And I say to you: When someone leaves, someone remains. The point through which a man passed is no longer empty. The only place that is empty, with human solitude, is that through which no man has passed. —César Vallejo

Blue Cowl, John Randall Nelson, 2007, mixed media on panel, 30 x 25 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gebert Contemporar, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Blue Cowl, John Randall Nelson, 2007, mixed media on panel, 30 x 25 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gebert Contemporar, Santa Fe, New Mexico

We sometimes passed a billboard in L.A. that digitally tallied how many had died that year—thus far—from smoking. (It is there still.) If I was driving, he’d literally cover his eyes when we approached, wincing in disapproval. Each time he made that gesture, I was surprised and moved: yes, it was true, he’d endlessly instructed how one should use death as an advisor—“I have said it until I am blue in the face”—but the roadside version wasn’t at all what he meant. No learning, no urgent poetics came from numbers that might well have been a telethon’s tote, and nothing evoked the teachings of his lineage: to intendawareness with each breath, for such is the birthright of the impeccable being who is going to die. None: merely another ad, a crude binding upon the clear green chakra of the heart, and it filled him with sorrow . . .

Today the winds are high and piercing. They shake the house and shiver the skin: ineffable, gusty, gutsy, merciless. They come in wild, majestic packs—from left field—at once sentimental and indifferent. They do not care.

They blow in from the ocean of awareness.

From “the border” . . .

Their respirations conjure a major melancholy: my teacher. He is ten years gone—or something like that—I’m incapable of taking measurement. Of crunching the numbers. The space they whistle through isn’t really about my teacher anyhow, though I do miss him at this precise moment, terribly, which is unusual, because most times I feel like he was never here, and also that he never left.

He assuredly did not believe in goodbyes.

He used to speak of ontological sadness, what he called “the sadness of the microbe,” lost in the nebulae.

Perhaps it was this too: I once heard a rinpoche talk about the mixture of joy and sadness befalling those who take responsibility for the wellness, pain and ignorance of sentient beings. How to lead the blind?

There is a chant that begins with the Tibetan word kyema. Sadness, weariness, wariness. A certain sorrow.

The wind is haunting and brings its own effulgence:

The unbearable clear light-ness of being.

Of awareness—

The Nagual used to begin lectures with this simple entreaty: “Please suspend judgment.”

How harshly I have judged those who were privileged to write of their teachers, some in these very pages! I viewed such essays as pretentious exercises in false humility—anecdotal rose petals of self-importance flung at the sangha. Now here I am, writing of my “root guru,” the Nagual Carlos Castaneda, with whom I studied, so to speak, for ten years. He always told me I was arrogant, and back then I wondered: But how? In what possible way? How could he even think this?

One day my teacher said that he was compelled to bring me “to the border.” He said he had failed to do that very thing, long ago, with another, and his debt must be paid.

Egotistically, I thought, “I have entered one of his Tales of Power. I might even rate a chapter in a new book.”

Sometimes it is a great teaching to be so wrong.

Only now am I beginning to understand the potent elegance of the phrase’s impossible simplicity: to the border.

The Nagual Carlos Castaneda was not an easy man to find, especially if one went looking. It is curious that our first encounter was at a brunch in Santa Monica.

I should briefly explain: nagual can denote many things. In my teacher’s case, the word was associated with the leaders of a distinct ancient lineage of Mexican sorcerers. For me, it is an honorific of great respect and affection as well, equivalent to rinpoche or roshi. He also used nagual in his books, to denote the realm of dreaming—“the second attention”—as opposed to “the first attention” of everyday life, or tonal.

I’ve always liked the employment of that word, attention. He told me that his teacher, the Nagual don Juan Matus, had literally saved his life. Carlos Castaneda asked what he could do to repay him. Don Juan Matus answered, “Give me your full attention.”

In my teens, transfixed by Henry Miller’s Big Sur, I threw away my wallet and hitched a ride north, winding up in a halfway house. In that place, I became obsessed with stowing away on a freighter to Peru. After this phase ended, I watched Kwaidan and read the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, cultivating a sudden, powerful desire to move to Honshu, where it seemed that both the living and the dead were startled to discover they had somehow changed places. I sobbed over Tobias Schneebaum’s flamboyant attempts to obliterate his identity in Keep the River on Your Right. Even though this gorgeous memoir contained a well-known epigram from The Teachings of Don Juan, I had not yet read Carlos Castaneda. I was seventeen.

The quote Schneebaum chose was this:

Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, the path is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

I’ve left the passage intact because Mr. Schneebaum’s instincts were correct. The phrase “path of the heart” is too often removed from its original context. Torn from its nest, the abbreviated bird still sings the loveliest of songs, yet too easily becomes the dove of peace, a slogan, a greeting card emblem.

