This book introduces the mystical character of Juan Matu, a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico. Born in the Southwest in 1891, Don Juan lived in Mexico until 1940. He then immigrated to Arizona, where he met Castaneda and, in 1961, accepted him as an apprentice in Yaqui sorcery. Until 1965, he instructed Castaneda in becoming a “man of knowledge” through experience with “nonordinary reality.” The teaching required the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and much of the book chronicles Castaneda’s visions while under their influence.
The sorcerer teaches Castaneda the procedures for growing, collecting, and preparing drug-yielding plants. Castaneda’s altered states of consciousness frighten and bewilder him, and he repeatedly calls on Don Juan for rational explanations. The Indian counters with metaphysics and insists that his pupil form his own understandings. Don Juan defines a man of knowledge as one “who has, without rushing or faltering, gone as far as he can in unraveling the secrets of power.” Only he who challenges and defeats the four “natural enemies”—fear, clarity, power, and old age—can become such a man. He recommends “a path with heart.” All paths lead nowhere, he says, but those with heart make for a joyful journey.
Becoming a man of knowledge requires in-depth learning, unbending intent, clarity of mind, strenuous labor, unending devotion, and the possession of an ally. An ally is either “the smoke” (psilocybin from mushrooms) or jimson weed. “There is a crack between the two worlds,” Don Juan says. “The crack is here. It opens and closes like a door in the wind.” Stepping through that door requires, in Don Juan’s view, a drug. “The smoke will set you free to see anything you want to see,” he claims.
A third drug, mescaline (peyote), is not an ally but a protector and teacher. Don Juan claims that mescaline has an identity of its own outside the user. In contrast, an ally resides within, bestowing the ability to perform fantastic feats, such as assuming animal form. Although presented as ethnographic research and published as a master’s thesis in anthropology, the book is widely agreed to be fiction. The work is condemned by some as a hoax. Whether truth or fabrication, it has been widely read and served to consolidate the role of hallucinogens in Native American religious rituals with the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s.