Helsinki Street Retreat, 7–10 September 2022

By Johan van Mol

A few weeks ago, I lived on the streets for a couple of days with an inter-faith group of Peacemakers in Helsinki. We did this without money, without phones, begging for food, and sleeping on cardboard in parks and abandoned lots. We also visited homeless shelters to bear witness to poverty and tragedy but also the resilience and joy of people who are less lucky than most of us.

A so-called street retreat is not an urban survival game, not a secret millionaire scheme, nor a disaster tourism trip. The essence is not trying to live as a homeless person, let alone faking homelessness, the essence is living on the streets considering the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers of Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness,, and Loving Action. This may sound rather abstract. It did to me anyway. But a street retreat offers many opportunities to put these tenets into practice. I’d like to share some of those.

At the receiving end

On our first day, we met with the group: 11 people from Finland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France. After we got to know each other and had lunch, we walked down to the water. Mikko, the Finnish organizer of the street retreat, told us to start begging there.

I was filled with dread as soon as I realized that the begging was about to begin. My colleague had told me that she had started paying attention to beggars after I told her about the street retreat. She noticed that most of them looked gruff, but that I would certainly collect lots of money with my friendly smile. I clung on to that thought, while I picked up an empty coffee cup next to a garbage can.

The group spread out. I headed to the waterfront. I had no idea how to beg. Do you sit? Do you stand? Do you approach people? How does this work? When I don’t know something, I check Wikipedia, watch some YouTube videos, Google a bit, and maybe buy a book – preferably a thick one by a renowned author – to get to the bottom of it. Why didn’t I buy a book on begging first? How could I be so stupid as to come unprepared? Thoroughness is my middle name. As my thoughts were popping away like popcorn in a microwave, I sat down on my backpack along the walking path. I put my cup in front of me and waited for people to pass. A couple of businessmen passed. They were busy talking. I don’t think they noticed me. Maybe they thought I was just sitting there. Maybe I should try to look scrappier? As the popcorn in my head kept popping, my cup blew away. Man, I suck at begging. I really should have read the book.

There was no traffic on the path. I figured that like any retail business, begging was all about location, location, location. I walked down to the shopping street. There I found myself competing against a begging woman and someone from my group. I walked further and positioned myself under a tree with my cup in front of me. I tried to make eye contact and smile at people. Nobody took notice. They just walked past me. Some glanced at me briefly, but they looked at me with no expression, as if I was a bench or a tree. Occasionally a young girl would smile back at me. They didn’t have any money themselves, so it was safe to smile. The ones with handbags and money wouldn’t smile at me. As they clutched their handbags closer to their bodies, they glanced at me from the corner of their eyes, making sure I wouldn’t approach them. Some men stared me down aggressively. I didn’t know that that was a thing: staring down beggars. I guess if you’re insecure enough, beggars can help you feel more powerful.

But that wasn’t too terrible. Some people take pleasure in bullying beggars. Frank De Waele Roshi, our Zen teacher, would walk up to people asking for spare change for food.

One guy asked him “How much do you want? 100 euros?”
Roshi said “That is up to you.”
“Do you want 200 euros?” the guy asked.
Roshi said “That is up to you.”
“Do you want 300 euros?”
“You give what you want”

Then the guy reached into his back pocket, pretending to take out his wallet. Suddenly he pointed his finger to Roshi, yelling “Psych”- or “Sike” if you will, the slang for “I fooled you”.

Another member of our group, Emmanuel, was begging when a young woman took 2 euros out of her pocket. She reached towards the cup to throw it in. “Thank you so much”, Emmanuel said. Next, she put the coin the back in her pocket and walked off laughing.

In the end I collected 2 euros and 40 cents. On my way back to the group, I walked past the begging woman. I felt like an imposter. I gave her one euro out of guilt. We had collected 25 euros as a group. My 2.40 euro put me on par with the rest of the group. “Tomorrow I’ll ace it,” I thought. But I never did. I remained a lousy beggar for the rest of the retreat.

Bearing witness is already healing

I read in Bernie Glassman Roshi’s book Bearing Witness that bearing witness in itself is already healing. This became clear to me on our visits to one of the homeless shelters called Vepa. Vepa is in an office building in a business district. The interior however has the vibe of a thrift store meets vintage diner. There is a corner with clothes, a central space set up like a restaurant, and lots of big couches in the back where people can sleep.

Because Vepa is not licensed as a night shelter, they cannot have beds. But as we experienced first-hand, you don’t sleep all that well on the streets, so a soft coach to nap during the day is not a luxury. People can rest at Vepa, eat a warm meal, talk about their problems with a social worker and get support at applying for housing, banking or other services. Because banks and other services treat homeless like crap – we would learn later. If a social worker comes along, they get things done. While other shelters may refuse people who are high or intoxicated, at Vepa anyone is welcome. If you cause trouble you are asked to leave, and you cannot come back until the next day.

We were welcomed by Silja, an outgoing, expressive, warmhearted women early in her forties who works at the place. She had an incredible touch with the visitors of the center – of whom a number looked in pretty bad shape. When someone would be too loud or nasty, she would shut them up, when a visitor was panicking about his backpack that was lost (he had put it down somewhere a minute before but had forgotten about it), she would calm him down, when a visitor was confused, she would hug him and sit down to listen to their story.

