Every day at mealtime, the Master would personally take the rice pail and do a dance in front of the monks’ hall. Laughing aloud, he would say, ‘Come Bodhisattvas, come eat your rice!
~ Blue Cliff Record, Case 74
There is something in the simple act of giving, which when done as a dance of true selflessness, invites the whole universe to receive. Mario has that kind of giving, that kind of dance.
Over the last couple of months, as we enter the large and century-old Masonic Hall to set up for our Zen meetings, we are met by the lingering fragrance of food ~ chicken, rice and beans ~ cooked and served there. One day, mopping up the floor a little later than usual was Mario Couesens, who runs a food program at the hall feeding 150 people daily for the non-denominational Samaritan House.
Last week Mario sat with us and shared his most personal story: at six years old, as a child in Guatemala, he lost his mother to cancer. On her death bed, his mother asked her doctor to care for him, which he did. The physician advised the child that the only way to repay this kindness was for Mario himself to serve others. Later, when he came to the U.S. as a young man, he said, ‘I did not know how, but I had the need to help the poor’ in his new country. So he got an old station wagon and started handing out blankets to San Mateo County’s homeless, those sleeping in parks and under freeways. That was 24 years ago.
In Mario’s telling, what struck me were two things: his un-abiding joy in helping and his uncritical acceptance of his peoples’ condition: drug abuse, mental illness, family violence and the low-calorie economics of the working poor.
‘Each day, making sure I reach someone else with anything they need is so enriching for me,‘ he shared. ‘It is something I cannot put words to. When I go home there is an inexpressible joy in my heart,’ he said, laying his hands on his breast. Come Bodhisattvas.
‘And each day is a challenge,’ added Mario, talking about his people’s troubles more as a feature of the landscape than a roadblock to service. Some years ago, one of his people laid down on the railroad tracks to end his life. Several in the community came to get Mario, who talked the man off the trestle. Recently that same man contacted Mario via Facebook to see how he was doing. Come get your rice.
About 20 years ago, a woman in his community was dying of cancer and on her deathbed, asked Mario to raise her 10-year old. So he did. The boy is grown, has his own children, and works for Delta Airlines. Grandpa Mario now gets to fly anywhere he wants in the world for free. His last trip: taking several suitcases of candy to homeless children in Cuba.