“The Teachings of Don Juan”

You are invited to read and discuss " The Teachings of Don Juan" with the African Heritage Foundation. In the next couple weeks we will be sharing with you chapters of " The Teachings of Don Juan". These particular articles will be long and directed to those of us that like to read and are curious about spiritual knowledge beyond what we may know already. This book also makes for great reading for those who just like a good story.

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In the summer of 1960, while I was an anthropology student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I made several trips to the Southwest to collect information on the medicinal plants used by the Indians of the area. The events I describe here began during one of my trips. I was waiting in a border town for a Greyhound bus talking with a friend who had been my guide and helper in the survey. Suddenly he leaned towards me and whispered that the man, a white-haired old Indian, who was sitting in front of the window was very learned about plants, especially peyote. I asked my friend to introduce me to this man. My friend greeted him, then went over and shook his hand. After they had talked for a while, my friend signaled me to join them, but immediately left me alone with the old man, not even bothering to introduce us. He was not in the least embarrassed. I told him my name and he said that he was called Juan and that he was at my service. He used the Spanish polite form of address. We shook hands at my initiative and then remained silent for some time. It was not a strained silence, but a quietness, natural and relaxed on both sides. Though his dark face and neck were wrinkled, showing his age, it struck me that his body was agile and muscular. I then told him that I was interested in obtaining information about medicinal plants. Although in truth I was almost totally ignorant about peyote, I found myself pretending that I knew a great deal, and even suggesting that it might be to his advantage to talk with me. As I rattled on, he nodded slowly and looked at me, but said nothing. I avoided his eyes and we finished by standing, the two of us, in dead silence. Finally, after what seemed a very long time, don Juan got up and looked out of the window. His bus had come. He said good-bye and left the station. I was annoyed at having talked nonsense to him, and at being seen through by those remarkable eyes. When my friend returned he tried to console me for my failure to learn anything from don Juan. He explained that the old man was often silent or noncommittal, but the disturbing effect of this first encounter was not so easily dispelled. I made a point of finding out where don Juan lived, and later visited him several times. On each visit I tried to lead him to discuss peyote, but without success. We became, nonetheless, very good friends, and my scientific investigation was forgotten or was at least redirected into channels that were worlds apart from my original intention. The friend who had introduced me to don Juan explained later that the old man was not a native of Arizona, where we met, but was a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico. At first I saw don Juan simply as a rather peculiar man who knew a great deal about peyote and who spoke Spanish remarkably well. But the people with whom he lived believed that he had some sort of "secret knowledge", that he was a "brujo". The Spanish word brujo means, in English, medicine man, curer, witch, sorcerer.

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It connotes essentially a person who has extraordinary, and usually evil, powers. I had known don Juan for a whole year before he took me into his confidence. One day he explained that he possessed a certain knowledge that he had learned from a teacher, a "benefactor" as he called him, who had directed him in a kind of apprenticeship. Don Juan had, in turn, chosen me to serve as his apprentice, but he warned me that I would have to make a very deep commitment and that the training was long and arduous. In describing his teacher, don Juan used the word "diablero". Later I learned that diablero is a term used only by the Sonoran Indians. It refers to an evil person who practises black sorcery and is capable of transforming himself into an animal - a bird, a dog, a coyote, or any other creature. On one of my visits to Sonora I had a peculiar experience that illustrated the Indians' feeling about diableros. I was driving at night in the company of two Indian friends when I saw an animal that seemed to be a dog crossing the highway. One of my companions said it was not a dog, but a huge coyote. I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road to get a good look at the animal. It stayed within range of the headlights a few seconds longer and then ran into the chaparral. It was unmistakably a coyote, but it was twice the ordinary size. Talking excitedly, my friends agreed that it was a very unusual animal, and one of them suggested that it might be a diablero. I decided to use an account of the experience to question the Indians of that area about their beliefs in the existence of diableros. I talked with many people, telling them the story and asking them questions. The three conversations that follow indicate what they felt. "Do you think it was a coyote, Choy?" I asked a young man after he had heard the story. "Who knows? A dog, no doubt. Too large for a coyote." "Do you think it may have been a diablero?" "That's a lot of bull. There are no such things." "Why do you say that, Choy?" "People imagine things. I bet if you had caught that animal you would have seen that it was a dog. Once I had some business in another town and got up before daybreak and saddled up a horse. As I was leaving I came upon a dark shadow on the road which looked like a huge animal. My horse reared, throwing me off the saddle. I was pretty scared too, but it turned out that the shadow was a woman who was walking to town." "Do you mean, Choy, that you don't believe there are diableros?" "Diableros! What's a diablero? Tell me what a diablero is!" "I don't know, Choy. Manuel, who was riding with me that night, said the coyote could have been a diablero. Maybe you could tell me what a diablero is?" "A diablero, they say, is a brujo who changes into any form he wants to adopt. But everybody knows that is pure bull. The old people here are full of stories about diableros. You won't find that among us younger people." "What kind of animal do you think it was, dona Luz?" I asked a middle-aged woman. "Only God knows that for sure, but I think it was not a coyote. There are things that appear to be coyotes, but are not. Was the coyote running, or was it eating?" "It was standing most of the time, but when I first saw it, I think it was eating something." "Are you sure it was not carrying something in its mouth?" "Perhaps it was. But tell me, would that make any difference?" "Yes, it would. If it was carrying something in its mouth it was not a coyote." "What was it then?" "'It was a man or a woman." "What do you call such people, dona Luz?" She did not answer. I questioned her for a while longer, but without success. Finally she said she did not know. I asked her if such people were called diableros, and she answered that "diablero" was one of the names given to them. "Do you know any diableros" I asked. "I knew one woman," she replied. "She was killed. It happened when I was a little girl. The woman, they said, used to turn into a female dog. And one night a dog went into the house of a white man to steal cheese. The white man killed the dog with a shotgun, and at the very moment the dog died in the house of the white man the woman died in her own hut. Her kin got together and went to the white man and demanded payment. The white man paid good money for having killed her." "How could they demand payment if it was only a dog he killed?" "They said that the white man knew it was not a dog, because other people were with him, and they all saw that the dog stood up on its legs like a man and reached for the cheese, which was on a tray hanging from the roof. The men were waiting for the thief because the white man's cheese was being stolen every night. So the man killed the thief knowing it was not a dog." "Are there any diableros nowadays, dona Luz?" "Such things are very secret. They say there are no more diableros, but I doubt it, because one member of a diablero's family has to learn what the diablero knows. Diableros have their own laws, and one of them is that a diablero has to teach his secrets to one of his kin."