In her mid-thirties Silja had been a nurse with two teenage children, living a normal middle-class life. When something traumatic happened, her doctor prescribed her benzos. She got addicted to the benzos and later other drugs and ended up in jail. After jail she had no place to go and ended up as homeless – depressed and full of self-hate. She came to the shelter and started helping out. From there on she picked up her life, she became part of the staff as an expert by experience[1]  and she is now working hard to get her nurse licensed back.

While we were trying to wrap our heads around the tragic story of this strong, resourceful, and compassionate woman, she said “It is amazing what you guys are doing.”
“It is amazing what you are doing,” some of us muttered.
“All these politicians who are cutting our budgets all the time, they should also spend a night on the streets, and they would quickly change their minds. Living on the streets is tough. It is amazing that you do this,” she said.

During our four days on the streets, begging for food, eating porridge in shelters, I sometimes felt like an imposter. We were in fact. And I felt bad about it. But all the social workers and volunteers we met, thanked us for doing this. Homeless people live in the shadows, people caring for them live in the shadows as well. By bearing witness to their situation, we acknowledge their hard work. Work which they are seldom thanked for, work that often doesn’t lead to great success stories. Just being there, acknowledging people as they are, is already healing.

A young woman was rummaging in the give-away clothes corner. Silja said the woman would walk away with a couple of coats per week. Nobody needs dozens of coats. She would probably sell them. But at this place no questions were asked. Everyone comes and goes as they are.

“Can we use the bathroom?” we asked. “Sure, the staff bathroom or the visitor’s bathroom?” Silja asked. We didn’t feel too posh for the visitor’s bathroom, so we chose that. “Let me check,” Silja said “I don’t want you to go there if it’s full of blood and needles.”

I was slightly shocked. My evaluation of toilets would include a dirty seat, toilet paper on the floor, an overflowing garbage bin, or poop streaks in the bowl. I never considered blood or needles.

First contact

Before visiting Vepa we had rested in the Arndt Pekurinen’s Park. Arndt Pekurinen was a Finnish pacifist, who was executed in 1941 because he wouldn’t take up arms. With Finland’s neighboring country, Russia waging a war, we felt it was appropriate to sleep there. We went to the nearby Mall of Tripla to get cardboard and food. We got plenty of banana boxes and headed back to the park. There was a homeless man sitting in the park near us.

We performed the liturgy of the Gate Of Sweet Nectar before eating. The homeless man was watching us while moving nervously up and down under the ledge where he had a mattress. We were also keeping an eye on him. Some felt uncomfortable with the homeless man so close to us, we didn’t want to trespass his territory.

We decided that someone would make contact. If he would flip out, we could still leave. If he was okay with us, we would feel more at ease. Mikko, who is Finnish went up to the homeless man. He asked how the man was doing, and that we would be spending the night there. The homeless asked if we were just going to sleep there – he might be worried that we would be drinking and making noise. Mikko said we were just sleeping. “OK, have fun,” he said.

It all felt so instinctive: the apprehensiveness, the desire to check each others intentions, the distance to keep between each other. I’m pretty sure that this is how tribes in ancient times or explorers in more modern times made first contact. It is funny that on the street, when we’re not protected by established social norms anymore, we fall back on these instinctive behaviors. Practicing Not-Knowing, we seem to know well enough what to do. It is also remarkable that the streets, just one meter away from our doorsteps, are a different world.

Now what

I read the news, I watch human interest programs, I hear stories. I’ve been around in this world to know there is poverty and injustice. But not working in the social sector – unlike many other participants – I never bore witness to that side of society. It is well-hidden after all. I do not feel hopeless or depressed, however. I saw more goodness than evil. The evil stems from systemized ignorance and fear. As Silja said: “All these politicians who are cutting our budgets all the time, they should also spend a night on the streets, and they would quickly change their minds.”

A street retreat is also a very raw and direct exercise in Not-Knowing – letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves, others and the world. There is no script for the situations you encounter: how to beg, how to make first contact with an anxious homeless person, how to deal with being at the receiving end of preconceptions, how to deal with a caring mother and nurse who ends up in jail. It is not up to us to judge any of this. Our humanity is the only principle that can guide us here.

The most asked question I got since my return is: what will you do differently? For starters I will make sure to acknowledge beggars, to not look away indifferently. Even if you don’t have spare change on you, you can still nod or a smile. At a deeper level, I think I gained more trust in Not–Knowing.

We were also discussing with our group what concrete actions we would take to help the homeless and poor. We cannot just continue business as usual. A street retreat gets under your skin.

Text: Johan van Mol
Photos: Mikko Ijäs

More about Vepa:

More about Arndt Pekurinen:


Relive and Experience: Bearing Witness in Finland

Text by Kees Hagenaar
Translated from Dutch by Mikko Ijäs
Pictures by Stan Weyns

I knew nothing about the Finnish civil war, which lasted from 27 January to 15 May in 1918. I only heard about it when I took part in the street retreat in Helsinki, Finland in September 2017. We also visited monuments that commemorate the victims of the wars in the 20th century. These war memorials represent the event, commemorate the victims, and contribute to maintaining the consciousness that freedom is not self-evident.

We held talks and held rituals at the war memorials. One of the Finnish participants, Mikko Ijäs, organizer of the street retreat, had immersed himself in the forgotten history of this Nordic country. During the street retreat, his story was supplemented by memories of the other Finnish participants. All Finns were connected with this history. Not that it was a daily subject for them, on the contrary, they were more like family secrets.

