ONE: The New Tarot & the Secret Doctrine that Launched the Counterculture

From New Dawn 145 (Jul-Aug 2014)

It is a little known fact that an actual doctrine lies at the heart of the counterculture of the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco that emerged in 1967. 

This doctrine expresses a new consciousness – One Consciousness – illustrated by 22 new (or reversed) tarot images. These 22 “Books of T” – known as the Word of One Tarot – were communicated through the Ouija board in 1962 and 1963 by an entity naming itself “ONE.” 

This is the story of that doctrine which, like a buried talisman, has remained concealed since those times. It is also the story of “the great crippled wizard” (as Timothy Leary termed him), who not only was instrumental in bringing these images through the Ouija board and painting them, but also in publishing them during the fabled Summer of Love.

John Starr Cooke, 1965 (Courtesy of the estate of John Starr Cooke)

John Starr Cooke was a descendant of Dr. Comfort Starr, who came to New England, USA in 1635. He was a great patron and benefactor to Harvard College, which began in 1639 on the site of his former house. Another of Cooke’s notable early American ancestors is Revolutionary War hero Joseph Platt Cooke, who was one of George Washington’s generals and was in Danbury the night the British razed the town in 1776.

Cooke’s great-grandparents Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague arrived at the (then) Sandwich Isles in 1838 as missionaries. They established the Royal School where all five final monarchs of Hawaii were educated, including the final ruler Queen Liliokulana. Juliette spoke fluent Hawaiian and had a particular gift for music. Hawaiian-style music, which endures to this day, is said to have stemmed from her work.

The Cookes left missionary work in 1850 and went into business, establishing Castle and Cooke, a farm supply enterprise, with another ex-missionary family. They met with swift and great success. 

The good fortune of the Cooke family continued as they diversified into sugar, pineapples, irrigation, railroads, shipping and banking. John Cooke’s grandparents Charles Montague and Anna Rice Cooke (also a daughter of missionaries), travelled widely, particularly to the Far East, where they indulged their passion for collecting fine art. 

The strict puritan ethic established by Amos and Juliette saw a separation between the family and the islanders. This separation was less evident by the time John Starr Cooke was born in 1920. His Hawaiian nursemaid took him to secret shamanistic ceremonies from the age of three or four. These involved chanting and dancing all night, and John became a very young initiate.

The women in his family were immersed in Theosophical ideas, Madame Blavatsky, Swami Vivekananda, G.I. Gurdjieff, Annie Besant and Krishnamurti. On his mother Lily Love’s side, the Love family were bakers. It was often said in John Cookes family that the Loves had come to the islands to cook, and that the Cookes had come to the islands to love.

Anna Rice Cooke left a great legacy to the world in the Honolulu Museum of Art. She donated land, the building, her personal art collection and enough money to run the museum in perpetuity. At the opening in 1927, no doubt attended by John Starr Cooke, the traditional Hawaiian blessing was most likely performed by David “Big Daddy” Bray, a lifelong friend of John.

Tarot Cards & Ouija

On one of his many visits to San Francisco, Cooke, aged nine, was at a hotel and felt ill. Deciding to play some solitaire, he went downstairs to purchase playing cards. However – to his horror! – he bought something altogether more strange: Tarot cards. He considered the images to be evil and threw the cards out the window. According to his sister Alice, on a different occasion curiosity got the better of John and he bought a second pack, only to again throw the cards out the window. Incredibly, he repeated the whole process a third time! 

John’s mother Lily died in 1933, and his father took him on a long cruise soon afterwards. John later recalled that on this trip he met Cole Porter, and that Porter wrote the song ‘Begin the Beguine’ for him. This is part of the reason John produced the photograph of himself, with the inscription “BEGIN.” After the death of their mother, Alice became a mother-figure to the young John. 

By the age of fifteen, he was a seasoned traveller, with numerous trips to San Francisco. With his sister Alice, John started using the Ouija board at 19. 

In 1943, Cooke was married, on the advice of the Ouija board, to Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea, who became known as Millen Cooke. Millen Cooke was a poet, occultist and Science Fiction author, most prolific between May 1946 and May 1950. She was published in such magazines as Amazing Stories, Fantastic Fiction and Other Worlds Science Stories. She was also a chela of a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist monk, and had a deep understanding of kundalini yoga. John’s father Clarence Hyde Cooke died in 1944.

John Cooke and Millen Cooke on their wedding day in 1943

John and Millen Cooke travelled around Europe, with John studying medieval tarot decks and tracking down various holy men. They spent a lot of time in London. During this period, Millen dictated, while in a dream state, a set of Tarot images which John subsequently drew. These were issued in 1992 as the Atlantean tarot, part of the Word of One Tarot boxed set.

