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The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky

spiritualjourney [1]7,465 words

Alejandro Jodorowsky
The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky [2]
Rochester Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008

1. Introduction

Alejandro Jodorowsky is known to English-speaking audiences as the director and star of the cult film El Topo (1970). His other films (of which there are only a few) are lesser known, and his work outside of film is hardly known at all in America. But Jodorowsky is also a stage director, composer, psychotherapist, mime, and author. His books deal with the tarot and other matters mystical, and he has also published some thirty graphic novels.

Born in Chile, to parents of Jewish extraction, he lived and worked for many years in Mexico where he studied under a Japanese Zen master. He now makes his home in France, where he stages elaborate psychodramas and offers free tarot readings. In short, Jodorowsky seems impossible to categorize.

But there is a common thread running throughout his life and work, and that thread is a spiritual quest. Jodorowsky might, therefore, plausibly be described as a lover of wisdom, less plausibly as a “mystic.” All that Jodorowsky does—even the comic books and the mime—can be understood as playing a role in this quest. This is a man seeking enlightenment not through religion or philosophy, but primarily through art. As anyone knows who has met him or seen him interviewed, this is also a man who is wonderfully, hilariously strange—and wise.

The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (a translation of Mu: Le maître et les magiciennes)[1] is an autobiography of sorts, though of a strangely impersonal sort. Details about Jodorowsky’s work and personal life (his wife and many children are scarcely mentioned at all) are included only insofar as they are relevant to explaining a further step in the quest. These steps are a series of alliances with strong, charismatic women. (What the wife thought of this is not recorded.) However, the most powerful influence—and the catalyst for these alliances—is a man: the Zen master Ejo Takata.

Jodorowsky frankly admits that his spiritual quest is motivated, at some level, by a search for a father figure. His description of his childhood is pitiful: unloved by a mother who never wanted him, and tormented by a brutal father. Jodorowsky’s search for wisdom is a search for love, and for benevolent, order-giving authority; for the feminine and the masculine. When Jodorowsky reflects on this, he emphasizes the search for the father figure: but this search continually leads him back to the mother. In fact, early on in the book the father figure Ejo literally “rejects” him and hands him off to a woman, the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. This is providence at work, for Jodorowsky’s root problem is not so much with the father as it is with the mother: his strongest desire is to be loved and accepted. This is not the sort of love and acceptance sought by the people one finds on Craigslist, however. What Jodorowsky seeks is the love and acceptance of the universe: to know that he belongs to the universe and that, in a sense, the universe belongs to him.

Now, all of the above seems as if it constitutes the makings of a psychoanalytical interpretation of Jodorowsky’s quest—and, indeed, the makings of a psychoanalytical interpretation of mystical questing itself. And all such interpretations are deflationary. In other words, they all tend to wind up claiming that “The mystical quest is nothing more than . . .” The idea is to debunk, to demystify. But such a move is a non-sequitur. Jodorowsky’s spiritual quest is not the search for a father or mother figure: instead, the search for the father or mother figure is what catalyzed his spiritual quest.

Jodorowsky did not seek, as others with similar backgrounds almost always do, to heal himself through sex or serial love relationships. Instead, he was launched on a spiritual quest. Why? Because he has an exceptional, brilliant, and strange mind. No other explanation is possible. Had Jodorowsky been born with a conventional mind, to a conventional family—had he received an abundance of love and acceptance and attention, he would not have embarked on his spiritual journey. It is very often the case that what pushes us on to great things is precisely some lack or absence in us or in our lives. But this does not mean that all our achievements are nothing other than a reaction to that lack. Parsifal left home on what eventually became the Grail Quest no doubt partly out of a desire to get away from his mother. That does not mean, however, that the Grail Quest can plausibly be understood as matricide.

2. Ejo Takata

In the Prologue to the book, Jodorowsky naïvely tells Ejo that he has achieved the state of “empty mind, empty heart.” Ejo bursts into laughter at this and tells him “Empty mind, full heart: that is how it should be.” Jodorowsky comes to accept this correction, realizing its wisdom. And it effectively summarizes exactly what he seeks, and finds by book’s end. Ejo is saying that he must silence his mind, which acts as an obstruction to Jodorowsky’s efforts to understand himself and the world. The intellect abstracts from life in forming its theories, and we come to live, for all intents and purposes, within theories rather than within the world. In other words, the intellect abstracts from experience—and the result is that we wind up becoming abstracted ourselves: removed from life and from the present. To combat this, we must “empty our minds.”