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"What do you think the animal was, Genaro?" I asked a very old man. "A dog from one of the ranches of that area. What else?" "It could have been a diablero." "A diablero? You are crazy! There are no diableros." "Do you mean that there are none today, or that there never were any?" "At one time there were, yes. It is common knowledge. Everybody knows that. But the people were very afraid of them and had them all killed." "Who killed them, Genaro?" "All the people of the tribe. The last diablero I knew about was S. He killed dozens, maybe even hundreds of people with his sorcery. We couldn't put up with that and the people got together and took him by surprise one night and burned him alive." "How long ago was that, Genaro?" "In nineteen forty-two." "Did you see it yourself?" "No, but people still talk about it. They say that there were no ashes left, even though the stake was made of fresh wood. All that was left at the end was a huge pool of grease." Although don Juan categorized his benefactor as a diablero, he never mentioned the place where he had acquired his knowledge, nor did he identify his teacher. In fact, don Juan disclosed very little about his personal life. All he said was that he had been born in the Southwest in 1891; that he had spent nearly all his life in Mexico; that in 1900 his family was exiled by the Mexican government to central Mexico along with thousands of other Sonoran Indians; and that he had lived in central and southern Mexico until 1940.

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Thus, as don Juan had traveled a great deal, his knowledge may have been the product of many influences. And although he regarded himself as an Indian from Sonora, I was not sure whether to place the context of his knowledge totally in the culture of the Sonoran Indians. But it is not my intention here to determine his precise cultural milieu. I began to serve my apprenticeship to don Juan in June 1961. Prior to that time I had seen him on various occasions, but always in the capacity of an anthropological observer. During these early conversations I took notes in a covert manner. Later, relying on my memory, I reconstructed the entire conversation. When I began to participate as an apprentice, however, that method of taking notes became very difficult, because our conversations touched on many different topics. Then don Juan allowed me - under strong protest, however - to record openly anything that was said. I would also have liked to take photographs and make tape recordings, but he would not permit me to do so. I carried out the apprenticeship first in Arizona and then in Sonora, because don Juan moved to Mexico during the course of my training. The procedure I employed was to see him for a few days every so often. My visits became more frequent and lasted longer during the summer months of 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. In retrospect, I believe this method of conducting the apprenticeship prevented the training from being successful, because it retarded the advent of the full commitment I needed to become a sorcerer. Yet the method was beneficial from my personal standpoint in that it allowed me a modicum of detachment, and that in turn fostered a sense of critical examination which would have been impossible to attain had I participated continuously, without interruption.