Photo: The Fellman Field concentration camp memorial in Lahti

Civil War

The Finnish civil war had two opposing parties: the working class socialist Finns (the Red Guard) and the established conservative Finns (the White Guard). The strength of the army was between 80,000 – 90,000 troops on each side. The Reds received some support from the Russian military while the Whites received support from the German Empire. The losses were considerable. About 37,000 Finns were involved, including several thousand foreign soldiers. (Source: Wikipedia).

Photo: Ferry leaving Helsinki for Suomenilla fortres island

White or Red

Peacemakers Finland organized this Bearing Witness Retreat for the first time in July 2018, 100 years after the civil war. Belgian Zen teacher Frank De Waele Roshi from Ghent and a Finnish lutheran priest Maika Vuori from Helsinki acted as the Spiritual Holders of the retreat. The group was relatively intimate: seven participants from Finland, Frank Roshi, my Belgian Zen brother Stan Weyns and myself. Our involvement came from the special friendship that had arisen during the street retreat one year before. It was my first Bearing Witness Retreat. I had already started to process the effects of these short-lived but violent events in Finland’s history during the Street Retreat, but it wasn’t before this retreat when the influences on the next generations became clear to me. There were two sides and it doesn’t really matter, which side of the conflict you belonged, both groups were inflicted with severe traumatic damage. Especially the prisoners of the prison camps suffered from torture, starvation, dehydration and diseases.

Photo: Prison camp memorial in Suomenlinna


In preparation for the retreat I had read information available online. It gave me an idea of the numbers and opposing sides. But what do you know? The careful introduction occurred when we went to visit concentration camps and memorial monuments such as Suomenlinna, an island right off the coast of Helsinki, where even women and children were interned and Dragsvik, a vast concentration camp with a memorial site, with names of victims of this civil war. We sat there by the memorial reading the names of the deceased before a small ceremony.

In Lahti we listened to a guide who took us by the Russian made barracks, where thousands of men, women and children lived under miserable conditions. I experienced it as alienating, because the barracks have been transformed into apartment buildings. Would I be able to live in such a place where intense horrors have occurred?


And then there is Tammisaari, a still functioning garrison originally built for 4,000 soldiers. In the most violent and active period in 1918 there were more than 10,000 prisoners, plus the military personnel. The food consisted of rock hard bread, soup, salted fish and sea water. Imagine fully packed sleeping areas and insufficient sanitary facilities, along with hot summer conditions followed by heavy winter which is much more intense than here in the Netherlands.

Photo: Military dining hall in Tammisaari

“Send Me a Parcel”

Artist Johanna Hammarberg, one of the participants and members of Peacemakers Finland, had made a sound installation for the memory year with the title “Lost Letter”. It consists of fourteen fictional letters from fathers, interned in these prison camps, for their families. Johanna’s grandfather had showed her a letter from his past on one of these camps, when she was a teenager. He wanted to leave this letter to her after his death. After he died Johanna asked her grandmother for the letter, but the letter had disappeared. I experienced the artwork as a way of completing the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers as they are expressed by the Zen Master Bernie Glassman. The civil war took place long before Johanna was born. Johanna has tried to re-live in the situation of hunger, boredom, guilt, anticipation for a parcel in the hope that some food or a piece of clothing would come, and for a letter from home.

The first Tenet brings us form preconceived ideas and habitual behavior into the realm of Not Knowing and into an open awareness. She describes how the fathers of the civil war relate to the situation. Johanna brings the letters alive through the voice of a Finnish actor Juha Valkeapää, who reads the letters in English, while we sat silent in an empty hall of the former Russian chapel of the concentration camp in Tammisaari. I was struck by an immense sadness. I felt how Johanna had acquired insights of the emotions of these prisoners, most of whom had not done anything, besides been captured for interrogation. For me this reminded me of the second Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers: Bearing Witness. The desire for contact, the urge to express the emotions to their families back home. Through the historical research a memory was brought alive and it has the power to invite the current generation of the Finns to acknowledge this painful history. For me, Johanna has made this artwork in the spirit of the third Tenet: Taking Action that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness, and contributed to the wellbeing of the future generations.

Photo: Some of the 3,500 names of the victims buried in the massgrave outside of Dragsvik Garrison in Tammisaari.

Perpetrators We are aware of the sad history of the concentration camps in Europe. It has been one hundred years since the camps were operational in Finland. In the more recent past, there were similar camps in former Yugoslavia. As part of the Bearing Witness Retreat in Finland we were also presented with a rare opportunity to engage in a conversation with a former Bosnian prison camp guard Esad Landzo. After being convicted by the International Criminal Court in Hague, he did his sentece in a Finnish prison. After he got out he remained in Helsinki. He had no reason to go back. He shared about his role as a camp guard: committing murders, oppressing prisoners, obeying the rules of his superiors. He also shared how he ultimately acknowledged the horrific actions, and how he has dealt with the remorse. He told about the influence of his American attorney who saw the goodness in him. She saw a human being, and this acknowledgement stimulated him into self-reflection and ultimately into psychotherapy. I was really impressed with his story as the suffering perpetrator. I noticed how I was able to listen to his testimony with an open heart. I saw and heard how he had learned how to be honest, and aware of his actions, and how he had radically taken responsibility of his own past. Based on my own feeling, I asked him, ”Are you able to forgive yourself, while maintaining responsibility? Is reconciliation with your own past even possible?” Personally, I would grant him that, but his answer was clear: “No.” His goal here right now was to live a happy life with his wife, who was also a Bosnian Muslim, who loved him unconditionally with her kids.