To a rationalist (and virtually everyone in the modern world is a rationalist) this sounds like a prescription for stupidity and, if accepted on a mass scale, chaos. The assumption here is that there is nothing else in us that can provide guidance other than the intellect. (This is the personal, psychological equivalent of the hubristic modern view of history: before modern scientific rationalism came on the scene there was nothing to guide humanity other than woolly superstition.) The root assumption of Zen (which derives, in fact, from Taoism) is that when the mind is silent, the voice of the heart speaks: the voice of the sentiments and instincts. Pre-rational, pre-scientific human beings did not appear on the earth bereft of any means to guide their actions. Like every other animal we came equipped with innate drives and instincts which, if heeded, promote survival and flourishing. There is, in short, a “wisdom of the body.” And much of Jodorowsky’s spiritual journey is an attempt to silence the mind so that the body may speak.

Jodorowsky’s spiritual quest consists essentially of two aspects. With Ejo, he attempts to break down the intellect; to tame it or silence it. With the women, he attempts to break down “emotional armor” in order get in touch with the body’s wisdom. This latter part of the journey is fundamentally Tantric in character. A great deal of the book is devoted to Jodorowsky’s relationship with Ejo, and while this makes a touching and sometimes profound “buddy story” it is also often tedious.

Ejo uses the Rinzai Zen method of the koan to try and help the intellectual Jodorowsky “learn to die.” A koan is a question to which no rational answer can be given. The most famous koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” In Rinzai monasteries, students would be given koans by their masters, and would try to answer them. Any attempt to answer them in straightforward, logical terms would be rejected (for, indeed, such an answer is really impossible).

The point of the exercise is to get students to let go of the intellect entirely and to open to an experience of the world itself, free of the entanglements of theory and language. Such an experience is called satori. The masters would look for some genuine sign that a student has advanced to this stage—and often it might consist in a completely illogical, but strangely “appropriate” response to the logically insoluble koan.

It is obvious that Jodorowsky delights in koans, and much of the book is taken up with them. It is this material that becomes, after awhile, tedious and may seem largely pointless to the reader. For how is the koan technique supposed to work if one already knows the “trick”? I may very well be missing something here, but if one already knows that the point of the koan is to push us beyond intellectual understanding, what is the point in trying to “answer” a koan? If it is impossible to give a logical answer to a koan, then won’t just about any answer do? Nevertheless, Jodorowsky and Ejo proceed as if they believe there are “correct answers” to koans (we also are told about the existence of a book which contains the “correct answers” to all the classic koans). The following exchange is typical:

“It never begins and it never ends. What is it?”

“I am what I am!”

“How does the intellectual learn to die?”

“He changes all his words into a black dog that follows him around!”

“Do the shadows of the pines depend on the moonlight?”

“Pine roots have no shadow!”

“Is the Buddha old?”

“As old as I am!”

“What do you do when it cannot be done?”

“I let it be done!”

“Where will you go after death?”

“The stones of the road neither come nor go!”

“If a woman advances on the path, is she your older or younger sister?”

“She is a woman walking!”

“When the path is covered with snow, is it white?”

“When it is white, it is white. When it is not white, it is not white.”

Reading this, I was reminded of the following exchange between Batman and Robin from the old, 1960s Batman series. The Dynamic Duo are attempting to solve some conundrums left for them by the sinister Riddler:

Batman: Robin, listen to these riddles. Tell me if you interpret them as I do. One: What has yellow skin and writes?

Robin: A ballpoint banana!

Batman: Right! Two: What people are always in a hurry?

Robin: Rushing people? . . . Russians!

Batman: Right again. Now, what would you say they mean?

Robin: Banana . . . Russian? I’ve got! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!

Batman: Precisely, Robin. The only possible meaning.[2]

Robin’s “solutions” to the Riddler’s riddles are about as arbitrary as Jodorowsky’s “solutions” to Ejo’s koans. This leaves us with a problem: if we are wise to the Zen trick, how then do we kill the intellect? I myself studied briefly with a Zen master and gave up precisely because of this problem. When my American Zen master was first given a koan by his Japanese master, he told me he responded with a fully-worked out speech about silencing the intellect and listening to the heart, etc. His master responded (in broken English): “Your idea perfect. But is only idea.” In other words, you’ve got the “Zen theory” but you have not realized its truth in your life. How do we go about doing that? There can be no single answer here, applicable to everyone. The koan gimmick worked for Jodorowsky, and that is fine. It may, however, leave the reader cold.