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In September 1965, I voluntarily discontinued the apprenticeship. Several months after my withdrawal, I considered for the first time the idea of arranging my field notes in a systematic way. As the data I had collected were quite voluminous, and included much miscellaneous information, I began by trying to establish a classification system. I divided the data into areas of related concepts and procedures and arranged the areas hierarchically according to subjective importance - that is, in terms of the impact that each of them had had on me. In that way I arrived at the following classification: uses of hallucinogenic plants; procedures and formulas used in sorcery; acquisition and manipulation of power objects; uses of medicinal plants; songs and legends. Reflecting upon the phenomena I had experienced, I realized that my attempt at classification had produced nothing more than an inventory of categories; any attempt to refine my scheme would therefore yield only a more complex inventory. That was not what I wanted. During the months following my withdrawal from the apprenticeship, I needed to understand what I had experienced, and what I had experienced was the teaching of a coherent system of beliefs by means of a pragmatic and experimental method. It had been evident to me from the very first session in which I had participated that don Juan's teachings possessed an internal cohesion. Once he had definitely decided to communicate his knowledge to me, he proceeded to present his explanations in orderly steps. To discover that order and to understand it proved to be a most difficult task for me. My inability to arrive at an understanding seems to have been traceable to the fact that, after four years of apprenticeship, I was still a beginner. It was clear that don Juan's knowledge and his method of conveying it were those of his benefactor; thus my difficulties in understanding his teachings must have been analogous to those he himself had encountered. Don Juan alluded to our similarity as beginners through incidental comments about his incapacity to understand his teacher during his own apprenticeship. Such remarks led me to believe that to any beginner, Indian or non-Indian, the knowledge of sorcery was rendered incomprehensible by the outlandish characteristics of the phenomena he experienced. Personally, as a Western man, I found these characteristics so bizarre that it was virtually impossible to explain them in terms of my own everyday life, and I was forced to the conclusion that any attempt to classify my field data in my own terms would be futile. Thus it became obvious to me that don Juan's knowledge had to be examined in terms of how he himself understood it; only in such terms could it be made evident and convincing.

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In trying to reconcile my own views with don Juan's, however, I realized that whenever he tried to explain his knowledge to me, he used concepts that would render it "intelligible" to him. As those concepts were alien to me, trying to understand his knowledge in the way he did placed me in another untenable position. Therefore, my first task was to determine his order of conceptualization. While working in that direction, I saw that don Juan himself had placed particular emphasis on a certain area of his teachings - specifically, the uses of hallucinogenic plants. On the basis of this realization, I revised my own scheme of categories. Don Juan used, separately and on different occasions, three hallucinogenic plants: peyote (Lophophora williamsii), Jimson weed (Datura inoxia syn. D. meteloides), and a mushroom (possibly Psilocybe mexicana). Since before their contact with Europeans, American Indians have known the hallucinogenic properties of these three plants. Because of their properties, the plants have been widely employed for pleasure, for curing, for witchcraft, and for attaining a state of ecstasy. In the specific context of his teachings, don Juan related the use of Datura inoxia and Psilocybe mexicana to the acquisition of power, a power he called an "ally". He related the use of Lophophora williamsii to the acquisition of wisdom, or the knowledge of the right way to live. The importance of the plants was, for don Juan, their capacity to produce stages of peculiar perception in a human being. Thus he guided me into experiencing a sequence of these stages for the purpose of unfolding and validating his knowledge. I have called them "states of non-ordinary reality", meaning unusual reality as opposed to the ordinary reality of everyday life. The distinction is based on the inherent meaning of the states of non ordinary reality. In the context of don Juan's knowledge they were considered as real, although their reality was differentiated from ordinary reality. Don Juan believed the states of non-ordinary reality to be the only form of pragmatic learning and the only means of acquiring power. He conveyed the impression that other parts of his teachings were incidental to the acquisition of power. This point of view permeated don Juan's attitude toward everything not directly connected with the states of non-ordinary reality. Throughout my field notes there are scattered references to the way don Juan felt. For example, in one conversation he suggested that some objects have a certain amount of power in themselves. Although he himself had no respect for power objects, he said they were frequently used as aids by lesser brujos. I often asked him about such objects, but he seemed totally uninterested in discussing them. When the topic was raised again on another occasion, however, he reluctantly consented to talk about them. "There are certain objects that are permeated with power," he said. "There are scores of such objects which are fostered by powerful men with the aid of friendly spirits. These objects are tools - not ordinary tools, but tools of death. Yet they are only instruments; they have no power to teach. Properly speaking, they are in the realm of war objects designed for strife; they are made to kill, to be hurled." "What kind of objects are they, don Juan?" "They are not really objects; rather, they are types of power." "How can one get those types of power, don Juan?" "That depends on the kind of object you want." "How many kinds are there?" "As I have already said, there are scores of them. Anything can be a power object." "Well, which are the most powerful, then?" "The power of an object depends on its owner, on the kind of man he is. A power object fostered by a lesser brujo is almost a joke; on the other hand, a strong, powerful brujo gives his strength to his tools." "Which power objects are most common, then? Which ones do most brujos prefer?" "There are no preferences. They are all power objects, all just the same." "Do you have any yourself, don Juan?" He did not answer; he just looked at me and laughed. He remained quiet for a long time, and I thought my questions were annoying him. "There are limitations on those types of powers," he went on. "But such a point is, I am sure, incomprehensible to you. It has taken me nearly a lifetime to understand that, by itself, an ally can reveal all the secrets of these lesser powers, rendering them rather childish. I had tools like that at one time, when I was very young." "What power objects did you have?" "Maiz-pinto, crystals and feathers." "What is maiz-pinto, don Juan?" "It is a small kernel of corn which has a streak of red colour in its middle." "Is it a single kernel?" "No. A brujo owns forty-eight kernels." "What do the kernels do, don Juan?" "Each one of them can kill a man by entering into his body." "How does a kernel enter into a human body?" "It is a power object and its power consists, among other things, in entering into the body." "What does it do when it enters into the body?" "It immerses itself in the body; it settles on the chest, or on the intestines. The man becomes ill, and unless the brujo who is tending him is stronger than the bewitcher, he will die within three months from the moment the kernel entered into his body." "Is there any way of curing him?" "The only way is to suck the kernel out, but very few brujos would dare to do that. A brujo may succeed in sucking the kernel out, but unless he is powerful enough to repel it, it will get inside him and will kill him instead." "But how does a kernel manage to enter into someone's body?" "To explain that I must tell you about corn witchcraft, which is one of the most powerful witchcrafts I know. The witchcraft is done by two kernels. One of them is put inside a fresh bud of a yellow flower. The flower is then set on a spot where it will come into contact with the victim: the road on which he walks every day, or any place where he is habitually present. As soon as the victim steps on the kernel, or touches it in any way, the witchcraft is done. The kernel immerses itself in the body." "What happens to the kernel after the man has touched it?" "All its power goes inside the man, and the kernel is free. It becomes just another kernel. It may be left at the site of the witchcraft, or it may be swept away; it does not matter. It is better to sweep it away into the underbrush, where a bird will eat it." "Can a bird eat it before the man touches it?" "No. No bird is that stupid, I assure you.

