The sorcerer's apprentice


In the psychedelic '60s, Carlos Castaneda wandered deep into the Mexican desert and brought back the chemically enhanced key to mystic paperback success. But was he a shaman or a sham? Mick Brown looks for enlightenment.

In February of this year I received a curious and completely unexpected invitation ... Would I like to interview Carlos Castaneda? To the uninitiated, the invitation will mean nothing. But those who came of age in the '60s counter-culture will recognise that it was like being invited to peruse the Cretan Minotaur.

Carlos Castaneda stands alongside Timothy Leary as one of the great avatars - and one of the great enigmas - of the psychedelic age. In 1968, Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan, describing his apprenticeship in the deserts of Mexico to an Indian shaman, and his induction through mind-altering substances into "the Yaqui way of knowledge".

Like Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, The Teachings of Don Juan and its sequels became essential reading for a legion of seekers after truth - guidebooks into a fantastic and exotic world beyond the dull grind of materialism. And long after the first generation of fans had moved on to more pragmatic concerns - mortgages, families, tax returns - the books continued to sell.

Since 1968, the works of Carlos Castaneda have sold more than eight million copies in 17 languages, totally unhindered by the fierce debate about whether don Juan really existed or was simply a figment of Castaneda's imagination.

No less a mystery was Castaneda himself. "The art of the hunter," don Juan had taught, "is to become inaccessible", and it was a maxim that Castaneda had observed with an almost religious dedication for 30 years, forsaking public appearances, refusing almost all interviews, leading the life of a recluse.

But now, I was told, there had been a mysterious and dramatic change of heart. After years of inaccessibility, Castaneda had emerged into the public eye, bringing with him for the first time what he claimed was the most important facet of don Juan's teachings - a system of physical movements known as "magical passes". He was prepared to lift the shroud of secrecy and talk to the world.

A date was provisionally set for me to meet him in Los Angeles. I was told that he would countenance no photographs, no tape-recording equipment. I would be allowed only to take notes, as he had taken notes during his years of tutelage at the feet of don Juan. "A recording," Castaneda had told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 in a rare conversation, "is a way of fixing you in time. The only thing a sorcerer will not do is be stagnant. The stagnant world, the stagnant picture, those are the antitheses of the sorcerer."

Then the date was changed. And changed again. Castaneda, I was told, was "on retreat" in the Mexican desert. When - if - he returned, I would be notified. In late March, I left for California on other business. But the call never came. There was a simple reason. At the time that I was in sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles, Castaneda was not in Mexico at all. He was five kilometres away from me in his Westwood home, dying of liver cancer.

Carlos Castaneda died, at the age of 72, on April 27. But, peculiarly, it was to be another two months before the news of his death became public. There was no announcement, no press report, no funeral or service of any kind. According to the Culver City mortuary that handled his remains, his body was cremated at once, his ashes spirited away to the Mexican desert.

In death, as in life, Castaneda remained inscrutable. When, eventually, the news of his death leaked out to the press, two British newspapers ran obituaries, alongside photographs of a man who was not Carlos Castaneda. His friends drew a veil of silence over the death, refusing to comment. In a statement to the press, his agents, Toltec Artists, would say only that, "In the tradition of the shamans of his lineage, Carlos Castaneda left this world in full awareness."

Castaneda, this suggested, was a spiritual teacher of the highest order, who had left behind a body of work to enrich mankind. In reality, he left behind a more tangled legacy. Rather than dying "the immaculate death" of the sorcerer, it is suggested that the sorcerer's apprentice actually died a frail, paranoid and angry old man, lashing out at the world with lawsuits - including one against his 73-year-old former wife, Margaret - and conjuring up the spirit of don Juan in a last, desperate attempt to exploit it for all it was worth.

A key aspect of the teachings of don Juan, as recounted by Carlos Castaneda, was the necessity of the "self" to die. "It is imperative to leave aside what [don Juan] called 'personal history'," Castaneda told the Chilean magazine Uno Mismo in 1997. "To get away from 'me' is something extremely annoying and difficult. What the shamans like don Juan seek is a state of fluidity where the personal 'me' does not count." For Castaneda, "the personal me" was a subject of constant fluctuation and revision.