Ejo Takata was born in Kobe, Japan in 1928 and began his study of Zen at the age of nine in the monastery at Horyuji. In 1967 he emigrated to the United States and wound up in California, where he was quickly adopted as a guru by some hippies. It took Ejo only a couple of days to peg these people as narcissistic phonies—and soon he had hitchhiked his way to Mexico. Some time later he met Jodorowsky, also a stranger in a strange land, who promptly involved him in his all-nude stage production of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. (Ejo appeared on stage—fully clothed—meditating throughout the entire production.) As mentioned already, early on in the tale Ejo “expels” Jodorowsky, telling him, “You think that you can only learn from men. The archetype of the cosmic father dominates your actions.” And he sends him to “study” with Leonora Carrington, saying “Let her give you the inner woman who is so lacking in you.”

3. Leonora & the Tigress

On Jodorowsky’s first meeting with Leonora she greets him with the words, “Are you the mime that the Japanese sent to us?” And she rechristens him “Sebastian.” Jodorowsky’s apprenticeship consists largely in being under foot in Leonora’s household, where he becomes absorbed in the affairs of her strange family (her husband Chiki wears a beret that he never removes). Surrealist hilarity ensues as Leonora paints and utters her own koans, to the bafflement of Jodorowsky:

Everything lives because of my vital fluid. I wake up when you sleep. If I stand up, they bury you. Who am I? . . . We shall transform ourselves suddenly into two dark, dashing Venezuelan men drinking tea in an aquarium. Why? . . . A red owl looks at me. In my belly, a drop of mercury forms. What does it mean? . . . A transparent egg that emits rays like the great constellations is a body, but it is also a box. Of what? . . . Only bitter laments will enable us to cry a tear. Is this tear an ant?

Jodorowsky achieves an epiphany when Leonora unveils her portrait of the Mexican film actress Maria Felix, at a party held at the actress’s home. Felix stares transfixed at her own image then scans the room. All eyes are upon her, worshipping her, including those of her dog, Eldra. “Even the dog desires me!” she cries in a moment of supreme self-affirmation. Jodorowsky realizes that he has never truly felt desired—by anyone or anything. “I had always lived with the feeling that nothing really belonged to me; in order for the world to belong to us, we must believe that the world desires us. Only that which desires us can be ours.” He begins to work on himself: to try to arrive—somehow—at the realization that the world desires his existence.

Jodorowsky soon discovers that he is desired by one Irma Serrano, a cabaret actress popularly known as “The Tigress.” Rumored to be the mistress of Mexico’s president, Jodorowsky portrays the Tigress as the ball-busting female she-devil from hell. She has had multiple plastic surgeries to reshape her breasts, buttocks, cheeks, chin, lips, and other parts. Her body is cold and hard to the touch. The surgical filling in her calves alone weighs four pounds. Jodorowsky witnesses her lathering black dye onto the long hairs on her legs: “I want them to see that I’m not another Indian but the descendant of Spaniards!”

On their first meeting, the Tigress and Jodorowsky imbibe vast quantities of mescal. Through an alcoholic haze, Jodorowsky fires off a koan: “Which is the way?” Refreshingly, she responds, “I’m not a railroad track.” Eventually they wind up in bed, where the Tigress orders Jodorowsky to enter her. The mescal and the Tigress’s castrating, she-devil persona have shriveled Jodorowsky’s penis down to the size of a cashew. And to top it off she declares, “If you don’t get it up, I’ll tell the journalists, and all of Mexico will know that you are impotent.” Nevertheless, after “a short but agonizing moment,” Jodorowsky succeeds in getting hard. (“I am very virile,” he has confessed in interviews.) But the sexless, marble-bodied Tigress doesn’t desire an orgasm. The act of penetration is enough: Jodorowsky has passed the test.

The Tigress declares that the two of them will stage a sensational new production of Lucrezia Borgia in which she, naturally, will play the title role—and they hatch an elaborate plan to generate publicity. Together, the Tigress and Jodorowsky attend a convocation of Mexico’s journalists, in the middle of which, by prearrangement, Jodorowsky’s wife Valerie bursts in wearing a phony plaster cast on her leg. She accuses Jodorowsky of having an affair with the Tigress—an accusation Jodorowsky appears to confirm by his behavior towards both women. (This is, by the way, about the only time Jodorowsky’s wife is mentioned in the book.)

The event generates a scandal and tremendous advance publicity for Lucrezia Borgia. But on the eve of the premiere it is apparent that the Tigress has still not learned her lines. Jodorowsky and the other performers are furious, and they walk out and abandon her. The Tigress is hardly fazed by this at all, however. She simply stages her own production of Lucrezia Borgia across town, in which she appears nude, stalking around on the stage repeating lines fed to her by an off-stage prompter. This production runs successfully for two years. Meanwhile, Jodorowsky remounts his own production of Lucrezia Borgia with a different, better, fully-clothed actress. It runs for four months.