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The birds stay away from it." Don Juan then described a very complex procedure by which such power kernels can be obtained. "You must bear in mind that maiz-pinto is merely an instrument, not an ally," he said. "Once you make that distinction you will have no problem. But if you consider such tools to be supreme, you will be a fool." "Are the power objects as powerful as an ally?" I asked. Don Juan laughed scornfully before answering. It seemed that he was trying hard to be patient with me. "Maiz-pinto, crystals, and feathers are mere toys in comparison with an ally," he said. "These power objects are necessary only when a man does not have an ally. It is a waste of time to pursue them, especially for you. You should be trying to get an ally; when you succeed, you will understand what I am telling you now. Power objects are like a game for children." "Don't get me wrong, don Juan," I protested. "I want to have an ally, but I also want to know everything I can. You yourself have said that knowledge is power." "No!" he said emphatically. "Power rests on the kind of knowledge one holds. What is the sense of knowing things that are useless?" In don Juan's system of beliefs, the acquisition of an ally meant exclusively the exploitation of the states of non-ordinary reality he produced in me through the use of hallucinogenic plants. He believed that by focusing on these states and omitting other aspects of the knowledge he taught I would arrive at a coherent view of the phenomena I had experienced. I have therefore divided this book into two parts. In the first part I present selections from my field notes dealing with the states of non-ordinary reality I underwent during my apprenticeship. As I have arranged my notes to fit the continuity of the narrative, they are not always in proper chronological sequence. I never wrote my description of a state of non-ordinary reality until several days after I had experienced it, waiting until I was able to treat it calmly and objectively. My conversations with don Juan, however, were taken down as they occurred, immediately after each state of non-ordinary reality. My reports of these conversations, therefore, sometimes antedate the full description of an experience. My field notes disclose the subjective version of what I perceived while undergoing the experience. That version is presented here just as I narrated it to don Juan, who demanded a complete and faithful recollection of every detail and a full recounting of each experience. At the time of recording these experiences, I added incidental details in an attempt to recapture the total setting of each state of non-ordinary reality. I wanted to describe the emotional impact I had experienced as completely as possible. My field notes also reveal the content of don Juan's system of beliefs. I have condensed long pages of questions and answers between don Juan and myself in order to avoid reproducing the repetitiveness of conversation. But as I also want to reflect accurately the overall mood of our exchanges, I have deleted only dialogue that contributed nothing to my understanding of his way of knowledge. The information don Juan gave me about his way of knowledge was always sporadic, and for every spurt on his part there were hours of probing on mine. Nevertheless, there were innumerable occasions on which he freely expounded his knowledge.

Tomorrow, chapter 1.

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