Photo: Retreat participants visiting the Temppeliaukio Church

Family secret

Every family has its secrets. This also applies to my family. They presented themselves on the last day during the Council Circle. It is a secret that I have paid attention to before during my psychotherapy. And while listening to the others speaking from their heart, my pain came out. I was completely surprised by it. It came out completely unexpected. Essential things that have touched you deeply can present themselves again. Even if you have worked on them in the past. Adulthood develops throughout your life. Because of that development there are moments when personal pain can reappear. I see it as an invitation to relive such an experience. To relive and experience such an experience has its own time. I was in the midst of it during that day. And ultimately, the inner pain disappeared.

My friend Mikko Ijäs from the Peacemakers Finland later made the following remark: ”Kees, your personal process and experience has its own theme during a retreat. It presents itself next to the theme of the retreat.” And this is true on my case. With warm memories I think back to this Bearing Witness Retreat in Finland

Photo: Stan Weyns from Belgium with Kees Hagenaar from the Neatherlands

Taking action on Ecological Crisis

By Craig Behenna

I met Maija Kaunismaa at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 2018 when I was a Resident student and she was working as Artist-In-Residence. Maija wrote much of her latest album, The Pine House Songs, at the Center and over that month, as we became friends and explained the landscape of Los Angeles, I saw Maija’s musical process – and had the chance to watch the formation of her album first hand.

Maija brings heart and honesty to her lyrics and melodies. Steeped in musical craft and with a distinguished career as a composer for theatre, Maija’s lyrics draw on the present-moment observation of the emotional reality and the presence of life going on around her. From all the craft now comes great clarity and simplicity, which, like her zen practice, belies power, depth and a deep concern for the world, our environment and the future we must all confront as monumental change looms around us.

Craig: The obvious question first: why this song? It has a long history and it must have had a personal resonance for you to record it.

Maija: I have always felt really connected with the lyrics of Reino Helismaa. He’s a very famous songwriter here in Finland and all generations born after the WW2 have grown listening to the songs he wrote. I felt the lyrics deserved a new tune, as I believe all songs originate in the text. I also felt the text has a very wide appeal. That’s a sign of a good universal songwriting. I felt that it spoke to the people in the war torn country where deep intimacy between lovers was a very special bond that rebuilt not only this country, and much of the human civilization. After the translation into English was made and recorded, I realized it wasn’t a love song between two people, but rather a love song for the Mother Earth itself.

Craig: The lyrics talk about acceptance both of ourselves and of the cruel and painful things we have done to each other. Especially with the music video you’ve made, it makes it a very different kind of love song – it has a very personal quality but talks about a much bigger picture. Can you talk about how you came to the realisation that you were making this recording to talk about climate change and the situation we face?

Maija: The video originated from the realization that it was a love song for the whole Earth, not just a song for a person. It was my husband Mikko’s idea to speak about cruelty. He made the translation and reworked the text quite a bit. But it is really true that we should acknowledge that we can be really cruel, not only for the people we love, but in this case we’ve been cruel in a massive scale to the whole ecosystem. I believe that we should accept this cruelty and really let that sink in and think what it means. Then acknowledge that there’s love and we need to show it. I guess it should be a no-brainer in climate issue, since it is our own existence that’s at stake. If we don’t act now, we will perish. We need nature, but the nature doesn’t necessary need us.

Craig: You’re a Zen practitioner and you are very prominent in the work of the Zen Peacemakers in Finland and beyond. How does your Buddhist practice influences and inspires your songwriting and creativity?

Maija: Much of the material in this upcoming album was written at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where I have been on a scholarship as an Artist-In-Residence. I guess it is not just the equanimity that arrises from regular mediation practice that helps creative people to tap into the vastness of their own capabilities. I believe that’s one of the fallacies raised by the Mindfulness movement. Buddhist practice raises a question of the emptiness of the own “self”. That’s a very important part of the practice. At some point the practitioner experiences how the “self” let’s go. I believe that’s a key to true creativity. We’re often so stuck on the idea that we have a grounded self, and we try to make it more solid by creating an artificial structure to secure it. This might include branding ourselves through appearance, or craving ever more money and fame. When we let go of that, we liberate a vast open space for creativity.

Craig: How has your work with the Zen Peacemakers influenced the making of this track and the video clip? What made you realise that recording this song was going to be a part of your action to combat the climate emergency we’re facing?

Maija: What my practice as a Peacemaker has taught me, is that nothing is separate, it’s all interconnected. Therefore my work as an artist cannot be separated from my actions as a human being. I guess it all actualized when the song was already done and I had the chance to take some distance and truly listen to the message that was written in it. That’s when the realization came, that we’ve been cruel for the Mother Earth, and we should really take the responsibility. I believe the artists carry a very important role in societies with their freedom. It is just like the German playwright Bertolt Brecht said that, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” There’s a very deep message in it. Of course our art reflect the social reality in which we live in, it’s not separate either. We also carry the whole cultural evolution on our soldiers. But our work comes with responsibility. The world has neglected the important warnings on climate emergency, and the pace of climate disruptions has been much faster due to complex feedback loops. We are now standing at the edge and we should all face the cruel reality of our own collective inability to act, because we were much too comfortable. But now it’s hammer time! We cannot run away any longer.