By his own account, Castaneda was born on December 25, 1935, in Sao Paolo, Brazil. His mother died when he was seven and he was raised by his father, a professor of literature whom Castaneda supposedly regarded with a mixture of fondness and contempt - a shadow of the man he would subsequently meet in don Juan. He claimed to have been educated in Buenos Aires and sent to America in 1951. He travelled to Milan, where he studied sculpture, before returning to America and enrolling at UCLA to study anthropology.

In fact, American immigration records indicate that Castaneda was born not in 1935, but in 1925 - not in Brazil, but in Cajamarca, Peru.

His father was not a university professor but a goldsmith. His mother died when he was 24. And while it was true that he had studied painting and sculpture, this was not in Milan but at the National Fine Art school of Peru. Arriving in America in 1951, he studied creative writing at Los Angeles City College before enrolling on an anthropology course at UCLA in 1959.

The following year, he travelled to the Mexico-Arizona desert, intending to study the medicinal use of certain plants among local Indians. At a bus station in the town of Nogales in Arizona, he would later write, he met the man he called don Juan. For the psychedelic generation it was the equivalent of Stanley stumbling into a jungle clearing and discovering Livingstone, the young John Lennon bumping into Paul McCartney at a church fete in Woolton.

According to Castaneda, don Juan Matus was a Yaqui Indian nagual, or leader of a party of sorcerers - the last in a line stretching back to the times of the Toltecs, the pre-Hispanic Indians who inhabited the central and northern regions of Mexico a thousand years ago. Under the guidance of the Yaqui sage, Castaneda was introduced to the psychotropic substances of peyote, jimson weed and "the little smoke", a preparation made from psilocybe mushrooms that had been dried and aged for a year. Under the influence of these drugs the bemused anthropologist underwent a series of bizarre encounters, with columns of singing light, a bilingual coyote and a 30-metre-tall gnat - "the guardian of the other world" - manifestations of the "powers", or impersonal forces, that a man of knowledge must learn to use.

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was first published in 1968 as an anthropological thesis by the University of California Press.

A year later - repackaged in a psychedelic book jacket - it was published by a mainstream company. It became an immediate counter-culture hit, prompting an exodus of would-be apprentice sorcerers to the deserts of Mexico in search of don Juan - or at least good drugs.

A Separate Reality, published in 1971, was more of the same - a giant gnat circles around Castaneda, and he sees don Juan's face transformed into a ball of glowing light - as the old Indian inducted Castaneda into the so-called second cycle of apprenticeship. These experiences were not just psychedelic magical mystery tours. The use of drugs, Castaneda explained, was don Juan's way of leading his pupil to "see" the world outside the cultural and linguistic constraints of Western rationalism, unencumbered by conditioned preconceptions or the taint of personal history.

Drugs were not in themselves the destination, he explained in Journey to Ixtlan, which was published in 1973; they were merely one route to the destination, to be discarded once this fundamental shift in perception had been achieved. Journey to Ixtlan won Castaneda his PhD from UCLA. It also made him a millionaire.

By now, doubts about the authenticity of Castaneda's accounts had begun to multiply. It was one thing for him to refuse to divulge the identity and whereabouts of the Yaqui sage (don Juan, he always made clear, was a pseudonym which he used to protect his teacher's privacy), but quite another for him to refuse to let his field notes be examined by other anthropologists. But whatever the doubts about the books' provenance, even the most sceptical critics agreed that they were powerful parables about the search for personal enlightenment, "remarkable works of art" as the author Joyce Carol Oates described them.

In 1976, a teacher of psychology named Richard de Mille (the son of Cecil B.) published the first comprehensive critique of the don Juan books, Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory, detailing myriad inconsistencies in the chronology of Castaneda's accounts and the character of don Juan. Don Juan, de Mille concluded, was a work of fiction, but Castaneda "wasn't a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth ... This is a sham-man bearing gifts." But de Mille's book vanished without trace while Castaneda's continued to sell.

