Kathryn Kuhlman and Mister A and a host of other miracle workers – in the National Enquirer, The Tattler or other tabloids of the same general type.

I know how appealing those tabloids are – I'm just as interested in what's happening to Jackie and Ari as the next guy. The headlines in these sheets are real grabbers, and though the articles usually deliver much less than the captions promise, still lots of people buy them hoping for some sensational revelation. As long as no one takes these papers too seriously, no one gets hurt.

But the sad fact is, a lot of people do take seriously the articles printed in the Enquirer, The Tattler and other similar papers. Even then, if the article has to do with some genius who has discovered a pill that turns water into gasoline – or the facts about Glenn Ford's new romance – the reader may be misled, but that's all. However, when the articles deal with miraculous healing, and are read by people who are either afflicted with some serious disease or have a friend or relative afflicted with a serious disease, then these articles are misleading and dangerous. They often contain half truths, misinformation and stark errors, and they raise false hopes in patients who are, in desperation, looking for miracles. The patients waste their money on charlatans. Even worse, while they are off on a wild chase, they may be postponing medical help that could be life-saving.

This is irresponsible journalism at its worst.

Even writers for Newsweek, hardly a "scandal sheet," sometimes publish misleading information. For example, on April 29, 1974, the magazine had an article on psychic healing that reported two alleged triumphs.

The first involved the daughter of a Dr. Robert Owellen, a physician currently working at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Owellen believes that Kathryn Kuhlman cured his daughter's congenital hip dislocation.

I talked to Dr. Owellen. He reports his daughter's case in detail in Kathryn Kuhlman's latest book, Nothing Is Impossible With God, but the essentials are as follows. In 1960, before he had become a physician, he and his wife noted that their baby daughter cried a lot when they picked her up. They took her to their family doctor, who suggested that a congenital hip dislocation might be the problem. He arranged a consultation with an orthopedist.

Kathryn Kuhlman happened to be in the neighborhood at that time, so the Owellens took their child to a healing service. There, Dr. Owellen reports, he noticed that a skin crease in his child's buttock became less apparent. When they took their child to an orthopedist a few days later, he told them that she did not have a dislocated hip.

"Did you have any X-rays taken before you went to the Kathryn Kuhlman service?" I asked Dr. Owellen.

"No," he answered. "But I'm sure she was cured by Kathryn Kuhlman."

Without an X-ray there is no way to be certain an infant has a dislocated hip. All doctors – Dr. Owellen included – know this. If he chooses to believe that Kathryn Kuhlman cured his daughter, that's his privilege. But there is not one iota of evidence to support this claim. When Dr. Owellen sings the praises of Kathryn Kuhlman, as he does with great vigor, his M.D. status gives him a credibility which, concerning this case, he probably does not deserve.

A second statement in the Newsweek article says: "Dr. James Bruce, an Alabama surgeon, swears that [Norbu] Chen cleared up his chronic uremia." Perhaps this is the claim that Dr. Bruce made to the Newsweek writer, but when I talked to Dr. Bruce he told me that he was still undergoing dialysis, on an artificial kidney, two or three times a week. It was the artificial kidney, not Norbu Chen, that kept Dr. Bruce's uremia from getting out of control.

Why are these misleading reports published? Sometimes, I suspect, it's because a layman is writing the article. The M.D. degree does wrap a certain aura of reliability and respectability about an individual, particularly when that individual speaks of medical subjects. A reporter may feel that without a medical education himself, it would be presumptuous to question a doctor critically.

It may also be true that the reporter doesn't know the proper questions to ask the doctor; how many reporters know that you need an X-ray to make a diagnosis of congenital dislocation of the hip? Probably not many. Medical doctors can pass off as "proven" to laymen material that other doctors would immediately recognize as speculation or supposition. This sort of thing happens only too often. In many instances, the doctors, not the reporters, bear the greater responsibility when erroneous medical reports appear in general-circulation magazines.

It is equally unfortunate that physicians – M.D.s – lend credibility to these reports by allowing themselves to be quoted in such a fashion as to endorse the miracle worker. For example, in an article by David Klein in the Enquirer, a reputable physician, whose name I will not use here, is quoted as saying: " 'I saw him [Norbu Chen] cure a girl of acute sinusitis in three minutes – just by looking at her from a distance of about 10 feet. I checked the girl afterwards. Her sinusitis was gone.' " From the scientific point of view the doctor's report is so incomplete as to be valueless. Had he examined this girl before Norbu's treatment? How thoroughly did he examine her afterward? Did he take X-rays of her sinuses? Did he culture any organisms that were in her nasal passages?

How long did he follow this patient to be certain her sinusitis had cleared up? After all, sinusitis is one of those diseases that come and go.

The doctor later told me it was his impression that Norbu Chen relieved the young woman of the symptoms of her ailment; however, he also told me that six weeks later her sinusitis symptoms returned. The doctor did not attempt to document a cure.

The journalists who write this nonsense, the publishers who publish it and the physicians who lend credibility to the reports are responsible for a lot of wasted money and dashed hopes.

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Now back to Norbu. After a bit of nosing around I learned more about Norbu Chen than he wanted me to know.

In fact, one evening in March 1974, two days after I had written to a man who had known Norbu Chen in 1959, Joan and I came home from the movies and found my son Billy sitting at the dining-room table, finishing his homework. "Dad," Billy said, "you had a call about an hour ago from someone who wants you to call back right away. I told him you might not be in till after eleven, but he said to call no matter how late it was. He just called back a few minutes ago to make sure I hadn't forgotten to give you the message. He sure is anxious to talk to you."