Craig: As a society it seems we’ve become more and more disconnected from the reality that we are part of the world, to the point that the world’s ecosystem is showing symptoms of strain and collapse and yet our social and political systems are slow to wake up. How do you talk about this as an artist? How do you engage people?

Maija: We can all show an example for others with our own actions. We can also educate our kids. But our own actions, no matter how collective, is no longer enough. We should all strive to change the institutional systems and governance through our actions. I’ve participated marches and actions organized by the Extinction Rebellion. I believe in nonviolent actions and civil disobedience, but I’m also afraid it might be late. That’s why I try to reach out with my music. The artists are not bound by certain social structures and institutions. That’s a huge asset. But we also lack much of the social webs some other members of the society might have, like financial stability. Therefore it also takes some courage to tackle these issues, but I cannot see much options to what I’m doing. I’m also happy to see people collaborating with larger NGO’s with their projects to get their voices heard. I’m also happy to see much of the art done despite the lack of marketing resources the big record labels might have. But I really believe art should be free from economic restraints to some extent, and it should be used as a hammer, just like Brecht suggests. I also cannot see art being just a tool for better performance at workplaces, or seen as a medium to bring wellbeing and health benefits to citizens. I see the current climate emergency as a sign that we, as a civilization, have failed completely. Art should not be dragged down with capitalism and market interests. It should be seen as a hammer that can rebuild as well.

Craig: In the socially active Buddhist work you do, you’ve referred to Ecodharma as an important part of how we work with the challenges of climate change. Can you talk a little about Ecodharma? What is it, how does it impact your work, and how can you see this song in particular being part of it?

Maija: Our Peacemaker activities have been influenced by the current Ecodharma-movement and we’re working closely with philosopher and zen teacher David R. Loy, who recently published a first major study on Buddhist thoughts and how could they serve the humanity in this current ecological crisis. David’s book is titled Ecodarma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis.

Craig: What do you hope other people will take from this song? What impact do you hope it will make?

Maija: One of the great gifts to humanity that Mahayana Buddhism has given is the concept of the Bodhisattva, a kind of selfless peacemaker who works for the benefit of all others just for the reason that there’s work that has to be done. Many activists around the world suffer tremendously as their actions are not having the results they wanted to see, and they were not able to attract enough people for their cause. Buddhist practice can help people to see that there’s work to be done, and we should all do the best we can, but not get attached to the outcome of our actions. There’s even a notion, that the bodhisattva has no right to know whether her actions will ever have the consequences she wanted. This idea has lately expanded to include environmental activism and Joanna Macy and some other people have coined a new term called the Ecosattva.

Craig: You’re known for your composing but this recording is the first single for your first solo album as a singer/songwriter. What inspired you to make the move into singing and songwriting?

Maija: Some time ago I felt the need for writing. I’ve always loved poetry, it’s like distilled reality. Some great writers have this amazing ability to take the essence of our world and distill the things they feel into writing that has the power to change our cognition. To really change to way we perceive reality and our own place in it. That’s closest to magic and alchemy in my view. But I had this sense that I really had something to say, but I cannot say if anyone else thinks the same way about my writing. But I just wanted to be honest with my feelings. I have a sense that we all suffer, and we all suffer the same way. We all have traumas, and all kinds of things that we think make us special. But what I’ve noticed is that we’re not that special, we all share the similar experiences. I feel it’s really important to write truly, and express our individual vulnerability. There’s always someone who finds solace from the way we see the world, as we’re all interconnected.

Listen to Maija’s song ”Happiness I Gave Away” through these channels:

See the video on Youtube

Listen to the song on Spotify

Listen to the song on iTunes

#MaijaKaunismaa #HappinessIGaveAway #ThePineHouseSongs #RebelForLove #PeacemakersFinland #ZenPeacemakers #EcoDharma #ZCLA #RebelForLife #ExtinctionRebellion #ClimateBreakdown #EcologicalCollapse #ClimateEmergency #XR #elokapina #ilmastonmuutos #ilmastohätätila

This blog-post was originally posted on

About the author Craig Behenna is an Australian award-winning writer, producer, director and actor

Letters from the Finnish civil war prison camps of 1918

Johanna Hammarberg’s “Lost Letter” is an audio play installation based on twelve fictional letters describing the fates of the suspected Reds from Kotka area who were convicted in 1918 civil war prison camps.

Scriptwriter, director Johanna Hammarberg (born in Kotka) has studied actual civil war documents, on which she has based the fictional letters on. The recorded letters presented in this sound installation are each between two and three minutes long.

The ideas for the ”Lost letters” came from various sources which included Hammarberg’s own family stories, published academic research papers, online archives, and actual letters and writings found from the People’s Archives. The letters describe the prison camp conditions. The various camps shared some common features, such as hunger, diseases, executions, violence, food parcels, and correctional education offered by the Lutheran Church.

The installation includes a letter in which a young boy asks his family to send him a food parcel, and a letter in which the writer describes his longing into the nature and back to his home with his loved one.

The installation presents twelve different stories. This number correlates with the number of prison camps in which the victims from Kotka area perished. Each letter gives a personal description of the conditions that ultimately took the lives of these victims.

The names of the known victims were also presented along with the sound installation.