The episode with the Tigress is fascinating—but it is hard to discern what, if anything, he learns from her, and how she represents a stage on Jodorowsky’s spiritual journey.

4. Doña Magdalena & the End of Zen

Jodorowsky’s next “spiritual bride” is Doña Magdalena, who rescues him from a gang of street urchins bent on raping him in an alley. “Leave him alone! He belongs to me!” she cries, and they pull their pants up and scatter. Then, addressing herself to the terrified Jodorowsky she advises, “Don’t give so much importance to being penetrated.” Magdalena takes Jodorowsky back to her home, where she strips and then goes to work on his body—spending hours scraping it with a blunt knife and massaging his organs. Strangely enough, this turns out to be one of the most profound and interesting parts of the book. She tells Jodorowsky:

If bones are beings, then joints are bridges across which time must pass. Every one of your ages continues to live in you. Infancy is hidden in your feet. If you leave your baby stuck there, he will impede your walk, dragging you into a memory that is both cradle and prison, cutting you off from the future and trapping you in a demand that cannot give or act.

Jodorowsky comes to realize the ways in which painful memories—memories, for example, of abuse by his parents—have become locked in his body, especially his muscles. Magdalena’s work, like that of a Reichian therapist, is to help his body to free itself of this “armoring.”

The theories that guide Magdalena’s practice are an eclectic combination of ideas borrowed from here and there. Discussing the spinal column she states that it culminates in the cranium, “in ten thousand petals opening to the luminous energy pouring down from the cosmos.” Magdalena’s theories are, in essence, a wedding of Reich and Kundalini. They are the sacralization of the Reichian body. Liberation will consist in a freeing of the body—but this is a sacred path; a path to feeling (not thinking) one’s unity with the source.

At one point, Magdalena tells Jodorowsky that the contractions of the muscles “give you the sense of existing.” This is an important and profound idea. I had always thought that one of the benefits of yoga was to help us “get in touch with the body.” But after two years of practicing it, it occurred to me that the point of yoga was actually to eliminate the feeling of having a body at all.

We speak, of course, of “having a body” partly due to the way our language works, but also because we are often so uncomfortable in our skin that it does indeed feel like the body is an other. We tense our muscles, grind our teeth, walk and sit hunched over, feel tension in the pit of the stomach, or in the form of a headache. Babies are born without any of this. These problems develop as a result of negative life experiences—and are particularly acute in modern people. Hatha yoga is a technique that leads to bodily mastery, and involves the development of flexibility and control. It helps us to overcome the patterns of physical “armoring” that have become fixed in us. And the net result is that one gradually overcomes the sense of opposition between the self and the body. Or, to put it a different way, one becomes one’s body.

Predictably, the highlight of Jodorowsky’s encounter with Magdalena is when she goes to work on his genitals. As I have said before, Jodorowsky’s spiritual journey is a Tantric one. Magdalena introduces this portion of her “therapy” with the following observations about the difference between the male and female sex organs: “For us women, our internal sex is visceral. But for you men, this viscera has become an organ. We feel our vulva as a creative center, whereas you feel your phallus as a sort of companion, a pleasurable tool, and you separate it from your emotional center. Now lie down, I am going to show you the roots of your sex.”

I will not attempt to describe what happens next. Suffice it to say that as Magdalena manipulates Jodorowsky’s organs, she discourses on the nature of the sexual center and its relationship to the rest of the body, and to the body’s subtle centers, and to the cosmos. Again, her remarks betray the influence of Kundalini, mixed together with elements of Taoist theory about the circulation of chi.

Throughout this section, one wonders just how much Jodorowsky is embellishing the words of Magdalena. At one point, for example, he says that “She awakened my vital energy by causing my navel (which she called Eden) to sprout four intangible rivers branching into thirteen centers in my body, which she called temples.” Indeed, one wonders throughout the book about the words Jodorowsky attributes to others, and the degree to which he has exercised a certain license in setting forth his recollections. But ultimately this is a completely unimportant issue. What matters here are the ideas themselves—whatever their source may be—and their relevance to our own lives.

The final stage of Magdalena’s therapy consists in her getting down on her hands and knees and washing Jodorowsky’s shadow—cast on the floor behind him—with lavender-scented soap and water. At this point I laughed out loud. I don’t feel, however, that this reaction in any way diminishes my fundamental conviction that this is a book of great profundity. It just also happens to be extremely funny (in the same way that Jodorowsky’s films are both profound and funny). I am even prepared to believe that there may be something to shadow washing. Furthermore, that these people were able to do all of this apparently without being drunk or stoned should be an inspiration to us all.

