“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