John had encountered Meher Baba briefly in Europe in the mid-40s. In 1948 he was able to assist the followers in California to purchase a mountain property in the Ojai Valley in California, known as Sulfur Mountain and subsequently as Mehermount. 

Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard was released in mid-1950, an instant bestseller. When Millen Cooke read Dianetics later that year, she was so enthused that she immediately went alone to New York to explore this new work with serious practitioners. John followed Millen to New York, where he joined the Dianetics practitioners. 

Mary Oser had come to New York from Basel, Switzerland on a mission. Her husband Peter Oser was fantastically rich but terribly unhappy. Nothing Mary could do would bring him out of his torpor until she encountered Dianetics, and had some success. She needed to find a competent practitioner of Dianetics so she went to the centre of Dianetics activity in New York. She found John Cooke and realised she had found the right person. Cooke returned to Basel with her. 

In Basel, Cooke ran the household along Dianetics principles. This seemed to work for Peter Oser, and he became a blind follower of Cooke. On one occasion, Peter was driving and asked where to turn. John said “right here,” indicating a crossroad some distance ahead. Peter followed John’s word so closely that without even a moment’s hesitation, he turned right, and straight into a ditch.

Millen and John were divorced in 1951, and she was briefly married to John’s friend and associate William Belknap Jr. The Belknaps were both into Dianetics. Millen later married Brinsley Le Poer Trench, with whom she co-authored some seminal works on flying saucers. 

The Oser household in Basel, Switzerland, was under John’s direction and also under the direction of the Ouija board. One day the board indicated they should travel at once to Central Africa. Within three hours they had packed up and left, with John convincing Peter to buy an aeroplane at the airport.

Tangier & the Naqshbandi Order

John Cooke lived in North Africa for the next six years, mostly in Tangier. He became associated with a Sufi sect, the Naqshbandi Order, and among them he was known as Sufi Rashid. He went deeply into their system of initiation, and danced to their drumming with his own whirling dervish style. The group came to look upon him as a great healer and the reincarnation of Hassan, a blue-eyed Muslim from nine centuries earlier. He never considered himself Muslim, although travelling with the Naqshbandi Order meant that Muslims assumed that he was. Thus he set foot in a certain holy Muslim city, the first non-Muslim to do so in over a thousand years. 

In 1952, John and Mary married. In 1954 they became associated with Brion Gysin and his famous restaurant, The 1001 Nights. Gysin later described the Cookes as looking like very rich hippies with “veils and spangles and bangles,” ten years before their time.

Brion Gysin in 1956 at John and Mary Cooke’s home in Algeria

In early 1956 they travelled to London. John Cooke was about to purchase a Tarot deck, which had belonged to Aleister Crowley, and was annotated in Crowley’s hand. At the home of Alexis Lykiard, Cooke was warned against buying these cards by Lykiard’s father. Lykiard Sr predicted dire consequences should Cooke proceed; Cooke bought the cards and returned to Tangier. 

Mary purchased a wing of an old colonial-era palace near Algiers and renovated it. The time came to move there to live. She was about 7 months pregnant when, in August 1956, John made arrangements to leave Tangier and join her in Algeria. 

However, the Naqshbandi had no intention of letting John Cooke leave Tangier. Membership was a lifetime affair. If he was to leave, he must pay the penalty. At the railway station, where he went to buy his ticket to leave, a cleaner said “Oh you’re leaving?” “Yes, I am” said John. “Oh, you really think so?” At the bank soon afterwards, as he entered, a white shawl was placed on his shoulders by a person known to him. As he left the bank, he suddenly tore it off and collapsed, feeling a sudden burning sensation, as if he had been stung by a scorpion, consonant with a feeling of being hit hard at the base of the spine. He was paralysed from the waist down. 

Mary paid Brion Gysin to close down The 1001 Nights and to come to Algiers and look after John. Gysin became the godson of their child.

After some unsuccessful attempts at treatment, John Cooke returned to the US, and never walked again. John was interested in a total miracle, or nothing else, according to his sister Alice. Told he would be able to walk again with the aid of crutches, he refused to become an object of pity, preferring the dignity of the wheelchair. 

Cooke, the Wizard

An apparently miraculous new mystical technique was announced to the press in November 1957 by actress Eva Bartok. She claimed to have been cured of cancer by the methods of Subud. At this time, John took an interest in Subud. He helped finance Pak Subuh to come to the US, who was welcomed by John and Alice on arrival.