In any case, the experience with Magdalena lasts forty days. At its conclusion, Jodorowsky walks down the street: “I no longer felt that the weight of my body was a burden. Instead, it was a link of union with this mirage I called reality. Every step was a caress, every breath of air was a blessing. These sensations were so surprising that I felt as if I were living in a new body and a new mind.” His transformed state is an expression precisely of that which I was trying to get at earlier with my remarks about overcoming the feeling of “having” a body, or of becoming one’s body.

There follows a new episode with Ejo, which constitutes the climax of Jodorowsky’s dalliance with Zen. Realizing that Jodorowsky is going through a spiritual crisis, Ejo decides on a rather dangerous measure: rohatsu. This is the Zen Buddhist equivalent of the U.S. Marine “Hell Week”: constant meditation for seven days, with only very short breaks for sleep and eating. It is a practice regularly carried out in Japanese Zen monasteries. One can easily imagine, however, that in some individuals it could precipitate a psychotic break. The point does, in fact, seem to be to bring about a crisis of sorts—and this is exactly what occurs in the case of Jodorowsky.

At one point, unable to take it anymore Jodorowsky leaps up and leaves Ejo sitting zazen. He rushes out into the night, wanting to be around ordinary people (not monks), wanting to be humdrum (not mystical). He dives into a nightclub, only to find himself feeling “like an extraterrestrial who, after a long interstellar voyage, arrives in a prison. The dancers seemed like galley slaves, going through their motions; smoking their tobacco and marijuana; ingesting their alcohol, cocaine, and pills; aware of only this tiny sliver of time and space.”

Jodorowsky is in the uncomfortable position of all lovers of wisdom who have advanced quite a way down the path. He feels utterly alienated from ordinary people, almost seeing them as if they were a different species. Yet in a way, oddly, he yearns to be one of them again—to be “ordinary” and uncomplicated. Many intellectuals live in this tension—feeling that they have somehow transcended ordinary life, yet halfway yearning to be ignorant again. They may even envy ordinary people, seeing them as more connected to the world.

The truth, however, is that most ordinary people are just as disconnected from the world, in their own way, as the intellectuals are. The meagerness of their knowledge, and the narrow range of options of which they are aware impoverishes their experience. Their ability to truly appreciate life is roughly commensurate with their understanding of it. The tension the intellectual experiences between enlightenment and life is actually a dialectic which ought to resolve itself in the following realization: that enlightenment is not an abandonment of ordinary life but actually an indescribably intense experience of it. The wise man is not otherworldly but profoundly this-worldly. And one reaches this state—I believe—through a radical acceptance of the facticity of the world, acceptance of that which is irreducibly other and unchosen. (This is what it means to “annihilate the ego.”) True mastery of life is possible only in one who has recognized the impossibility of mastery.

Jodorowsky returns to the makeshift zendo. He has had his moment of clarity:

I realized that I was alive for a duration of time that was infinitesimal within the eternity of the cosmos, and what a privilege, a gift, and a miracle this life was. This instant of my existence was the same instant in which the stars were dancing, in which the infinite and finite were united, in which were united the here and the beyond, the perfume of the air and the memory within all matter, the gods of imagination and unimaginable energy, lights and abysses, colors and blindness, the humble sensitivity of my skin and the ferocity of my fists—but also the miserable peasants, the soldiers, the imbecilic fat man, the passengers in the train chattering like monkeys, the cloud of dust following the bus: all of this was a remedy if I accepted it as such so that it was transformed by my vision. The world is what it is: a remedy instead of the poison I had believed it to be.

5. Reyna the Robot

Enter Reyna D’Assia, the daughter of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky’s chapter on Reyna is, in many ways, the highpoint of the book. It is certainly the Tantric highpoint and comes quite close in many places to being pornographic. It is also probably the best brief account—and critique—of the ideas of Gurdjieff that I have ever come across. Jodorowsky meets Reyna in Mexico City after a screening of El Topo. She introduces herself to him as the daughter of Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky is dressed as the character he plays in the film—in a black leather cowboy outfit. Together, they take a taxi to her hotel, necking the entire way. In her room, she asks him to penetrate her, still dressed as El Topo (the Mole). Jodorowsky does so, but before he can start thrusting, Reyna’s vagina begins vibrating and convulsing around his penis. “A few seconds later, my semen flooded her. I had three successive ejaculations.”

Reyna takes full advantage of the refractory period to teach Jodorowsky a few things. (In fact, she never stops talking.) She explains that she learned these sexual techniques from her mother, who was taught them by Gurdjieff. “Gurdjieff taught my mother to awaken and develop her soul by developing a living vagina.” Since Reyna claims to have been the product of a brief encounter between Gurdjieff and her mother, one wonders just how quickly such sexual skills can be imparted. Credulity is strained further when Jodorowsky describes Reyna squatting down and absorbing several olives, which she then fires from her vagina with such force that they ricochet off the ceiling. Reyna blows out a candle using her vagina—which seems a bit anticlimactic after the olives. But she manages to top that by inserting a thread into her vagina and—what else?—knotting it.