The Nagual told me that I needed energy to even find such a path. To do so, he encouraged me torecapitulate my life. While such a discipline has a parallel in meditation—the ends are the same, the means different—the energetic act of recapitulation remains unique to his tradition. During the recapitulation, attention is paid to inbreath and outbreath as one performs a studied remembrance of every single being one has ever known or encountered, from parents to intimates, lovers to friends, acquaintances to strangers. You begin by compiling a list; many of those on that list have names—many cannot. The compilation itself can take months. The very act of list-making distracts the mind; the recapitulation is a lifelong preparation for entering silence. (It was of curious note for me to read a lecture in which Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of a practice “known as smrti, which means ‘recollection.’”) Another activity exclusive to Carlos Castaneda’s lineage is the discipline called tensegrity, a word my teacher borrowed from Buckminster Fuller to describe the vast suite of physical movements called “magical passes” that don Juan Matus taught his students, and which are taught to this day. The modern version of those ancient passes is another way of quieting the inner dialogue in order to court silence.

One night at dinner I told him, as Almodóvar put it, “todo sobre mi madre”—all about my mother. Afterward, we wandered outside. He pointed to the night sky and spoke with casual scholarship and warmth, as if the stars were old friends. He showed me Coma Berenices. Such was my ignorance that I’d never even heard of this constellation, yet I was touched because my mother’s birth name, a name she ultimately rejected, was Bernice. Again, he spoke about the act of energetically recapitulating one’s life, and I was reminded of a stunning chapter in The Autobiography of a Yogi called “Outwitting the Stars.” Paramhansa Yogananda wrote that man can escape the destiny imposed on him by the stars, the constellations of which were actually there as a goad and reminder from his moment of birth. “The soul,” Yogananda wrote, “is ever free; it is deathless because birthless. It cannot be regimented by stars.” The shamans of Carlos Castaneda’s lineage described a force called the Eagle that devoured awareness as our bodies came to the end of their usefulness. The recapitulation provided a facsimile of one’s life experience that the Eagle accepted, allowing one to enter the realm of pure consciousness and be free.

I have always been devastated by the beauty of that.

 Geai bleu, Francis Picabia, 1948, oil on board, 41.5 x 32 inches, Courtesy Waddington Galleries, London; Photograph © Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Geai bleu, Francis Picabia, 1948, oil on board, 41.5 x 32 inches, Courtesy Waddington Galleries, London; Photograph © Prudence Cuming Associates, London

Time is spherical. Now I was thirty-five and writing my first novel. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories, it was about an aspiring screenwriter whose spirit was broken by Hollywood. I met the Nagual at brunch in a private home. He was ebullient, gem tlich, gregarious. I liked him instantly. He told me of the studios’ attempts—even Fellini’s—to adapt his books. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with the man who wrote Journey to Ixtlan.

We had many lunches after that, and I slowly came to understand he was and would be my teacher.

We traveled to Mexico. He showed me places that had been of great significance on his journey. We visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; the pyramids of the sun and the moon; the caves of Cacahuamilpa; and Tula, the Toltec capitol that figured in The Eagle’s Gift and The Art of Dreaming. At dusk, the church opposite our small hotel and the benches of the town square filled one with longing, blurring the borderlines.

But what were his teachings?

“They are simple,” he said, “but not easy.”

Last year, I had a pivotal dream. I was set upon by dogs that threatened to tear me apart if I mistepped. I was able to remain relatively calm; eventually, with the help of bystanders, I escaped. But just before awakening, a voice informed, “These dogs are from another dimension. This is how it is going to feel—and this is how it is going to smell. This is the beginning of how it is going to be.”

In shock, I lurched to the computer and wrote everything down. What set this apart from a “normal” dream was this: rather than being feral, the dogs were bizarrely composed of purebreds, including poodles and chihuahuas. (The Nagual had spoken to me of just such incongruous indicators. He called them scouts or “foreign energy” that invited one to a broader awareness.) Since the vision had terrified me so, it needed to be closely examined, and manipulated by intent. I remembered something extremely useful he had said: One can change the course of dreaming through intent, just as the course of rivers are changed by the erosion of wind and Time. Through the act of recording my dream, I could see how my initial interpretation was malevolent, yet it slowly became clear that the dogs were bringing an enticement to awareness. This was their gift.