An anthropologist named Jay Courtney Fikes provided yet another twist on the don Juan stories in his book, Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, published in 1993. In this, Fikes suggested that rather than being one individual, don Juan was actually an amalgam of two or possibly three authentic Indian shamans, including a well-respected Mazatec healer called Maria Sabina, who had also collaborated with the anthropologist Gordon Wasson on his study of psychedelic mushrooms in the '50s.

"I would see Castaneda as an anthropologist-lite, as it were, or a travel writer," Fikes now says. "There is a residue of authenticity there. I think he did make trips to Mexico and he had some interesting experiences, and he then fictionalised them and called them non-fiction.

"I don't think he set out in 1960 to create a massive hoax. The first book took off, it was a best-seller: there were very few people who publicly expressed scepticism at that point, so he just kept going."

Castaneda's response to the criticisms was always the same. He was writing about states of mind and perception outside the normal conventions of academia, so the normal terms of reference did not apply. Sorcerers, he said, have only one point of reference: "infinity". He would continue repeating the same mantra to the very end. "I invented nothing."

Castaneda maintained that don Juan "left the world" in 1973, dying "the immaculate death" of the warrior. His departure did nothing to stem the flow of Castaneda books. Throughout the '70s and '80s, a stream of books appeared expounding further on don Juan's teachings. Diligent readers noted that the anthropological references seemed to grow fewer and that the books increasingly bore the traces of other influences: the study of phenomenology; Eastern mysticism; existentialism.

Something weird started happening to don Juan's voice. One minute he was intoning sonorous desert utterances, the next joshing in American slang, and the next assuming the stilted, jargon-heavy circumlocutions of a professor of philosophy. (In Castaneda's last book, The Active Side of Infinity, which is due to be published next year, don Juan is quoted as saying, "The effect of the force that is descending on you, which is disintegrating the foreign installation, is that it pulls sorcerers out of their syntax" - a mouthful for a professor of linguistics, let alone a Yaqui Indian.)

Critics talked of "the grim sound of barrels being scraped" and noted an increasingly Messianic tone in Castaneda's pronouncements. With don Juan having "left the world", Castaneda himself had become the heir to the lineage, the nagual. No longer a mere disciple, he had become the prophet and, as befits a prophet, he began to gather around him a coterie of disciples. Foremost among these were three women - Carol Tiggs, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar - who, according to Castaneda, had also been students of don Juan.

"The four disciples of don Juan", as Castaneda styled them, lived in close, but apparently celibate, proximity to each other. Castaneda once said that he eschewed relationships of "a sexual order", for shamanic reasons. More prosaically, rumours suggested he was incapacitated by "a groin injury", said to have been sustained when he was young.

For years, the group remained largely reclusive, apparently following don Juan's dictum that the sorcerer's way was to "touch the world sparingly". But in 1993, Castaneda suddenly emerged into the public eye, propagating what he claimed to be the culmination of the sorcerer's arts - a system of bodily movements which he called "magical passes". These movements, Castaneda claimed, had been taught to initiates over 27 generations in conditions of the utmost secrecy and passed on by don Juan to Castaneda and his three other disciples before his death.

Through these "magical passes", Castaneda claimed, the Toltec sorcerers had attained an increased level of awareness which allowed them to perform "indescribable feats of perception" and experience "unequalled states of physical prowess and well-being". The "magical passes" even had a brand name - "Carlos Castaneda's Tensegrity" (an architectural term meaning a combination of tension and integrity) - and an organisation called Cleargreen, set up by Castaneda to promote seminars and workshops.

Castaneda himself would appear at these seminars, alongside his three women companions, talking about his experiences with don Juan, before introducing a team of demonstrators, dressed in black work-out uniforms and known as "the chacmools", to demonstrate the movements.

Even the most credulous students of his writings were puzzled. In all of the don Juan books there had been no mention of Tensegrity or "magical passes". If these movements were so important, why had Castaneda never mentioned them before? And why was he breaking the habit of a lifetime by appearing in public to talk about them?