John Starr Cooke & Michael Bowen (Courtesy of the estate of Michael Bowen)

From 1958 the Subud group became a meditation group centred around John. He moved to a clifftop mansion at Carmel, California, and his reputation as a “real wizard” grew among the Beat community of San Francisco’s North Beach area.

One of those attracted was Michael Bowen. He walked in to John’s living room, where John sat at a coffee table, with a plain envelope in front of him. “Those are Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards,” said Bowen. According to Bowen, those cards, inside that envelope, had Crowley’s very small and neat handwriting all over them.

Crowley had predicted a new aeon, and many now point to the 60s as evidence of Crowley’s Aeon of Horus. Although Crowley’s Thoth deck filled out the existing imagery of the cards with the symbolism of Thelema, the archetypes themselves remained largely unchanged. Would a new aeon require a new tarot? According to John Cooke, there was a prediction made by Madame Blavatsky in the Theosophical Society magazine Lucifer that a new Tarot would emerge in the latter part of the twentieth century.

And now begins our story, that of the emergence of the Word of One Tarot, and its place in history.

Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, is said to have predicted in her Lucifer magazine that a new tarot would be revealed in the latter half of the 20th century.

Word of One Tarot

On 17 August 1962, four people met at John Starr Cooke’s cliff top home in Carmel, California. They had been meditating regularly since 5 February, when a seven-planet conjunction in Aquarius had occurred. The group expected this conjunction to bring some kind of a consciousness shift that would affect all of mankind.

Discussion this night turned to John Cooke’s use of the Ouija board for the last twenty-three years and as a result, an impromptu Ouija session was held. Cooke drew the letters of the alphabet on a large piece of paper, and for a planchette (the moveable pointer), used a silver dollar. He tried one person, then another as co-operators, without success, until he teamed up with Bill Eaton, whereupon the planchette moved swiftly around the board. They were in communication with an entity that later identified itself as “ONE.” 

The group conducted another session twelve days later, and continued to do so every week or two for the next fifteen months, totalling over one hundred sessions. 

During the seventh session, Cooke asked a question about the tarot. The response was that revisions would be forthcoming, and in that session new names were given for the Fool (Nameless One) and Hanged Man (Hanging Man). 

Between October 1962 and May 1963, the ONE described the complete 22 New Tarot cards and John Cooke painted the images as the instructions came through. Below are the 22 new Books of T with the old Tarot trump names.

The New Tarot images can be viewed in full here:
The New Tarot images can be viewed in full here:

The sessions stopped altogether in November 1963, when Cooke moved to Mexico. He was soon followed by his chief disciple Michael Bowen. They had already discussed staging a great event aimed at reversing society’s thought processes, as outlined by ONE, an event which would be historically recorded and serve as a reference point for the future. In Mexico, they continued to formulate what would become “Reversal USA.” 

LSD & Timothy Leary

In the midst of the reception of the Books of T, John Cooke and the group held an LSD session. LSD was at that time a legal substance, but there was no certainty as to its proper place – whether it was in the church, the psychoanalyst’s office, or to be freely available. 

Cooke understood the Books of T (also known as the New Tarot, or the Reverse Tarot) to represent a change in man’s unconscious in the present time-period. His recent experience with LSD showed him how this consciousness could be experienced; how unity could be known. He saw LSD, like the Books of T, as a tool for understanding love as the basis of reality, for understanding the unity of all things as the ultimate truth. To this end, Cooke was in favour of the sacramental use of LSD. 

Professor Timothy Leary was in the news at that time, achieving his initial infamy. His LSD experiments led to his being sacked by Harvard and deported from Mexico, where he had established an LSD colony. By late 1963, however, Leary, with Dr. Richard Alpert and Dr. Ralph Metzner had been offered a large estate near Millbrook in upstate New York, where they continued their work.

Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), Harvard, 1961

Cooke wanted to find out whether Leary and his colleagues were for good or ill in the psychedelic movement, and he wanted to bring the Books of T to their attention. 

John Starr Cooke had put his fortune to spiritual ends several times already. Meher Baba, the Naqshbandi Sufi order and Subud had all been recipients of his generosity. Now, once again, he bankrolled a new spiritual philosophy – only this time it was his own doctrine of One Consciousness. Michael Bowen was his means of achieving this. 

After some months in Mexico, and after Bowen had been initiated under Cooke’s supervision, Cooke sent Bowen on his way. For the next few years, he provided Bowen with funds and guidance from time to time. Bowen’s mission was to find, befriend and evaluate Leary. The aim was for Leary to join them in their work on the reversal of society.