Finally, Reyna’s vagina sings with a voice Jodorowsky likens to “the song of whales,” and to the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. This reduces him to tears. Reyna comments: “In the most ancient times, women chanted lullabies with their vulvas to make their babies sleep, but as this art became lost and forgotten, children ceased to feel they were loved. An unconscious anxiety settled in the souls of human beings. That whimpering of yours expresses the pain of having a mother with a mute vagina, but we are going to resolve that.”

Central to Gurdjieff’s mysticism is the idea that for much of our lives we live under the control of “the robot,” by which he means that we are fundamentally unconscious. We spend most of our waking lives unconscious—acting automatically. A simple example would be driving. How often have we driven someplace we frequently go, and literally been unable to remember driving there? Clearly, we had to have been “conscious” in some fashion, else we could not have negotiated the traffic. Yet, we acted robotically. Our minds, our self-awareness were, in a more important way, shut off. The trouble is that most people go through their entire lives like this. The robot even takes over in sex. The goal of Gurdjieff’s system is to “remember the self,” and to put the robot out of commission. In this there is, however, a great irony—as anyone knows who has ever had contact with Gurdjieffians. These people are extremely robotic. Everyone I have ever known who was into Gurdjieff seemed tightly controlled, humorless, obtuse, and utterly lacking in spontaneity.

What happens next in Jodorowsky’s account is a concrete illustration of this irony: machine-like, Reyna proceeds to perform a number of physical and mental “tricks”:

Standing on her left leg, Reyna D’Assia traced a figure eight in the air continuously with her right leg. Meanwhile, her left hand continuously traced a square and her right hand a triangle. All the while, she recited a seemingly chaotic succession of numbers. . . . “Listen carefully: 2 ×8 = 16. If I add the 1 and 6, I get 7, you understand? No? Another example: 8 × 12 = 96 and 9 + 6 = 15 and 1 + 5 = 6. Therefore 8 × 12 = 6.”

And on and on and on. Further tricks are performed until she begins to seem to Jodorowsky like a “sinister machine.” Finally he grabs Reyna and essentially tells her this. In true Gurdjieffian fashion, she dismisses him as a poor fool who, if only he could advance a little further on the evolutionary scale, would be able to understand the serious purpose of these exercises. They quarrel over this until Jodorowsky puts an end to it like a true Tantrika: “Shut up and let’s fuck again!”

Reyna’s philosophy, like Gurdjieff’s, is a mixture of sense and nonsense. At one point she tells Jodorowsky, “you have been trying to transcend the body, whereas you should be submerging yourself within it to become so small that you arrive finally at that inner offering that is your birthright—that indefinable diamond that we call ‘soul’ but which is beyond words.” This is sound advice and makes Reyna seem like a Tantrika herself. But she is deeply confused. In spite of this assertion about submerging oneself within the body, and in spite of her remarkable sexual skills, Reyna is witheringly cerebral. As D. H. Lawrence might say, she’s got her sex—and her Tantra—in her head. Jodorowsky confronts her with this:

The pain you have undergone in order to live in accord with what you believe to be your realization is enormous. Yet how can you really live in peace while making such strenuous efforts? Where is everyday tranquility in all this? The simple pleasure of eating a piece of bread next to a river, of doing nothing, or walking in the street, smelling the wet asphalt after a rain, watching a flock of sparrows fly without wondering where they’re going? What about simple weeping in grief as we scatter the ashes of a loved one in a beautiful landscape, or speaking of ordinary, unimportant things with a child, an old woman, or a madman . . . ?

“What bad taste!” Reyna responds, and then—predictably—she suggests that he is suffering from herd mentality. The goal of the spiritual quest is evolution to a higher form of consciousness—and the universe itself is evolving toward a state of “pure thinking.” In short, the Gurdjieffian philosophy is yet another progressivist ideology promising some future state of perfection as the only thing which can make the here and now meaningful. The adherents of such ideologies—whether they are Marxists, Christians, Ken Wilburites, Aurobindonians, Gurdjieffians, Liberal Democrats, Neoconservatives, or whatever—have one thing in common: a disconnection from the present, from the body, and from nature. The present state of the culture and of humanity is undeniably rotten, and it is perfectly natural to hope that the future may bring something better. But these ideologies, in one way or another, denigrate the pursuit of happiness in the here-and-now, on earth—and in the process denigrate pleasure and beauty. Furthermore, because they insist on the perfectibility of man they must deny any version of biological determinism, no matter how mild. Hence the disconnection from, and often outright hatred of, the body.