The letters of the installation were written by director-writer Johanna Hammarberg, read by actor Juha Valkeapää. The sound design was made by Maija Kaunismaa and recorded by Aki Sihvonen.

Links to listen to the sound installation:



Johanna Hammarberg’s ”​Lost Letter” was originally presented at the Museum of Kymenlaakso, the Maritime Centre Vellamo (Kotka) May 4th – December 30th, 2018.

About the artist:

Johanna Hammarberg is a theater director, scriptwriter and holds a Master’s degree in Fine Arts. She is also a mother of three small children, TRE practitioner and Rosen bodywork student. Johanna has a soft spot in her heart for Zen Peacemakers and especially for the Bearing Witness retreats. She has been studying Zen with Frank De Waele Roshi since 2018.

Bearing Witness to the 1918 Civil War of Finland

Blog post by Mikko Ijäs, retreat organizer

We held our first Bearing Witness retreat here in Helsinki in late June 2018. The context of the retreat was set around the prison camps of the Finnish civil war of 1918.

One hundred years ago Finland was torn in half by two opposing forces, the Whites and the Reds. The brutal conflicts and mistreatment of the prisoners soon ended, but the legacy of this tragedy that claimed one per cent of the whole population has continued to this day.

Over eleven thousand people died in the prison camps hastily established for the Red captives waiting for their trials.

The retreat was composed around three main locations: the Suomenlinna fortress island just outside Helsinki, Dragsvik garrison in Tammisaari, and Hennala garrison in Lahti. All of these locations had prison camps from 1918 to 1919. Actually Dragsvik continued to function as a correctional institute for the political activists until the Second World War. These camps represent only three of more than ten camps established to accommodate the c. 80,000 captives that were rounded after the fighting stopped.

The winning side of the conflict, the White Guard and the Germans, had no idea of the numbers of their opponent. The huge crowds of the captives really posed a big problem for them. The detainees were sent to improvised concentration camps (actual word that was used for these camps in 1918) to wait for their trials. The poor maintenance and lack of supplies resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. These camps were guarded by Finnish and German officers, and often there were summary executions even for the very young women.

These camps were the first concentration camps in Europe.

I was struck by how much we Finns still tend to take sides. The dual nature of the civil war is still alive in most of us. I am a mix between different backgrounds of Whites and Reds, but as I was thinking the ways to improve the retreat for upcoming years, I noticed how I couldn’t think anyone “sensible enough” to speak about the Red terror of civil war. Even after one hundred years, I categorized these people into sensible and insensible!

When I went to school, we were taught that WW2 was a zeroing point in our history. The war brought us together, and old tensions were finally buried. The civil war was described as a victorious war of freedom from Russian forces. The Reds were portrayed as Russian bolsheviks accompanied by renegade factory workers.

People from opposing backgrounds spoke about class war, red rebellion, liberation war. It wasn’t until the very late 20th century when more neutral terms as civil war began to emerge.

The civil war where churned up by various difficult factors. The whole country was in turmoil after the revolution in Russia in 1917. Finland began to work for their own independence and declared its independency in December 1917. Political disputes, and other factors lead into the civil war in January 1918. The reasons behind it are complex, and the colorful groups of people from various backgrounds, calling themselves as Reds, was inflicting serious terror among the rest of the population. This rebellion had to be dealt with, but the result was even worse. The political witch-hunts continued until the WW2. After all this time, it is amazing how we still identify on either side. Our retreat participants identified themselves being on both sides or being a mix of both.

Revealing this side of myself is something that I certainly have to work with. This matter will also be addressed more thoroughly when we have another retreat next year in early July 2019.

During the week the retreat was also covered by the Finnish media. The public broadcasting company YLE have already been publicly criticized because of this. Someone felt covering this retreat was marxist propaganda.

Roshi Frank visiting Suomenlinna fortress island. One of the civil war prisons on the background

IMAGE: Retreat leader Roshi Frank De Waele, retreat organizer Maija Ijäs and local spirit holder Lutheran priest Maika Vuori visiting one of the civil war prisons at Suomenlinna fortress island, Helsinki.

DAY 1.

The first day of our retreat began at the Church of Kallio, which is the former working class neighborhood and the center for red rebellion in 1918. Our retreat leaders Roshi Frank De Waele from Belgium, and the local spirit holder Lutheran priest Maika Vuori introduced themselves. Roshi Frank spoke about the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and the different elements that comprise the bearing witness retreats, which originates in 1996 when the Zen Peacemakers had their first bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

During the retreat we visited different monuments, memorials, and places of great grief and sorrow. We had moments for silent reflection, we had Buddhist and Christian services, and we practiced the Way of the Council, a kind of listening circle, which is a pivotal element of the retreats by the Zen Peacemakers. We didn’t visit the different locations alone. We also had people describing the history of these sites, and telling the stories of the people who were once placed there.

On our first day we visited the former prison camp at Suomenlinna fortress island just outside the city center. It once had about 8,000 Red detainees. At Suomenlinna we were accompanied by sociologist Sari Näre, PhD, who has written a book titled “Helsinki veressä“ (Helsinki in Blood) in which she paints a vivid image of the horrors the White and the German soldiers inflicted as a revenge on the Red captives. Dr. Näre spoke about passive killing that was prevalent in many of these camps, but especially in Suomenlinna. She described how prisoners were starved to death on purpose, and how drinking rainwater flowing from the chutes was punished.

IMAGE: One of the 1918 execution sites at Suomelinna, Helsinki.