Castaneda's explanation was typically mind-boggling. It was true that don Juan had always maintained that the "magical passes" should be kept secret, but an extraordinary event had dictated they should now be made public. While following don Juan's techniques in mastering "the art of dreaming", Carol Tiggs had "disappeared into a dream" in a hotel room in Mexico City sometime in the '70s. She had vanished, Castaneda said, in order to act as a beacon from the other side, guiding initiates through "the dark sea of awareness". In 1985, however, Tiggs made a surprising reappearance in a California bookshop where Castaneda was giving a talk. Her reappearance had convinced Castaneda that the "message of freedom" enshrined in the "magical passes" should now be passed on to the world.

More puzzling still was the fact that there is no tradition of such bodily movements among pre-Hispanic Indians and that Castaneda's "magical passes" bore a suspiciously close resemblance to such Asiatic disciplines as kung fu and Tai Chi.

In fact, it seemed that for inspiration Castaneda had travelled no further than the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, to the classes of a kung fu teacher and "energy master" named Howard Lee. Lee confirms that Castaneda studied with him between 1974 and 1989.

There were allegations that Castaneda paid a substantial sum of money "and the phallus of a puma" in order to deter Lee from taking legal action. Lee denies this ("A what of a puma?") and says he has never seen the "magical passes" in action. "Some people have said they're similar to what I teach, but I don't know. I've never seen them and I'm not interested."

Whatever their origins, the courses in Tensegrity proved extremely profitable. Workshops and seminars, costing from $US200 to $1,000, attracted hundreds of participants, stimulating a brisk business in Tensegrity T-shirts ("The magic is in the movement") and videos, on sale for $29.95.

In its marketing, promises of well-being and promotion of Castaneda as the guru, sceptics could see in Tensegrity the seeds of a New Age religion. "Castaneda had built himself up as a prophet through the don Juan books," says Jay Fikes.

"The bible, so to speak, was written; but there was no ritual, so it was necessary to invent one."

Whether Castaneda's books were wholly true, partly true or fiction, even his sternest critics acknowledged that their success opened the door to a tradition of authentic Indian shamanic teachings which had hitherto been unavailable.

In the years following the publication of the don Juan books, a number of teachers emerged in America, claiming to be in the same Toltec tradition as don Juan, even to have been taught personally by him or his contemporaries.

Among the most prominent of these teachers is Merilyn Tunneshende - "The Nagual Woman" who says she met the man Castaneda had called don Juan on a railway station in Yuma, Arizona, near the border with Mexico, in 1978, five years after Castaneda claimed he had "left the world". According to Tunneshende, don Juan was a Yuma, not a Yaqui Indian. She says she studied with him from 1978 until his death in 1991. At don Juan's instigation, she met Castaneda in Los Angeles in 1979, remaining in intermittent contact.

Tunneshende became the most vocal critic of Castaneda's Tensegrity, writing a series of articles in the American magazine Magical Blend - a forum for such matters - alleging that Castaneda had been expelled from the sorcerer's circle in 1980. "Carlos was a very insecure man in a lot of ways," Tunneshende now says. "With Tensegrity, he never felt as though he could reveal at any point that this was something he'd developed himself. It was as if he needed the name of don Juan to lend whatever he was doing some authority."

Castaneda, according to one observer, had begun to behave "like the Toltec pope". In 1995 he filed suit against another Toltec teacher - and an old friend - Victor Sanchez, claiming that the jacket of Sanchez's book, The Teachings of Don Carlos, infringed Castaneda's copyright. And in 1997 he launched a lawsuit against his ex-wife, Margaret Runyon Castaneda, over the publication of her book, A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda.

In his determination to obliterate any traces of personal biography, Castaneda had never made any reference to a wife. According to Margaret, however, she and Castaneda were married in Tijuana in 1960, and while they lived together for only six months, their divorce did not become absolute until 1973. Furthermore, she claims, Castaneda insisted that she sign documents with the California Department of Public Health making him the legal father of her son, Carlton Jeremy, or CJ, by another relationship.