Bowen and certain others became known as Psychedelic Rangers, roaming protagonists for LSD. The Rangers were loosely under Cooke’s control and undertook various psychedelic revolutionary activities. 

And Bowen is going on. He has no choice. The forces behind his symbols are relentless. He is a pawn as well as an artist and would be overtaken if he slowed. So, by observing his work we may glimpse our own energies. It is a breathtaking trip. Look, reflect, and see yourself.
– John Starr Cooke, letter to Rosalind Sharpe

Michael Bowen moved to New York and in 1965 made his way to Millbrook to meet Leary and his associates for the first of several visits. Bowen had brought with him reproductions of the paintings Cooke had made of the Books of T. Ralph Metzner was impressed with the images, later writing: 

When I first encountered the images of the “Reverse tarot” here described and presented I was immediately struck by their evocative force. Unlike the images of the old Tarot deck, which (to me) had appeared lifeless, these had a kind of direct electric-emotional “charge,” and some of them were strongly reminiscent of images found in dreams or under the effects of certain chemicals.

However, these “certain chemicals” were under legislative attack. In April 1966 Millbrook was raided by the FBI. Michael Bowen, who was present at the raid, soon left for San Francisco, at John Cooke’s suggestion.

Bowen had introduced Leary to the idea of a new religion, the League for Spiritual Discovery, whose sacrament was LSD. The League was to be cellular, with no central management. The central tenet was that LSD taken in private, on private property, was a private concern. It had been obvious for some time that it was only a matter of time before LSD became illegal. The League was an attempt to provide an appropriate setting for the drug before such legislation was enacted. Leary announced the League in September 1966.

A Prophecy in The Oracle

In San Francisco, Bowen joined Allen Cohen on the staff of the Oracle, the main counter-culture newspaper of the Haight Ashbury district. For the past couple of years, the Haight Ashbury had grown as a hip centre, aided by the availability of LSD on the streets since early 1965. 

However, LSD was to become illegal on 6 October 1966. Bowen and Cohen understood the futility of angry protest, and instead organised “a celebration to demonstrate opposition to legislative repression of chemical mysticism.” The Love Pageant Rally, as it was named, was promoted in the first issue of the Oracle in late September 1966. 

Bowen wrote a Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence, which posited the expansion of consciousness as an inalienable right, and this was also included in the Oracle’s first issue.

Be-In poster by Michael Bowen & Stanley Mouse

At 2pm on 6 October, the Prophecy was read out at the Love Pageant Rally and those hundreds assembled broke a brand-new law in unison. The point being made was that Americans were free under their Bill of Rights and their Constitution to alter their consciousness. It is a personal matter, and not the province of government.

The Love Pageant Rally was such a success that it led to the creation of a similar event, but on a much larger scale. This was the Human Be-In on 14 January 1967. 

When Bowen was at Millbrook, he stood on a bridge over the lake. He thought about the great event he and Cooke had discussed as he dropped pebbles into the lake and watched the ripples spread. It occurred to him that for the ripples to reach the furthest shore, a big splash was required. With some effort, he dropped a boulder into the lake – watching, satisfied as the ripples reached the far shores. 

The big-splash event which Bowen had envisaged was the First Human Be-In. Many people contributed to the creation of this grand event, but Bowen was the driving force behind it. 30,000 people came to the Be-In in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The Be-In was designed with no particular stars of the show, the speakers all limited to three minutes each. There were bands, but none were promoted. It was an event designed specifically for people – even the people on the stage – to just being with each other. This allowed an authentic sense of One-ness to occur. 

The poster by Michael Bowen for the Human Be-In is a snapshot of a moment in American spiritual history. It marks the moment when the first apostles of One Consciousness created an American spiritual event which allowed a mass mystical experience of unity. 

According to Michael Bowen and many others, for about six months after the Be-In, the sense of One-ness persisted in Haight Ashbury. There was a psychic harmony, a telepathic connection at a day-to-day level. 

Michael Bowen was actively involved in the Haight Ashbury community. At the press conference for the Council for a Summer of Love in April 1967, alongside the other forces in the community, he was the representative of the Church of One. 

History records that the Summer of Love came to pass. Estimates of the numbers of young people who descended on Haight Ashbury in the summer of 1967 usually begin at 100,000 and go up to about 300,000. It was a significant time in history, and the whole world seemed to suddenly switch from black and white to colour.

Bowen had some of the images of the Books of T reproduced as large meditation posters, published by East Totem West the Haight Ashbury early in 1967, and then in August 1967 came what John Starr Cooke termed “the perfect jewel in its perfect setting.”