We held the “Gate of Sweet Nectar” ceremony at the Old Church Park at central Helsinki. This park has monuments for the White victims of the Civil War, but also for the German victims fighting on White side. The ceremony is based on ancient Buddhist liturgy with some interfaith elements. It is performed to commemorate those who are no longer here, and to call out those aspects in life that are neglected and forgotten. It is also performed to call out and feed the hungry spirits, and all forgotten and neglected aspects in ourselves.

Esad from Bosnia

At the end of our first day we had a very rare chance to hear the testimony of Esad Landzo from Bosnia. He was invited to speak for this retreat due to his very rare experience of being on the side of the perpetrator. During the Bosnian war in 1990’s he was one of the guards of the infamous Celebici prison camp. He was a member of a renegade squad of Bosniaks who had set up a camp for Bosnian Serbs. This group was a band of misfits who drank and tortured their detainees. Born in 1973 Esad was 19 years old when it all happened.

He was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for willful murder, torture, causing intense suffering or of inflicting serious bodily injury, and inhumane treatment. He was sentenced for 15 years in prison here in Finland.

Esad Landzo speaking about his experiences

IMAGE: Esad Landzo speaking about his experiences, with retreat participant professor Tapio Lampinen and retreat organizer artist Johanna Hammarberg. Annankulma, Helsinki.

What makes Esad so special is his radical approach to his own actions. When he was put on trials he had no remorse. He was raised to do what he did. He described us that one of the biggest problems was that he had no fear. He had no supreme power to be afraid of. Rather, taking someones life made him feel like he was God himself.

But something changed in him when he was shown compassion by his attorney and her family. This was the first contact to people, who were not corrupted by the war and violence. Given this chance, it made him re-evaluate his own past actions. He accepted all psychiatric help that was provided for those who were willing to have it. This process began his path towards accepting his own past actions, and his search for forgiveness.

Esad’s painful process was beautifully portrayed by Danish documentarist Lars Feldballe-Petersenin in his documentary film “Unforgiven” (2017). This documentary describes his path to ask forgiveness from his former victims in Bosnia.

Esad’s radical approach to his own past was really moving. It was also really necessary, since I believe it is extremely important to illuminate the suffering from all sides of these conflicts. It is ofter forgotten how the so-called perpetrators will suffer from war. Esad really made this aspect alive. Although there might be a winning side in a conflict, it doesn’t mean that the winners would not suffer. In Finnish case the White Guard had to execute or detain their own family members, and in some cases, see them die slowly on these camps. Everyone suffers from war. Violence transforms everybody.

Esad had once met a woman in Denmark, who came to thank him. She told how her own father had been a guard on one of the German concentration camps. He had been unable to speak about his experience. The only way he could express his suffering, was through violently abusing his own children. She told Esad how thankful she was for Esad’s testimony and the actions he had taken for reconciliation.

IMAGE: Council circle at Ryhmäteatteri, Helsinki

DAY 2.

The second day of the retreat began at Ryhmäteatteri, which is a independent professional theater in Kallio. We set up our Council Circle on their stage. The council was followed by breakfast buffet set up at the theater’s café. After the breakfast we had a bus to Tammisaari were we spent most of the day bearing witness to Dragsvik, the most notorious prison camp of the Finnish civil war.

The Russians built the garrison in the early 20th century, but after Russian revolution the army left it empty. These garrisons were occupied by the White Guard and the German troops in 1918. The staff arrived to the empty garrison with their prisoners. No preparations were made. The prisoners wondered around the garrison trying to find water and a place to rest. Drinking seawater only made matters worse.

Dragsvik prison camp is located about 100 kilometers west from Helsinki. It has a railway tracks passing just outside its gates. The tracks connect the camp to the east, west and north. The Germans came from the sea. It was an ideal place for prison camp; the convenient access through railroad, the old gate with barbwire, the sauna acting as delousing complex, the execution site behind the sauna, barracks built with red bricks… Its all like Auschwitz. There isn’t much research done on how much the Germans used these concentration camps as an example for what they did during the WW2, but it seems to be quite evident when you visit these camps.

People were not brought in to be killed. But that was exactly what happened. Almost 3,500 detainees of the 10,000 waiting for trials at Dragsvik were killed after few months. The prisoners had to stand in their barracks, since there was no room for lying down. Salted herring, rock hard bread (made using husks and tree bark), and very little water was only sustenance they had.

My maternal great-grandfather was detained for one year at the Dragsvik. He never spoke about his experience. He was truly ashamed of ever belonging to the Red guard. He probably had no choice. The workers of his neighborhood in Kallio were often given a choice of either joining the Red Guard, or being executed.

Forceful draftings might have been one of the reasons why it was so difficult to decide who was guilty of Red terror and who wasn’t. Ultimately, the Whites saw no other option besides imprisoning all possible suspects. It might be true that nobody expected or wished them to die. Sari Näre told us how the whole Finnish population was starving after we broke off from Russia. The ruling class had no intention improving the conditions of the detainees.

The execution wall behind the Sauna building at Dragsvik

IMAGE: The execution wall behind the Sauna building at Dragsvik garrison, Tammisaari.

