The Teachings of Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda – January BBBR

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Carlos Castaneda
University of California Press, 1998
215 pages

While I’ve read de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, I’m not going to attempt to prove whether don Juan Matus actually existed, or whether he was a creation of Carlos Castaneda himself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the quality of this, his first book.

First, I really have to question whether this really is a “Yaqui way of knowledge”. There’s no connection between the Yaqui culture and what don Juan talks about. According to, among other places, the official Pascua Yaqui website, there’s no mention of any of the hallucinogenic plants that Castaneda speaks of, though perhaps more importantly Castaneda never brings up things that are culturally important to the Yaqui, such as the deer dancer or flowers, nor their language. While shamanism isn’t always the same as the main religion of a culture, there are still cultural elements in it. This in and of itself makes me suspicious as to the cultural validity of the material, never mind the functional validity.

Functionally this book is a disaster. I’ve been told you have to “read between the lines” to really get what don Juan was saying. However, all I read is a lot of obfuscation of lore and mysticism. We’re given a few tips and tricks for how to deal with the spirits of some hallucinogenic plants, with no reasons as to why these practices are important. Occasionally there’s something basic and functional, such as the lesson of “finding one’s place”, but this should not be used as a practical text. Castaneda’s analysis is so-so; again, lack of connection between don Juan’s teachings and the actual Yaqui culture is a major flaw.

I would have respected this book a lot more if it had been presented from the beginning as either a novel, or a book “based on a true” story without claiming to be an anthropological breakthrough. As for the claim that it’s a huge breakthrough in popular entheogen lore–popular doesn’t always mean accurate or good quality. There were numerous researchers of various hallucinogens prior to Castaneda; for example, in the 1950s R. Gordon Wasson along with Valentina Povlovna, his wife, went through a series of experiments in Mexico with psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson later cowrote this article in Life magazine about his experiences. Real names were used, people who were traceable were cited, and photos of the rituals were taken–much more respectable than Castaneda’s attempts at mystifying the reader.

I’m pretty underwhelmed. The only saving grace was that it was an entertaining read, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Castaneda was describing trips he’s actually been on. Reportedly the later books have less entheogen use and more teachings, so I may check them out at a later date. Still, I recommend this only as a way to familiarize yourself with Castaneda’s work and for entertainment only–in other words, don’t try this at home, kids!

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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7 Comments

  1. Sara said,

    January 23, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    I am reading Journey to Ixtlan right now, and in it two things are said that affect this book. First Castaneda says when he wrote his first two books he was still in his training and he had been seeking out knowledge about hallucinogenic plants and that he had thought it was the key to sorcery. He trimmed his notes to reflect that and left out things that did not reference hallucinogenic plants. When he began Journey to Ixtlan he reassessed all his earlier notes to include the deeper teachings that were only aided by the drugs, and he included much more. He added that he felt the use of drugs was actually unnecessary for the method, and that he believed do Juan only had him use them because he was so hard headed.

    Second, in the Journey to Ixtlan, don Juan refuses to confirm that his teachings are Yaqui, he evades all attempts of Castanedas to even confirm that he is in fact Yaqui, he stresses the importance erasing personal history and will tell Castaneda nothing of his past or where he learned these things.

    I am thinking of reading the first two books after I have finished Journey to Ixtlan to compare.

  2. Werekat said,

    January 23, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Should I remember correctly, this book was originally an experiment in writing a doctoral thesis on inexistent material – to see if the academic establishment would buy it. To Castaneda’s credit, they did – they did a double-check on the info way after he got the doctorate. I may be very wrong here, but it’s an amusing legend, nonetheless.

    I myself have not read on much after the first book – I found it functionally boring, as well, and have little time – but I do know that in the Russian subculture many, many good experiments came from the later books. I know of a group that was very successful with dreamwork, I know quite a few people that actually understood the concept of self-discipline from these very books. So I am planning to read on.

    Not total rubbish. Just not a manual; rather, literature.

  3. Sara said,

    January 23, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    I have to wonder if Castaneda changed his tune in the later books because of criticism over his first books. Its hard to know now.

  4. Helen said,

    January 23, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    I read this book so long ago that it’s hard for me to remember, but I remember having the impression that “don juan” was nothing more than a literary device (not a real man at all). I think that was a common practice among some of the new age writers – make up a “Shaman” who is their “teacher” and then write a book as a dialog in which the “teacher” verbally reprimands the narrator for the duration of the 250-page book for being an utter dolt and failing to understand the simplest spiritual concepts.

    I hated those books – all of them…

  5. Oaul Johnson said,

    February 10, 2008 at 3:23 am

    Something beyond the grasp – can easily be tagged as boring –

    Anyone interested in the most insightful and easily explained works on Human Spirit do not be put off by the doubters on this page.

    Castanedas attempt to bring raw spiritual experience to -only pen and paper – still results in a masterpiece of works over time.

    Castenedas works, more accurately, Presentations of his works – are Literally Correct and true only to individuals with a more expanded consciousness.

  6. Steven R. said,

    February 12, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Castaneda is great! his books are a truly attempt to describe how he finally GET this new way of cognition! and this is the key, cognition. How can you descibe “something” that nobody else (maybe just few people that you know)can’t see or “feel”? (any “clue” on this?) I can’t say that Castaneda is not for everybody, but let’s admit that even text books for kids are hard to understand for many people. What’s my point with this? Well, CC is more attractive for those that are looking for something that is imposible to descibe, coz’ is personal for every one, but always has been there, and IS NOT this reality. If you like to use all this plants that Castaneda mention, well you have a lot of things more in common with his stories. At some point, you got the feeling that all those questions that you considered “like crazy” has been answered by him , while he was trying to get the answer for himself. Thats the beauty of this book. but also I understand those that “can get it” when they read the book for the first time, the reason is simple: you are not looking for this!

  7. charlila said,

    February 24, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    1. who cares whether it’s yaquy or not? maybe Carlos had to protect the privacy of his teacher, keeping stalkerrs on falce trakes, or maybe he just enjoyed lying so much, he couldn’t hold back… what’s the relevance? even if you are a you are a professor at UCLA… this aspect by now is passe’!
    here is a story that gives another facet of yaquys:
    http://sustainedreaction.yuku.com/topic/913
    2. the practices proved important enough to change many people’s lives and the tonal of times (a castanedian – rather Don-Juanian – term to describe the unique spirit of a period). but – true, this book has just some (precious) tips. (i found my point once, found it quite importent…) but the real manual is “journey to Ichtlan” – a very handy manual to how to become a warrior [=one of the 2 possible categories: warriors and victims].
    3.”all I read is a lot of obfuscation of lore and mysticism” – than Castaneda mannaged to filtrate you. i read there a description of a guidance how to make a maximal personal change, how to find “a path with heart” – which is a cardinal quest each person face during his life: how to choose his path correctly.
    4..”Castaneda’s analysis is so-so” – it’s a disaster; unless it’s a deliberate farse… which i doubt was the original intent. but, again – who cares?

    if you are into becoming warriors, and not victims, kids – do try at home! or rather, at the vast outskirts of the universes…


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