Samsara : 300 km Pilgrimage, 2016

I went out running from Helsinki to Jyväskylä on the midsummers eve in 2016 with an intention of getting there in time to open my photography exhibition a week later. The exhibition would consist of photographs taken along my route depicting the Finnish countryside in its full glory.
Eventually I ran a half of the trip (150 kilometers) and used the pictures from the first leg of the journey. A few weeks later I returned where I had left off and walked the remaining 150 kilometers.
This deep internal experience lead to my ongoing collaboration with the Zen Peacemakers International.
See my pictures and my report from both journeys below.

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Samsara : 300 km pilgrimage / Part 1.

I went out running from Helsinki to Jyväskylä on the midsummer eve with an intention of getting there in time to open my exhibition a week later. The exhibition would consist of photographs taken along my route depicting the Finnish countryside in its full glory. I was prepared to spend many nights in the cold rain, but this backlashed in a dreadful way. My backpack was way too heavy and there was no water available anywhere during my first day out. I had to run much further on my first day than I had anticipated. Running 70-kilometers with a heavy pack proved to be a very bad mistake. The second day began with a very promising way on a porch of a closed down petrol station. I was rested, but dreadfully thirsty. The petrol stations did not have water available when closed and most of them were closed for the midsummer festivities. I also noticed that I possibly had a stress fracture on one of the metatarsals of my right foot. It was a bit bruised and swollen. This was bad news. I spent four hours jogging slowly to find an open supermarket to get some water. At this point I was entering to a more densely populated area and I thought that adding more weight to my pack with overloading it with excess water was not worth it. I only filled my two bottles. I believed there would always be places to get water. How wrong was I.      

I was heading to the shores of the Lake Päijänne to camp over there. The distance of 70-km did not feel that bad. But the weather got extremely hot. The sun was beating very hard. The accumulated distance, bad posture (caused by the heavy pack) and hot/humid weather began to cause more issues. My left foot was badly blistered and extremely painful. The sandal on my right foot began to feel more tight as it continued swelling. The sun began to overheat my body and I had to drink much more than I usually do. I stopped by a church somewhere to sit inside to meditate my condition. I also had a chance to drink and fill my bottles. This was around the time where my death-march began. I still had about 25-kilometers to go. I put on my socks to prevent more friction on my blistered soles, but I was still hopeful of getting to my destination. There was supposed to be some petrol stations and a holiday resort along the way, but both of them were closed and had no access to water. I had to ask people for water many times along the way. They often just left their yard and slammed the door. This was much more unnerving than my own situation. The unwillingness to help people in need really trashed my own willingness to endure unnecessary pain any longer. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I was beginning to suffer. As the pain on both of my feet was getting unbearable I suddenly realized that there are currently millions of people around our wealthy countries who are desperately marching towards a safer place to raise their families. And in these instances, it is not just the men, but also the pregnant women, small kids and old people too. The realization of their pain was the most important lesson for me. This journey was no longer about getting all the way to my physical destination. It was about something else. Having the doors slammed in from of my thirsty eyes was the most effective demonstration of cruelty, not easily forgotten. On the second day of my journey I had the mental transference to the marching refugees. 

This was an extremely enlightening experience not easily forgotten. This experience was enough to demonstrate that we live a privileged life. Our wellbeing is built on cheap labor of the unfortunate and exploited. Our cheap clothes, electronics, exotic foods and minerals are all parts of the chain of interaction in which we are the beneficiaries. Although we have abolished slavery and intentional exploitation on our own turf, we cannot avoid it in our globalized economy. Human trafficking is a everyday problem even here in Finland. According to Buddhist thinking our own selfish desires produce a circle of suffering, also known as Samsara, from which we can also liberate ourselves from. Our contemporary society is defined by the selfish pursuit for our own satisfaction, by the direct or indirect exploitation of others, by the personal accumulation of unnecessary wealth, and by our xenophobic attitudes. This legacy is rather abominable.