As I went deeper, I saw that the beasts were indifferent—reminders not to run from my responsibilities as a sentient being. Around the time of this dream, I’d been going through one of those periods in which everyday life seems pernicious and threatening. The dogs were warning me to stay sober and vigilant, to accept the help of the Other. (For me, the “Other” is that evoked in the metta bhavana prayer, or lovingkindness meditation: the friend or acquaintance, the parent or teacher, the lover, enemy, or stranger. From The Way of the Bodhisattva: “Those desiring speedily to be / A refuge for themselves and other beings, / Should interchange the terms of ‘I’ and ‘other,’ / And thus embrace a sacred mystery.”) They were herders and border dogs. The horror show had been provoked not by them but courtesy of the usual source: Bruce Wagner.

To lack awareness is the real terrain of nightmares.

The border is here, not elsewhere.

I didn’t have the energy to follow those dogs—

But so what?

Of course, to become self-important because of one’s small epiphanies is yet another turn of the dreaming screw. There is a superb quote from Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche that evokes the same images: “When a dog comes upon lungs, it considers them to be so delicious it wants immediately to gobble them up; just the same, when we meet with any superficial teaching, whatever it is, we voluntarily sink ourselves into it or grab onto it.”

In Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying, the Dalai Lama is in conversation with a group of social scientists and meditators. He speaks of the Tibetan tradition of dream yoga, noting that some people are able to access thedreaming body by natural talent alone. The Dalai Lama talks about a woman “of sound mind” who stayed on a mountain behind the Drepung Monastery. She spoke to him of having watched the disciples of an old lama fly from one side of the mountain to another. (At a retreat, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was asked, “But what should one do while lucid-dreaming?” To which he replied, “Play around! Go to other worlds! Visit the realms of the gods!”) The Dalai Lama and the Rinpoche were speaking of the Meditation of Non-Meditation—what Carlos Castaneda called dreaming or not-doing. I always thought I had failed miserably as a dreamer. It was hubris to think that dreaming could not be enacted in the “first attention”; that reality was a place of no-mystery—of doing, instead of not-doing.

Not to believe in the dream of everyday life.

It is so easy to conjure permanence.

To imagine paths leading to goals and endgames.

The Nagual’s lineage taught that each of us has a “double,” or energy body, that waits for us beyond the border—the home we return to upon rejoining the Source. He said the energy body could be accessed in ordinary life, but this act required impeccability. The double could be summoned only from a place of innersilence, of discipline and acquiescence. I now associate the dreaming or energy body with the deity or Buddha within; the Buddha that is sometimes visualized—or teacher, parent, Other, et cetera—during meditation, and even, as I have read, with the visualization of oneself in the form of the deity that occurs in the “transferring of consciousness” practices called nirmanakaya phowa and sambhogakaya phowa.

Tender for all that, Francis Picabia, 1945, oil on cardboard, 25 x 21 inches, Courtesy Waddington Galleries, London; Photograph © Prudence Cuming Associates, London
Tender for all that, Francis Picabia, 1945, oil on cardboard, 25 x 21 inches, Courtesy Waddington Galleries, London; Photograph © Prudence Cuming Associates, London

Why is it that the life and death of the body still takes us by surprise? (A devotee in Taxco was shocked when the Nagual excused himself to urinate.) My teacher said that whenever we needed to be reminded of our birthright as magical beings, we had only to note the profound shamanic act required of us daily in order to share the consensus of the social order. The world, he said, is held together by spit. He famously wrote of the moment that his own teachers left, how he saw a line of “exquisite lights” that reminded him of the plumed serpent of Toltec legend. Some who met Carlos Castaneda and were interested in the journey insisted on getting their money’s worth—a backstage path at Burning Man. They demanded their payment, in full: in rainbow body, in residue of amber relics, in Yaqui somersaults into the abyss. They could not fathom that when the alarm goes off in the morning, one is already forced to jump into the dream that is reality, the dream of affection and accountability, the dream that leads to the ultimate Other: the dreaming body. (The Daily Double.) To begin to know this is to begin a journey toward awareness, the border of personal power.

Once, with chilly directness, the Nagual told me, “I am not interested in sponsoring your absurdities.” It has been said that the foremost teacher is he or she who exposes one’s faults, and whose advice resonates. Carlos Castaneda was vibrantly empty, a screen that played the movies that run in our heads as we make angels or devils out of whomever we encounter. Often, those loops involve the parent: blaming the parent, competing with the parent, currying their favor, fearing and worshipping them, craving their love and attention. Teachers do not come into our lives to provide day care or psychoanalysis. I am enthralled that Ramana Maharshi’s teacher was a mountain! In my experience, obsessing on guru-as-guru without recognizing the Other as the true teacher leaves one worse off. With a teacher, it is possible to simply find a new enemy—and a new sponsor for one’s absurdities: oneself.
Even a mountain can become one’s enemy . . .