The Books of T

To Cooke, the Books of T were the perfect jewel; the perfect setting was the Oracle in the Haight Ashbury during the Summer of Love. This publication of the Books of T stands, in a way, as an acknowledgement that One Consciousness had thrived in the Haight Ashbury since the Be-In. 

However, the pageant was now over and a mass exodus from the Haight began. 

The magical act had been accomplished. The new doctrine had been documented at a particular point in history, that point itself influenced by the said doctrine. Michael Bowen now left the Haight Ashbury and joined John Cooke in Mexico. 

In October 1967 Bowen wrote a letter to the Oracle, exhorting the V-for-Victory hand signal be adopted by “ALL” as the next step of Reversal USA. It was swiftly taken up and became known as the hippie peace sign. 

In 1968, John Cooke and Rosalind Sharpe published T: The New Tarot. In early 1969, Ralph Metzner added an introduction. Preparations were made to finally release the Books of T as a deck of cards. 

At this time, Cooke mailed William S Burroughs the new edition of T: The New Tarot, of which Burroughs did a cut-up, and they began a correspondence which lasted about three years. Burroughs ordered a set of the cards, although he was mainly seeking Scientology secrets, which John, never being a Scientologist, did not have.

A final ONE Ouija session took place, which included Ralph Metzner. 

In May 1969, The Process was published by John’s old friend in Tangier, Brion Gysin. The novel was based upon a series of adventures Gysin and Cooke had shared in the mid-1950s. Cooke is characterised as Thay Himmer, “Bishop of the Far-Out Isles.” On page 122 he enters the narrative: “He was funny, hilarious even, to look at but he looked, also, very very rich in his regulation threads of camel, cashmere, vicuna and Thai silk.”

Many of the incidents in The Process are taken from real life and give a sense of what Cooke was like. In a letter to Burroughs, Cooke says he wished Gysin had included more real events, like the time he was chased by wolves while skiing in Norway!

By the end of 1969 the Books of T had been published as a tarot deck – the New Tarot for the Aquarian Age. As well as Burroughs, Ken Kesey was another underground luminary who ordered a set. But the Books of T were and remained an obscurity to all but a devoted few. 

Jordan Rivers corresponded with John Cooke after buying the New Tarot, and visited him in Mexico in 1972. Rivers says: “John told me that the Hippie/Love movement started in his living room in 1962. I didn’t understand what he meant by that for many years.”

Jordan Rivers, John Starr Cooke, Brita Corrae & Pablo, Tepotzlan, 1972 (Courtesy of Jordan Rivers)

In 1975, John and Rosalind Wall published The Word of One, the edited transcripts of the ONE Ouija sessions. In 1976, John appeared in the short film ‘Prophecy of the Royal Maze’, before dying in August 1976.

A new edition of the Word of One Tarot was released by the Cooke family in 1992, and these are once again available (click here to purchase a pack).

The Books of T do not proclaim a new way. Rather, they indicate the breakthrough of the way in our time, and the time to come.
– John Starr Cooke

John Starr Cooke and Michael Bowen worked to their program of “Reversal USA” to bring the Books of T into the light of day. It was a magical working, the intention being to embed this new mystical doctrine deep in the heart of a new society, a doctrine which reflected their society at that transformational time. According to Michael Bowen, it was all about creating a future humanity firmly established upon the consciousness of ONE.

The Haight Ashbury is still with us. Right now you can get the latest Rolling Stone magazine, or drop in to Govindas for a vegetarian meal, or pick up some produce at the organic food cooperative, or at the health food store, or maybe something to read at the new age bookshop on your way to Yoga class after which you might go to a psychedelic rock show. All of this stuff flourished for the first time in the Haight. 

The hippie movement had its day and faded; however, the Word of ONE remains. It is a foundation stone of the new Aeon and a foretaste of the zodiacal precession from Pisces into Aquarius. 

There is One only. You are that One. One is being. One is in motion. That motion – that being – is love. 

All New Tarot images are copyright Catalyst Enterprises, and are reproduced here with permission. The Process by Brion Gysin is still in print. The Word of One Tarot is available. Websites devoted to John Starr Cooke’s legacy and the New Tarot are & The short film ‘Prophecy of the Royal Maze’ can be viewed here.

This article was published in New Dawn 145.
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About the Author

Mark Campbell Walker is a writer and researcher with a particular interest in the mystic side of the Sixties. He is a co-founder of the website, which is dedicated to continuing the legacy of John Starr Cooke and Michael Bowen.

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