The week prior to this trip I had attended a pilgrimage from Vadstena to Linköping as a sound-guy for a documentary film by director Rabbe Sandström. The reason for this pilgrimage was to raise consciousness for Swedish arms export. Per capita, Sweden is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) exporters of military equipment. The group (consisting of my fellow Zen practitioners also included Christians and Agnostics) used the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers as a guideline as they had Council circles with a myriad of people involved in positions including refugee crises, unemployment and military industry. The pilgrimage ended at Linköping at the front of Saab military factory. The Saab personnel offered to meet five of us but without cameras. I stayed outside across the road with the rest of our crew and soon after we arrived, the security guards confiscated our cameras and Rabbe was interrogated by the police. The Saab people also disturbed our peaceful demonstration by kicking our belongings and telling us to “get a job”. Well, this is my job. Alongside with Sweden, Finland is also producing military equipment for international markets. This is a massive problem, but apparently the Finnish politicians have lost their political correctness long time ago, when they began to revitalize our economy on the expense of moral judgement. The biggest concern on arms exportation to unstable countries, is the fact that the arms usually end up to wrong hands. Not all of them go to the good guys. It would be naïve to suppose otherwise. It would also be naïve to suppose that there’s no correlation between the millions of refugees and the arms industry in Scandinavia. Our wellbeing is built on the platform of suffering of so many people trying to survive. We should be more conscious of the effects of our own behavior. 

My trip to Sweden was extremely moving from many respects. Of course such an intensive process has the tendency to bring people close to each others. It was extremely difficult to depart from Sweden and go back to Finland. Of course I missed my wife and son, but my plan had already been to leave to my pilgrimage to Central Finland the very next day.      

My trip from Helsinki ended to a closed down farm which was supposed to be a holiday resort. I was very close to a proper camp site, but my moral was crushed by the cruelty of the people denying me access to water. I decided to sleep over and continue in the morning. My dear wife Maija called me and asked if I wanted to get back home. The offer was extremely welcome and few hours later she and my son found my improvised shelter by the farm road. I was very deeply moved by the compassion I was offered. I learned that, in the end my trip was not about getting to my destination. It was about understanding the interconnectedness. How our own behaviour effects others. And how we might be able to help those less fortunate, who desperately need help. 

One of the reasons for this trip was to photograph the Finnish landscapes for my exhibition at Bar Vakiopaine in Jyväskylä which opened on Friday July 1. 2016. I did manage to do this. The images depict the peaceful atmosphere where people live in prosperity and among resources which could provide a platform for a lot more people. What I learned is that we cannot slam the door in front of a thirsty traveller. We simply can’t. 

Samsara : 300 km Pilgrimage / Part 2.

The second leg of my 300 km pilgrimage   I travelled back on July 24. to the place where I stopped my first attempt to reach Jyväskylä on foot from Helsinki. The original idea was to run the whole 300 kilometers. As it happened, that was not possible with my physical abilities with a backpack containing all the necessary supplies. However, I was not defeated. I always try to learn from such consequences and this was no exception. My first attempt about a month ago ended up in pain and the resulted suffering caused a mental transference to the sufferings of the numerous people currently fleeing from their homes devastated by the violent wars. Our beautiful country remains a safe haven for ourselves and it could serve as a home for many others who would desperately need a new one. I also bore witness to the suspicious and hostile attitudes from my countrymen, who often moved indoors slamming their doors as I tried to approach their houses in a need of some water. My second trip began from Asikkala where I left off on the first time. It’s a beautiful and secluded rural area about 140 kilometers up north from Helsinki. It was still about 155 kilometers from my destination. My first day was pretty much uneventful, nice and sunny day. I spent half of the day walking the small countryroads criss-crossing the sunny farms and small patches of dark forests. On the second half of the day I finally arrived to the main road which is one of the main arteries of the Finnish transportation. I followed this road for most of the remaining three days.      

