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A rocky path to enlightenment

Island author reflects on his practice, from shaky beginnings.

Take a 1960s hippie romance, add the Hell’s Angels, soul music, the space shuttle and a 35-year love affair, mix with spirituality, and you have Michael Lisagor’s “Romancing the Buddha: Applying Buddhism to Daily Life.”

Michael and Trudy Lisagor were 19 when they ran away, the same day she graduated from high school in 1969, horrifying Trudy’s parents.

“I was a hippie living in a car, and they weren’t happy with me,” he said. “We left, and we never came back. I was madly in love with her, and she was rebelling.”

The teen couple stayed at Yosemite but decamped in haste when the Hell’s Angels arrived. They returned to Los Angeles, living on a Venice porch for three months.

“We were going to live in a car,” Lisagor said. “We had taken the back seat out of a Chevy, and somebody took us to a Buddhist meeting and I thought, ‘this is it, I can be a priest.’”

Both Jews by birth, the two were drawn to Buddhism – although, Lisagor admits that his initial attraction was to the notion that priests didn’t have to work.

But the couple started chanting and never stopped.

Their nascent Buddhist practice would be interwoven in their day-to-day life, a point made clear in the lucid essays collected in “Romancing the Buddha.”

Lisagor self-published the book, culled from 15 years of writing published in a Buddhist newspaper, The World Tribune. The tome sold 3,000 copies, and a commercial publishing house will put out an edition next April.

“It’s an easy way to learn about Buddhism because I’m sharing my life,” Lisagor said. “Actually, the point wasn’t to make (readers) Buddhist, the point was to share.”

Seamlessly weaving familiar bumps in the marital road – child-rearing, the work world – with such truly uphill climbs as his depression and her multiple sclerosis, the slim volume demystifies what may still seem to some an exotic practice.

Far from capricious or superficial, the Lisagor’s Buddhist practice clearly becomes, over time, the foundation on which the family is built.

After a turbulent year, the young couple settled down.

“I was in a black soul group when we first got together,” Lisagor said, “but I either had to take the path of drugs and music, and overdose and die like the rest of my friends, or not lose my life and eventually learn how to get a job.”

They had two children, and Lisagor became an engineer. In 1982, the pair moved to central California to raise their two daughters away from the L.A. scene.

He worked on a space shuttle at Vandenburg Air Force Base, followed by a sojourn in Virginia, where Trudy returned to school.

Her new teaching career, the graduation of their daughters from high school, their move to the Pacific Northwest – all these seemingly unremarkable circumstances were nourished and sustained by their deepening involvement in Nichiren Buddhism.

Founded in Japan 700 years ago, the sect holds that enlightenment is not reserved for holy men or for an afterlife; everyone has a potentially enlightened nature that may become manifest at any moment.

“I’m not sure with my temperament, with my personality I would have been able to grow and change my behavior to become more of a compassionate, equal partner,” Lisagor said. “That’s been a long journey, and one of the things that’s helped me to stay open to doing the work is my practice. It’s hard if there’s not a spiritual basis.”

The ongoing discipline of chanting that lies at the heart of the Nichiren Buddhist practice has been a daily effort to revolutionize their lives, the Lisagors say.

Buddhism has made peace – always the focus when the Nichiren groups they’ve been part of come together – a central tenet in both their world view and their ongoing discourse as a couple and a family.

“Even though I’ve worked in the technology field and in the government contracting side of it since 1970, I’ve been kind of an undercover Buddhist, trying my best to apply Buddhist principles in daily life,” Lisagor said. “It was an interesting challenge to do that in Washington, D.C. and in the field I’m in.”

Now, election results provide another opportunity to apply what they have learned, Lisagor says.

“From a Buddhist perspective, wherever you are is where you need to be to do your human revolution,” he said, “and this is where America needs to be.

“If we don’t like America, and we think America’s going in the wrong direction, is the right answer to get angrier until we can beat these religious zealots on the right? Or is the answer to look inside first and say ‘how can I become a compassionate human being, so I can win them over with my compassion?”

He adds, “Whenever I can speak to (someone’s) enlightened and compassionate nature, I bring out something higher in my life, and something higher in their life. That can be a real challenge, but that’s my practice.”

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