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Carlos Castaneda
"The Teachings of Don Juan"
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
signalled 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
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
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. 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."
"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. 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. 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
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