Jodorowsky isn’t buying any of this. Nevertheless, he agrees to travel with Reyna to Monte Alban, a six-thousand-foot mountain flattened by the Zapotecs for ritual purposes. On the way, in the back seat of their chauffeur-driven car, Reyna shows Jodorowsky “how the larynx can perform astonishing movements if it is vibrated simultaneously with the aid of certain Tibetan mantras.” At the Zapotec pyramid, Reyna attempts to free a stone in order to cause the pyramid to “produce life.” Jodorowsky has now had enough. He finds a flower growing between the stones and cries out to her: “You see, the pyramid doesn’t need your help in order to produce life. . . . Reyna, I remain convinced that you give too much importance to effort. Stop carrying so many heavy stones! Allow something to be born in you that is not a product of your will . . .” She is livid with anger and throws the stone at Jodorowsky’s head, narrowly missing him. Then, incredibly, Reyna undergoes a transformation. She concedes Jodorowsky’s point, wholly and completely. “I must find another way,” she says.

The other way consists in visiting a sorcerer named Don Prudencio Garza, who lives several miles away, in the desert. Reyna and Jodorowsky go on foot to find Don Prudencio. When they do, the grizzled old man feeds Reyna mushrooms which are said to produce “real, physical death.” If one is lucky, however, one can return transformed—having come back from a profound vision quest. Jodorowsky—who does not partake of the mushrooms—is ordered to remain absolutely silent, lest Reyna wake up as a demon and drink his blood. Don Prudencio feeds Jodorowsky some goat’s milk laced with what turns out to be a sleeping potion. When Jodorowsky awakens, Reyna has returned from her inward journey. “I am the same yet not the same,” she says. “The process unfolded in me as the sorcerer said it would: At first the mushrooms made me lose all sensation of my flesh and bones. I realized then that I had always lived in my body as if it were a prison. As I began to lose it, I felt an intense love and compassion for it.” (It would have been safer to have taken Reyna to Doña Magdalena, who produced a similar effect in Jodorowsky, but Magdalena disappeared shortly after finishing her work on him.) Jodorowsky also learns that when Reyna returned to consciousness she found Don Prudencio raping her (no doubt this was the reason he gave Jodorowsky the sleeping draught).

A few years later, Jodorowsky receives a letter from Reyna D’Assia with a photograph of herself and her daughter. “I don’t know whether her father is you or Don Prudencio,” she writes.

6. Conclusion

The final episode of the book takes place a decade later. Jodorowsky has returned to Mexico to give a lecture at the University. Jodorowsky’s visit occurs just two weeks after the death of his young son Teo in an accident. He is struggling to deal with this loss, in the midst of fulfilling his numerous commitments. And now he must lecture on “enlightenment” to a crowd of college students. To his surprise and joy, Jodorowsky finds Ejo in the audience, and they are now reunited. Later, Ejo consoles him with a single Spanish word: duele (it hurts). What more can be said?

The two men, however, are now greatly changed. Both are, in fact, ready to leave Zen behind. Ejo has realized that much of Zen practice is too rigid and formal, and has its origin in historical developments that are anything but spiritually motivated. Jodorowsky has filmed The Holy Mountain which ends with the realization that there are no “spiritual masters” and that the quest for them is folly. This abandonment of Zen may seem disappointing to some, but it should not be. After all, as they say, once one has reached the opposite shore it would be silly to pick up one’s raft and continue to carry it around.

Has Jodorowsky (never mind Ejo) reached the other shore? Has he achieved Enlightenment? In order to answer this question, we have to have some idea of what Enlightenment is. In a 1994 interview Jodorowsky states, “All this Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan stuff, it’s all bollocks. Enlightenment doesn’t exist. We are all enlightened, we just don’t realize it. The great mystery is to be alive now. Nothing else is as important and incredible as being alive. It’s an incredible mystery. What more do we need to look for?”[3]

As we have learned from Jodorowsky, Enlightenment (for lack of a better term) is certainly not a leaving behind of the body. And if we are embodied, and if we accept that, then we are finite and vulnerable. Hence Enlightenment, if it involves acceptance of the body, cannot be a state of invulnerability. Nor could Enlightenment be a state of all-seeing, all-knowing. The acceptance of the body and of finitude goes hand in hand with the acceptance of the state of not-knowing: an openness to the mystery of being. And this is the basis of paganism, and of radical Traditionalism.

