Bohemian Buddhist Review

Carlos Castaneda's Last Hurrah

Anyone who came of age in the sixties and seventies undoubtedly remembers Carlos Castenada's books -- and also probably the affect they had. For me, the words of Don Juan Matus opened up a world of intentional mysticism and shamanistic wonder, leading to a long and winding spiritual path through many venerable ancient and new age traditions and ending, again, for me, in the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism.
 
I just came across Castenada's last book, The Active Side of Infinity, published in 1998, which was also the year he died, at the age of 73. Fascinating to read him again after a hiatus of some 40 years -- and find him just as, if not increasingly relevant. Especially from the perspective of Buddhist insights, with which I believe Don Juan Matus would be in almost total accord.
 
Did Castenada jump off the cliff into enlightenment? Isn't Don Juan, his sorcerer-mentor, another embodiment of what in Tibetan Buddhism would be called a crazy wisdom teacher? And isn't Castenada's apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian practice of shamanic sorcery comparable to the trials of Marpa and Milarepa, Tilopa and Naropa? The process of stripping the ego bare looks very similar in many traditions.
 
In The Active Side of Infinity, Don Juan starts off by telling Castenada he needs to create a special album "that reveals the warrior's personality, an album that attests to the circumstances of his life."
 
Of course Don Juan isn't talking about ordinary events, or even events that we would call memorable, such as births, weddings, and funerals. No, Don Juan is talking about events that lead to the spiritual "warrior-traveler's life," i.e., the perspective of a sorcerer.
 
Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book: "Every one of us human beings has two minds. One is totally ours, and it is like a faint voice that always brings us order, directness, purpose. The other mind is a foreign installation (Castenada's italics). It brings us conflict, self-assertion, doubts, hopelessness."
 
The first of our minds, as above, is our true nature; in Buddhism, the second is egoic mind. (In sci-fi alien predator theory, the idea of a "foreign installation" is literal.) Which is why it's  so important to gain full awareness, otherwise we're just robots made of meat.
 
Our culture is not interested in our enlightenment, it's interested in our enslavement, to achieve its goals, not ours. "I understand how right Don Juan was when he said to me once that the practicalities that scientists were interested in were conducive to building more and more complex machines. They were not the practicalities that changed an individual's life course from within."
 
Another concept that aligns beautifully with Buddhism's concept of emptiness is Don Juan's term, the dark sea of awareness. "Don Juan had defined the concept of warrior-travelers, saying that it referred to sorcerers who, by being warriors, traveled in the dark sea of awareness . . . human beings were travelers of the dark sea of awareness, and this Earth was but a station on their journey . . . caught in a sort of eddy, a current that went in circles [like the wheel of karma], giving them the impression of moving while they were, in essence, stationary."
 
Like master meditators, advanced yogis, and ascended masters, "sorcerers can, by means of their discipline, break loose of whatever force kept humans prisoners and continue their journey of awareness." There is some very dark dialogue beween Castenada and Don Juan about predators of humans and the crucial need for a glowing coat of awareness; again, to my mind, in complete alignment with Buddhist teachings about the ability of the mind to delude us if we don't tame it -- and wake up.
 
One of Don Juan's last teachings: "Warrior-travelers pay elegantly, generously, and with unequaled ease every favor, every service rendered to them. In this manner,  they get rid of the burden of being indebted." All hail our karmic debtors and may they be happy and satisfied with our offerings!
 
After Castenada's death, his three female companions, with whom he lived, wrote and undoubtedly practiced sorcery, all disappeared. I personally have no doubt that they all swam through the dark sea of awareness and landed on a sparkling new life raft. 
 
-- Paki S. Wright, 2014