A few years back, I took a guest to attend one of Kyozan Joshu Roshi’s arcanely poetic teishos in L.A.—afterward, my friend said the roshi was a confused old man who had wasted everyone’s time. (“Time,” Joshu Roshi said on that day, “is an activity of the Buddha.” He also said that he liked the American tradition of hugging because when people hug it is a kind of meditation wherein they achieve “perfect time.” My teacher called this “stopping the world.” The Roshi also said that “the invisible realm cannot exist without the visible one.”) At a satsang in Bombay, a woman railed at me because I’d let a pamphlet written by Ramesh Balsekar touch the ground, an act she said was careless and forbidden. (Ramesh would be the first to say that her anger had no meaning beyond an expression of genes and conditioning—as he would have said of my own unpleasant reaction.) On another occasion, I went to see Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche in Northern California. A visitor who came to give thanks sat in contemptuous judgment of a stranger before learning that the object of his scorn was the Rinpoche’s awe-inspiring translator, Erik Pema Kunsang.

That scornful visitor was me . . .

I had made the pilgrimage to thank the Rinpoche for allowing me to generously quote from his Bardo Guidebook in one of my novels. Just as the pugnacious voice of Nisargadatta Maharaj in I Am That had eerily reminded me of the Nagual—the humor and eloquence, the heart-chakra emptiness—so did the essence of the being who had assembled the Bardo Guidebook remind me of the Nagual as well. They even shared an uncanny physical resemblance. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was “short and brown”—as Carlos Castaneda used to mischievously describe himself—with large, dimpled creases when he smiled. I thanked him as planned, before dramatically adding that I’d never gotten the chance to say goodbye to my teacher. (The Nagual died while I was celebrating the fortieth birthday of a close friend. He had urged me to attend the honoree’s party in New York.) I told him that I wanted to take this opportunity to say goodbye—now—and “hello” as well. I became emotional and began to choke on my words. The Rinpoche said, “I understand. There is no need for you to finish.” He touched his forehead to mine. “Your teacher and me—the same.” Then: “Perhaps we will meet again, in Tibet.”

He might as well have said “Beverly Hills.”

Or “Ixtlan”—

Your teacher and me . . . the same.

There is a perfect story written by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Garden of Forking Paths.” It’s about two men—a translator who has spent his life studying a mysterious manuscript that is also a labyrinth, and the respectful visitor who seeks him out. The cordial Translator tells the Visitor he has come to realize that the Book of Mystery is “infinite,” that it is about everything possible and impossible, imagined and unimagined, everything that is happening, everything that will happen, and everything that won’t, everything that has happened—all of Consciousness and intent. The Translator mentions an occurrence in the Arabian Nights: because of a copyist’s error, Scheherazade is forced back to the beginning of her tale, doomed to reach the part where, because of a copyist’s error, she must start over again. (Perhaps this is the ultimate metaphor for awareness gone awry—or never realized. The Wheel of Karma.) The Translator tells the Visitor that it took him a long while to realize that the single word never used in this book of books is “time”; hence, the Translator deduces that Time must be its very theme.

In The Wheel of Time, Carlos Castaneda wrote: “[Shamans] had another cognitive unit called the wheel of time. The way they explained the wheel of time was to say that time was like a tunnel of infinite length and width, a tunnel with reflective furrows. Every furrow was infinite, and there were infinite numbers of them. Living creatures were compulsorily made, by the force of life, to gaze into one furrow. To gaze into one furrow alone meant to be trapped by it, to live that furrow.” (Reality, or everyday life, is simply one furrow; my teacher spent a lifetime showing others how to break the monopoly of ordinary perception by putting that furrow first.) The Nagual Carlos Castaneda’s lineage believed that time was the essence of attention: the Eagle’s “emanations” were time and no-time itself. In that sense, Borges’s story is very much about the dream of the union of first and second attentions—the tonal and nagual—and also about what the Nagual called the three realms: the Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. The secret was to investigate the visible world, for, as Roshi implied, it contains the invisible as surely as a table contains atoms.