Modernity is essentially a war against finitude or limitation of any kind. Modern people—openly or tacitly—reject the idea that there should be any limits on the mind’s ability to understand or to improve upon nature, or themselves. They regard the cycles of nature and the cycles of life as something to be overcome. Why shouldn’t youth last forever? Why can’t we overcome death? Why can’t we have babies in our seventies? Why can’t we engineer better tomatoes? Why can’t we spend more than we earn? Why can’t both parents have careers? Why can’t we have stable marriages and sleep with whomever we like? Why can’t money buy happiness? (It might not have in the past, but things have changed, haven’t they?) Why can’t we enjoy all our consumer goods, and still be “green”? Why can’t we have a cohesive society made up of people who share neither culture nor language? Why can’t women be as masculine as men and men be feminine? Why can’t Heather have two mommies?

We reject any suggestion that there may be necessities in life, meaning things that can only be one way, and not another. And we especially deplore the idea of biological necessity—i.e., the idea that the body may limit us. Radical Traditionalism is, at root, a call to return to our ancestors’ acceptance of finitude: their recognition that certain things are unchangeable, and that all attempts to change them lead to disaster. Paganism has the same root. “The gods” show themselves precisely in that which resists us. The gods are the mysterious facticities of life which stop us in our tracks because they are bigger than we are, and we are powerless against them. They are terrible, or beautiful, or both.

But how to return to the gods, or to get them to return to us? This is the question that nags radical Traditionalists and neo-pagans. How can we do this when all cultural forces are arrayed against us, and when we are all—if truth be told—children of modernity? Traditionalism teaches that we are living in the Kali Yuga, the Iron Age, the age of decline. In this time, the old ways seem to have lost their power. We are free to consult the runes and call to Odin. No Christians will burn us. But we do so fourteen floors up, as the air conditioner hums, and the Olestra gurgles in our innards. The earth, the water, the air, and our bodies have been developed, explored, cultivated, irradiated, and, generally, trashed.

In this age, the only honest path open to us is the left hand path: taking that which debases and corrupts lesser mortals and using it as a means to self-transformation. This is Tantra, and this is what Jodorowsky’s book is about. What does it accomplish, exactly? Empty mind, full heart. The way back is not through mimicking the outer forms of the culture of our ancestors. It is through transforming our consciousness into some semblance of theirs. In other words, through taming the intellect and its tendency to fall into hubris; through silencing the mind and letting the wisdom of the body speak. As I said earlier, we did not spring upon this earth without any means to guide us, until modern rationalism came along. We came equipped with natural sentiments, instincts, and intuitions.[4] It is these that must be recovered, for this is what it means to have a “full heart.” It is from such “empty” minds and full hearts that Traditional culture sprang. Once we have achieved this—if, indeed, we can achieve it—will we reconstitute those same cultural forms? In outline yes, for they are perennial and natural; in detail, no.[5]

This is a path to be followed by individuals, without any assurances at all that they may be laying the ground for a new world, beyond the Kali Yuga. To achieve what I have described is to make of oneself an alien in this world, but a native of the next, or of the one that has passed away. It has nothing to do with “fighting for the future,” for the future focus is one of the traps of modernity: believing that a future ideal state may confer meaning upon life in the present. No, the Tantric path is a leap of faith and a leap into the abyss: a radical embrace of uncertainty, mystery, and finitude—with no guarantees.


[1] Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (Rochester Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2008)

[2] Actually, this is from the Batman movie (Twentieth Century Fox, 1966), written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., directed by Leslie H. Martinson, and starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin.

[3] From the 1994 documentary The Jodorowsky Constellation.

[4] Incidentally, there is nothing “sentimental” about natural sentiments. They include love of one’s own—not universal love (which is impossible)—and the sentiment of “us vs. them.”

[5] The foregoing is not a rejection of neo-paganism. Our quest to return to the spiritual standpoint of our ancestors may include studying their beliefs and, in some cases, doing as they did. I merely mean that without a radical, internal transformation of consciousness, neo-paganism is a conceit. Of all the theorists involved with neo-paganism, it is Edred Thorsson who takes the most promising and philosophically sophisticated approach. Thorsson openly declares himself to be a practitioner of the left hand path, while at the same time attempting to reconstitute and revivify the pagan ways of his ancestors. Such a synthesis is possible in Thorsson’s case because he takes Odin himself to have been a devotee of the left hand path. Thorsson’s “Odinism,” therefore, is not worship of Odin, but rather an attempt to achieve an “Odinic consciousness.” The left hand path, obviously, cannot be practiced in the abstract, and must take concrete form as a specific practice. Thorsson draws his practice from the pagan Germanic tradition, augmented by elements drawn from modern left hand path teachings.