Castaneda's Legacy: As Mysterious as the Man

Once he began publishing his best-selling accounts of his purported adventures with a Mexican shaman 30 years ago, Carlos Castaneda's life and work played out in a wispy blur of sly illusion and artful deceit.

International Herald Tribune, Thursday, August 20, 1998

New York Times Service

NEW YORK–Once he began publishing his best-selling accounts of his purported adventures with a Mexican shaman 30 years ago, Carlos Castaneda's life and work played out in a wispy blur of sly illusion and artful deceit.

Drawing/Portrait of Carlos Castaneda Now, four months after he died and two months after the death was made public, a probate court in Los Angeles is sifting through competing claims on the estate of the author whose works helped define the 1960s and usher in the New Age movement.

His followers say he left the Earth with the same elegant, willful mystery that characterized his life. The man he used to call his son says Castaneda died while a virtual prisoner of cult-like followers who controlled his last days and his estate.

Given that Castaneda's literary credibility, marital history, place of birth, circumstances of death and almost everything else about his life are in dispute, the competing claims–including questions about the authenticity of his will and his competence to sign it–are not surprising. But they are providing a nasty coda to the life of a man whose books, which sold 8 million copies in 17 languages, are viewed as fact, metaphor or hoax.

Admirers say the areas of dispute, most famously whether the purported shaman and brujo (witch) Don Juan Matus ever existed, are peripheral to the real issues Castaneda explored in his books.

"Carlos knew exactly what was true and what was not true," said Angela Panaro, of Cleargreen Inc., the group that marketed Castaneda's teachings and seminars near the end of his life. "But the thing that's missing when people talk about Carlos is not whether Don Juan lived or not, or who lived in what house. It's about becoming a voyager of awareness, about the 600 locations in the luminous egg of man where the assemblage point can shift, about the process of depersonalization he taught."

The luminous egg assemblage point and processes of depersonalization are all part of the practice of Tensegrity, a blend of meditation and movement exercises that Castaneda taught in his final years as a way for people to break through the limitations of ordinary consciousness. Skeptics say they sum up a career characterized, in the end, by literate New Age mumbo jumbo and artful deception.

Even Margaret Runyan Castaneda, who had been married to him, while admiring Castaneda and his work, says she doubts Don Juan ever existed and thinks his name came from Mateus, the bubbly Portuguese wine the couple used to drink.

Carlos Castaneda rocketed from obscure anthropology graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles to instant, if elusive celebrity in 1968 with the publication of "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," a vivid account of the spiritual and pharmacological adventures he had with a white-haired Yaqui Indian nagual or shaman, Don Juan Matus. He said he met Don Juan at a Greyhound bus station in Nogales, Arizona, in the summer of 1960 when Castaneda was doing, research on medicinal plants used by Indians of the Southwest.

In that book, its sequel, "A Separate Reality," and eight others, he described his apprenticeship to Don Juan and a spiritual journey in which he saw giant insects, learned to fly and grew a beak as part of a process of breaking the hold of ordinary perception.

Admirers saw his work as a gripping spiritual quest in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's "Doors of Perception." Skeptics wondered how much was true.

But despite Castaneda's obsessive pursuit of total anonymity–he refused to be photographed or tape recorded and almost never gave interviews–he won international fame, and the books continued to sell well after his vogue passed.

In recent years, he surfaced with a new vision, the teaching of Tensegrity, which is described on the Cleargreen Web site as "the modernized version of some movements called magical passes developed by Indian shamans who lived in Mexico in times prior to the Spanish conquest." He even made public appearances and spoke at seminars promoting the work.

Unknown to customers who turned out for the seminars– which cost $600 and more --Castaneda was dying of cancer while describing his route to vibrant good health.

Indeed, although only his inner circle knew about it for two months, he died on April 27 at his home in Westwood, a well-to-do section of Los Angeles, where he lived for many years with some of the self-described witches, stalkers, dreamers, and spiritual seekers who shared his work.

At a brief hearing in probate court in Los Angeles last week, the man whom Castaneda for many years called his son challenged the will Castaneda apparently signed four days before his death. The judge set a hearing date of Oct. 15 for the case.

C. J. Castaneda, also known as Adrian Vashon–whose birth certificate cites Carlos Castaneda as his father, although another man was actually his father–says Cleargreen became a cultlike group that came to control Castaneda's life.

"Those people latched onto him, stuck their claws in him and rode him for all he was worth," said C.J. Castaneda, who operates two small coffee shops in suburban Atlanta and calls himself a powerful brujo. "I don't believe the will has my father's signature, and I don't believe he was competent to sign it three days before he died."

Deborah Drooz, Carlos Castaneda's lawyer and executor of his estate, said she witnessed the signing with another lawyer and a notary public. She said that Castaneda was completely lucid when he signed the will and that C.J. Castaneda had no claims. She denied that Carlos Castaneda's followers were anything akin to a cult and said C.J. Castaneda's claim did not constitute a serious legal challenge.

"No one, none, of Dr. Castaneda's followers participated in the writing of the will," she said. "And one thing that was very clear for years was that Dr. Castaneda had not had a relationship with C.J. Castaneda, or Adrian Vashon, for years, and he was very clear he should not benefit from Dr. Castaneda's death."

Invariably described as an impeccable person who kept his affairs in perfect order, Castaneda apparently signed the will on April 23, and then died at 3 A. M. on April 27 of what his death certificate said was metabolic encephalopathy, a neurological breakdown that followed two weeks of liver failure and 10 months of cancer. The signature is partly obscured, and C. J. Castaneda and his mother, Margaret Castaneda, say it does not look like Castaneda's signature.

He was cremated within hours of his death. His death was kept secret for more than two months until word leaked out and was confirmed by his representatives, who said the death was kept quiet in keeping with Castaneda's lifelong pursuit of privacy.

His will cited assets worth about $1 million, a modest figure for an author who sold so well and apparently lived simply. All his assets were given to the Eagle's Trust, set up at the same time as the will. It is not clear how much in additional assets had already been placed in the trust, but a London newspaper recently estimated his estate at $20 million.