I am always interested in those who in rebuke, agitation, or enmity assert Carlos Castaneda’s writings to be fiction. To me, such critics are from a long lineage of teachers themselves, and I say this without irony. Even a novelist like me needs to be reminded that all is fiction. I should have said: even a novelist like me needs to be reminded that even fiction isn’t real. It’s a tonic to be reminded of the folly and “incoherence of philosophers”; that crazy wisdom is merely crazy; that the great and wondrous tales of Mahamudra may not or could not actually have occurred, nor could have Christ’s more bizarre—or banal—travails; that after cogently telling his own followers to question and challenge his concepts, the Buddha up and died of food poisoning. One needs to be reminded that the least reliable witness to an event is always the eyewitness—and that there can be no outwitting the stars because there are no stars as we understand them to be; neither is there wit. One needs to be reminded of the Nagual’s inherent or learned knowledge of chacmools—the famous stone reclining figures of Central Mexico and the Yucatan. According to Carlos Castaneda, thechacmools were warriors who had entered dreaming with the help of each other’s gaze (the double dreaming the Self and the Self dreaming the double; the merging of first and second attentions into the Buddha-field), and the weights on their stomachs were energetic tools to aid their usherings—it is good to be reminded that this is an outlandish supposition, and rather, that some chacmools were in fact athletes holding discs used in ancient sporting events; and some were priests who propped up trays employed for burnt offerings or human sacrifice. It is good to be reminded that all is Fable, be it emanations of scholar, artist, academician, or Eagle; even this epic artful dream—especially this—of man’s shared perception. It is good to know that amid this grand and grandiose fiction, the paths of the heart are indeed lonely hunters, and good too to be gently reminded of the axiom that no one gets out alive. Because in a dualistic cosmos, it agreeably follows that no one gets out dead either.

One must always be reminded that impermanence is permanent. I should have said: one needs to be reminded that impermanence is not permanent, nor is it transitory. It is simply empty. In the end, it’s of the essence to somehow grasp that Time, Space, and Memory are a fiction, and shall remain so against all of our efforts, even if one is enough of a magician to note that the truth of this fierce and beautiful planet—the appearance and events of ordinary reality—resides in select documents and myriad digital tote boards.

The Nagual talked a lot (until he was blue in the face) of the failure of syntax and the necessity to experience knowledge bodily, which is what he meant by “seeing energy directly.” He loved what T. S. Eliot said about Dante in a lecture: “It is therefore a constant reminder to the poet [substitute warrior/bodhisattva/dharma student] of the obligation to explore . . . to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them; and at the same time, a reminder that the explorer beyond the frontiers of ordinary consciousness will only be able to return and report to his fellow-citizens, if he has a constant firm grasp upon the realities with which they are already acquainted.”

Carlos Castaneda left this earth in full awareness, just as he lived—in what Buddhists call “the natural state.” I am pleased to see him in everything each day, and when I lose my footing he is there, audacious yet indifferent, affectionate yet impersonal, overflowing yet empty.

He is in my father’s hoarse voice, talking into the phone, post-chemo, as we continue the rapprochement my teacher urged me to begin so many years ago, and he is in my mother’s eyes—in her rascal’s smile and stolid vigilance, bound by boundless Time—my mother, who watches me like a hawk—an eagle!—with unbending affection—“a blank check of affection,” the Nagual used to call it—as I visit her for lunch.

Precious State of Grace 6, John Randall Nelson, 2007, mixed media on panel, 48 x 48 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gebert Contemporar, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Precious State of Grace 6, John Randall Nelson, 2007, mixed media on panel, 48 x 48 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gebert Contemporar, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mother is so happy to see me that she subtly orchestrates the meal: its portions, the order in which I eat, when to pick up my glass and to wipe my mouth. There was a time this irritated me. Last week, I went to her house. I called out but she didn’t hear me. I entered her room as she lay sleeping. Backing out, I sobbed. (I’m now of the age when one comes across the startling, poignant image of an old parent, asleep.) That is an image of her I will always carry. I fear her death, and any agonies she will endure, but that is no nightmare.

No more than was my vision of the wild dogs . . .

Like the death of a child in a dream,

Through holding the erroneous appearance
Of the varieties of suffering to be true
One makes oneself so tired.
Therefore, it is a practice of bodhisattvas when meeting with
unfavorable conditions to view them as erroneous. (from The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Ngulchu Thogme)

In the end, pain and joy are the same, democratized by Time. They are paths, forking from the garden.

Feathers of the plumed serpent—

Thank you again, my teacher, for doing your very best to show me. I am still not anywhere, and do not understand, though my blood is less vigorous. But now—at least this very instant, as I finish this puzzle piece—I can make out the one path that has meaning.

I will try to have the courage to take it.

I have heard that this path crosses the border.

I have heard that it leads nowhere.

I was once reminded that nowhere = Now Here.

A path with heart—how breathtakingly simple.

Simple but not easy.

How clever I think I am, yet I’d never have known.

And Nagual:

Why would I ever think of saying goodbye?

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