I walked about 50 kilometers on my first day. I woke up in my humble camp on a tiny beach next to a small residential area when an elderly lady came for a morning swim. Her big and wet highly inquisitive dog named Lobo was eagerly sniffing through my stuff as I packed up and chatted with the lady. The second morning looked bright and sunny, but I had a tender and bruised spot on my left foot that needed some taping. I walked about 50 kilometers on the second day too. Most of the time I just tried to focus on my breath and tried to be thankful for the aching foot which kept my mind clear and focused. It was a hot day and I had to stop often to fill my water bottles. Stopping to ask help from strangers was the best part of this trip. People were kind and helpful and as I didn’t need more than some water, they were always happy to provide help. The second day ended up in a parking lot of a fancy holiday resort in Himos skiing center in Central-Finland. I was very happy to remain as an outsider in that area. I lit up some incense sticks to repel some of the fierce insects as I cooked some brown rice with miso-paste for dinner. It was a good day even with the tender foot. My foot was bruised and swollen as I woke up in the morning, but it didn’t feel too bad after taping it and slipping on my Luna sandals. I still had about 55 kilometers left. The first rays of the morning sun made evident the fact that it was going to be a very hot day. I decided to pull on my long sleeve shirt to avoid sunburns. 

Around noon the sun was becoming a bit too nasty and I came across a small bar called Koski-Baari in Saakoski. I spent an hour engaged in a vibrant discussion with a Christian priest. He told me that he comes there once a month to discuss with the locals. I really loved talking to this compassioned young man. He had a very clear and open minded view of the extremely complex situation related to the exploitation of religion to justify terrible atrocities of our contemporary world. I agreed with his view, that although the institutionalized religions have always been used as a tool for discrimination, colonialism and centralized power for oppression, the individual practitioners of various religions might still be good people. Religion for these people is often a tool or a medium, or a life encompassing set of teachings, which they can follow to become one with this world and all creatures in it. In other words, religion might transform these individuals into better members of their societies. However, the problem is that the institutionalized religions and their teachings can also be used as a tool to persuade the illiterate, desperate, poor and oppressed people to behave in a manner which is harmful for others. Religions often teach us to love one another and understand the oneness of all life, but in this sort of perverse occasions they can also be used to manipulate people to believe that there are ”others” and even ”enemies”. They use religion to divide people into violent poising groups, instead of uniting them in the name of peace. There are no enemies. There are no ”others”. We are all one. We all share the same urge for peace and freedom, and we all want to raise our children in a safe environment with good prospects for them to flourish when they reach adulthood. No one wants to live in fear and terror in a war zone and see how their kids get killed in random acts of violence. 

As I was walking I came across the news article telling about the 10,000 detainees who were imprisoned due to the attempted coup in Turkey. These imprisoned young men had already been facing the most brutal treatment one could ever image. These men were just young boys and now they are been raped and tortured. There is no justification for such cruelty. I realize that coup attempt is an violent act in itself, but i believe that it was not organized by the young soldiers themselves. What we have to remember that these soldiers were commanded to perform this act of violence so that other young people would be spared from such acts. Soldiers returning home from the battlefields are generally treated terribly. They are the tools of the old men who decide were the next war should happen and for what reason. Wars, preemptive attacks, coups, military occupations, are all incidents in which young men and women go to kill other people. The soldiers are trained to act out violence and in this process they bear witness to the most terrible cases of human suffering. This terror leaves a permanent marking on these young people and we should do whatever we can to help them. It feels utterly terrible to hear that the Turkish prisoners are currently being tortured. As I was walking closer to Korpilahti, about 30 kilometers from Jyväskylä, my mother phoned me to warn that she and my son was having lunch at Korpilahti and they would soon be passing me with a car. The pain in my left foot was still tolerable, but as I was trying to imagine how my son would feel if he would see me walking by the road, I thought that he would probably become pretty upset. Instead of letting him experience this, I decided to surprise instead. One of the best decisions I’ve made. 

I ended up quitting after walking about 125- kilometers in three days. I still had some distance to cover, but I became much more confident that this whole journey was not about reaching to my destination. It was about something else. It was about bearing witness to my own emotions, bearing witness to the suffering of others, and bearing witness to the privileged life we live here in northern Europe. The next time I will walk with a lot less stuff. I will try to rely much more on the help of strangers. Making myself vulnerable is the only way to learn to respect our privileges and to understand the plight of many others in our society and everywhere else.     

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