I didn't recognize the number when I called but I recognized the voice when he answered – after only one ring; it was Norbu.

"Bill," he said, "how the hell are you?"

"Not bad, Norbu," I answered. "How about you – keeping busy?"

"So busy I can hardly stand it," Norbu said. "Patients, patients all the time. I'm leaving for Costa Rica on a vacation tomorrow." Then he paused. "Bill," he went on, "you almost done with your research for this book of yours?"

"Almost," I said. "Why?"

"Cause I hear you been snooping into my background, Bill – that's why. You been writing letters trying to find out about me. I don't like that, Bill. You're a nice guy, but I hope you're about done with this snooping-around shit – you understand?"

"Sure, Norbu, I understand," I said. "Have a nice time in Costa Rica."

"I will, Bill," he said. "Don't worry about me."

And so our conversation ended. I told Joan about my little chat and she asked, "You don't think he's dangerous, do you, Bill?"

"No," I said. "Norbu's all right. Just worried that I'm going to find out too much about him – things he doesn't want dug up. From what I've already learned, I really can't blame him. But he'll be okay. Norbu's tough. He'll survive anything I'll ever say about him."

But, to tell the truth, I had to take a pill to get to sleep that night. I'm not a very courageous guy.

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Eventually I learned some more about Norbu. I'm not going to share all my information – it isn't necessary – but I will straighten out the record on a few matters.

First, his name and age. When I checked with the appropriate offices in Harris County, Texas, I learned that on August 22, 1972, Charles Vernon Alexander II had legally changed his name to Norbu Chen. According to the county records, Mr. Alexander had given his birth date as November 13, 1934.

However, I later got a copy of Charles Vernon Alexander II's birth certificate; this document states that he was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 13, 1924. Which explains why Norbu Chen, in 1973, looked to me to be an awfully old thirty-nine.

Perhaps he did work indirectly for the Kennedy organization but my brother Jim, who has been a representative in the Massachusetts State Legislature for fourteen years, checked with friends who had worked for the Kennedys from the day John F. Kennedy first went into politics, and none of them had ever seen (I sent Norbu's picture to Jim) or heard of anyone even remotely resembling him.

He has, as he admitted, spent time in jail. He also, briefly, was committed to a state hospital, not because he had any mental problem but rather, it seems, as a matter of political convenience. According to a lawyer with whom I spoke, a man well acquainted with Norbu Chen,

"They stuck him in this state hospital while they were trying to decide what to do with him. Wherever he was, even in prison, he was nothing but trouble for everyone.

"Finally the 'authorities' decided that the easiest thing they could do was to just let him leave. Somebody supposedly told him that if he just walked away from the hospital, no one would go after him, provided he got the hell out of this state and stayed out.

"Funny, I kind of miss the guy. For a while, he made life around here damned interesting."

For the next ten years – from 1961 to 1971 – Norbu moved around quite a lot. He became interested in car racing, an interest he continues to cultivate while living in Houston. Reportedly he lived for a time in North Carolina and in Wisconsin.

I can't say for sure whether Norbu Chen ever went to Sikkim. Between 1961, when he walked away from the state hospital, and 1972, when he legally became Norbu Chen, he is said to have used, at one time or another, many different aliases, such as Mike or Michael Alexander. He was a tough man to keep track of.

I do know, however, having read Madame Alexandra David-Neel's books after my visit to Norbu, that he could have acquired all the knowledge he shared with me simply by reading her books. Everything he told me about his life in Sikkim – the ordeal in the cave, the psychic sports, the out-of-the-body projection, even rolang, the corpse who dances – is in Madame David-Neel's books.

Madame David-Neel, unlike Norbu Chen, remained very skeptical of most of the stories she was told. In speaking of rolang, she says (Magic and Mysteries in Tibet, p. 135):

Had that fantastic struggle [with the dancing corpse] not been purely subjective? Had it not taken place during one of those trances which are frequently experienced by Tibetan naljorpas [an ascetic possessing magical powers], which they also voluntarily cultivate. I doubted and asked to see "the tongue." The sorcerer showed me a desiccated blackish object which might have been "a tongue," but it was not sufficient to prove the origin of the hideous relic.

According to Colin Dangaard (writing in the Chicago Daily News of August 27, 1973, p. 15), "Norbu Chen sees about 20 patients a week." If he does in fact average twenty patients a week, then his income – at $500 a patient, which is, he told me (and patients have confirmed this), his minimum fee – is $10,000 a week, or $520,000 a year.

Charles Alexander, Norbu Chen, is doing very nicely for himself.

I haven't written about Norbu Chen, his background and his credentials to discredit him; his record speaks for itself. I've written this chapter about him because he affords an excellent example of the fact that intelligent people, well-meaning people, can easily be persuaded by "healers," particularly when those intelligent people want to believe.

Dr. Edgar Mitchell told me, "Norbu Chen is one of the greatest of the healers." Mitchell is quoted by the National Enquirer [not found] as saying, "Mr. Chen has developed a truly phenomenal ability to heal. He is performing some cures that will astound the medical world." If any of the many intelligent people who have gone as patients to Norbu Chen had made any real effort to investigate the man, they could have learned, as I did, that his "powers" are far from extraordinary. But they didn't investigate him; they wanted to believe.

Now, assuming they read what I have written, are they going to be angry with Norbu? Of course not. Norbu will probably tell them some amazing story about how it was really his astral body that went to Sikkim, and they'll believe him. Instead, they'll be angry with me because, in effect, I've said "the emperor has no clothes." They may hate me for it. I hope that won't be the case, but I'm afraid it may be.

[ end chapter 11 ]

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