The book is a gossipy and affectionate account of her life with a man she describes as "looking like a Cuban bellhop". (Only 165 cm, Castaneda favoured neat haircuts and three-button suits.) It casts an interesting light on the possible origins of the don Juan books. Long before encountering don Juan, she suggests, Castaneda had read extensively on the use of psychotropic drugs among Indians, eastern mysticism and the literature of Aldous Huxley. She recounts a dinner with friends in 1959 - a year before Castaneda's supposed meeting with don Juan - when the conversation turned to how the great religious scriptures were never written by the teachers but by their disciples. "It seemed to make a big impression on him," Margaret Castaneda writes.

Which is not to say that don Juan did not exist. Margaret confirms that her husband made frequent field trips to Mexico in the time he was supposedly apprenticed to the Yaqui sage. But by and large, Castaneda seems to have been as much a mystery to his wife as he was to everyone else.

For Castaneda, there was a tragic irony in his emergence into the public spotlight. For by 1996, at the time when he was promoting courses promising "unequalled states of physical prowess and well-being", his own health was said to be in a state of steady decline. His lawyer, Deborah Drooz, maintains that the author was ill for "some 10 to 12 months" before his death in April 1998. Other sources close to Castaneda, however, claim that he was aware that he had cancer at least two years before he died.

Shortly before his death, his agent delivered to his publisher the manuscript of his last book, The Active Side of Infinity. Read in the light of his death, the book has a distinctly valedictory air. Reappraising his encounters with don Juan, Castaneda reiterates that "the total goal" of shamanic knowledge is preparation for facing the "definitive journey - the journey that every human being has to take at the end of his life" to the region that shamans called "the active side of infinity". "We are beings on our way to dying," [don Juan] said. "We are not immortal, but we behave as if we were. This is the flaw that brings us down as individuals and will bring us down as a species someday."

There are any number of theories about exactly why it took two months to announce Castaneda's own death. Cynics point to the unfortunate coincidence of his death with the publication of Magical Passes: it is hardly an advertisement for a book promoting a system fostering "health, vitality, youth and a general sense of well-being" for its author to die of liver cancer. However, Deborah Drooz says there was never any intention that his death should be made public at all. "Dr Castaneda spent his lifetime avoiding press attention and keeping the details of his personal life extremely private. He wanted to be known only through his work."

Had it not been for the matter of Castaneda's will, it is possible that his death would have gone unremarked for years. The news leaked out when Margaret Runyon Castaneda's son, CJ, who now goes by the name of Adrian Vashon, received a court letter indicating he was mentioned in Castaneda's will. According to Drooz, Castaneda asserted "time and time again" that Vashon was not his son. Drooz says that Vashon is not named as a beneficiary. He is now contesting the will and it is likely to be some months before the matter is resolved. Castaneda's estate is believed to be worth some $20 million.

Castenada's organisation, Cleargreen, would make no comment when I contacted them to talk about the author's life and death. It made its first, and to date only, statement about the death on June 22, in a notice posted on its Web site. This stated that he had "left the world" in the same way as don Juan, "with full awareness". "The cognition of our everyday life," the statement went on, "does not provide for a description of a phenomenon such as this. So in keeping with the terms of legalities and record keeping that the world of everyday life requires, Carlos Castaneda was declared to have died."

It is a statement ripe with ambiguity, leaving open the tantalising suggestion, for those inclined to believe it, that in his final moments Castaneda had somehow achieved the nagual's ultimate accomplishment of a sort of spontaneous combustion, burning in "the fire from within".

So Carlos Castaneda is dead, but then again, perhaps he's not. Soon after his death the Internet was buzzing with accounts from people whom he has supposedly visited in their dreams. It will not be long before psychics in South Carolina and Virginia begin "channelling" communications with Castaneda from the other side; or, perhaps, before another young anthropology student walks out of the Mexican desert, bringing with him the teachings of a sage who looks like a Cuban bellhop: a sham-man's way of knowledge.

THE AGE - News Special - Saturday 7 November 1998
Copyright (c) The Age Company Ltd 2000.