One of the retreat organizers and founders of the Peacemakers Finland, artist Johanna Hammarberg had done a sound piece earlier this year based on the letters written by the detainees of the civil war prison camps. The sound piece is a collection of twelve fictional letters based on actual published letters of the prisoners. The letters describe the conditions of the prisoners in a grueling detail. The letters were translated into English and read by Finnish actor Juha Valkeapää. The sound production was designed by Maija Myōshō Ijäs, who’s also one of the founders of the Peacemakers Finland and one of the key organizers of this retreat. After our lunch at the garrison, we sat down in a circle in a building, which was built as a church by the Russians, but it had functioned as a food storage during the prison camp era. The experience of listening the pleads and cries of these prisoners at one of the most horrid camps of that time was a powerful experience.

The mass grave for more than 3,000 detainees is located just outside the garrison. It is placed between two noisy roads. The site had been untouched until 1951 when the communists monopolized the memory of this site. We sat there for awhile in a circle reading the names of the people buried at the mound. Then we were lead into prayer by our local spirit holder Maika Vuori.

On our way back to Helsinki we made a stop at Inkoo. There’s a memorial site know as Västankvarn placed deep into the woods. It’s a location where more than 60 red victims were executed in May 1918. It’s a very peaceful site commemorating these victims. We performed the “Gate of Sweet Nectar” ceremony here.

Massgrave memorial at Tammisaari

IMAGE: Massgrave memorial, Tammisaari

DAY 3.

The third day began at the theater with Council. After breakfast we boarded the bus and head up north to Lahti. The city had two of the biggest concentration camps after the civil war in 1918. About 22,000 fighters and civilian refugees were rounded up at the Fellman fields after the battles ended. Few days later about half of them were set free, but half of them were sent to Hennala garrison, and other camps including Dragsvik.

Retired UN Peacekeeper Seppo Toivonen who had spent most of his life at Hennala was our guide that day. The camp was made famous by author Väinö Linna in his trilogy “Under the North Star” and more recently by Marjo Liukkonen, Phd, who has studied the female violence at the camp.

We payed a visit to the site of the mass grave. This was just a place in the woods behind the barracks. After the civil war the city was building a new road across this area and they found this site. The whole ground was filled with bones and skulls. Nobody knows exactly how many had been executed, and how many had just died due to the bad conditions of the camp. The estimates vary between 800 and 900.

Hennala Garrison

IMAGE: Building number 5 in Hennala, which was one of the prison barracks in 1918. Hennala, Lahti.

The long walk from Fellman park leading across Hennala garrison ended up at the southern most end of the camp. There’s a Russian orthodox prayer room and its wall had been used for executions. The two priests participating the retreat lead us into prayer by the site.

The day ended at the Temppeliaukio Church, where we had Council. We were all rather silent after the day. Hennala left us exhausted and empty.

Roshi Frank with Maija Ijäs at the execution site in Hennala

IMAGE: Roshi Frank and Maija next to the Russian prayer room that served as an execution site in 1918. Hennala, Lahti.

DAY 4.

The last day of the retreat was designated for reflection. We had more time for our breakfast. We prepared our lunch bags and set out in to rain. We walked through Kallio and passed the buildings were many of the Reds had lived, including my maternal family. After about half an hour we got to the monument for the red victims of the civil war. It is the only one in Helsinki and it is placed behind the Olympic stadium outside the city’s center next to a busy road. It is quite isolated, invisible and unknown. We were all struck by a recent graffiti on the monument. Someone had spray painted a text on it saying “Finland is White”.

IMAGE: Someone had painted the text ”Finland is White” on the Red memorial. Helsinki.

We ended our retreat at the local Deaconess Institute. We saw an exhibition of their role during the civil war, and we had a moment of silent reflection at their chapel.

The institute also works with refugees and homeless. The Peacemakers Finland has been organizing monthly gatherings at their Citizens’ Arena, which is a public place and a living room for the residents of the whole complex.

That’s where we sat down for our final Council and performed the “Gate of Sweet Nectar” one more time.

The retreat will be held again in July 2019.

IMAGE: The center of our Council circle. Helsinki.

Helsinki Street Retreat, 2017

By Mikko Ijäs

In 2017 Roshi Frank De Waele asked Mikko Ijäs to organize a Street Retreat in Helsinki, Finland. For four days they were immersed in the Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenets: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Taking Action; they begged for food and money, slept where they could, and left their ordinary routines.


We began our retreat by taking everyone’s luggage and valuables to our place for safekeeping. My wife’s parents were taking care of our boy since my wife Maija was also participating in the retreat. After stripping down our group of the chains of our everyday valuables, we were free.

We walked down to the nearest park to have an opening Council, after which we walked to the Salvation Army to pick some free bread for our next meal. Then we had our first meal next to the the library. We took half an hour to beg for coffee and tea– this was something I had feared for. I was sure it would all end right here. I walked to the nearest bar with three other participants and asked if they would give us four coffees as we didn’t have any money. The bartender said that he had no coffee but he could give us some tea. That felt so nice. He didn’t even ask any questions, he just gave us the tea. I was relieved.

After a nice hot cup of tea we all walked down to Kurvi, which is kind of a center of this working class neighborhood. It had a very busy intersection of three major roads, lots of shops, tram and bus stops and a metro station. There’s a whole variety of life there. Plenty of people passing by. Romanian beggars, alcoholics, junkies and also some homeless folks. It was very cold. Not much more than 13 degrees Celsius (55F), and it was windy. One of our participants hadn’t enough clothes on and we stopped by the local flea market to look for a winter beanie for him. We found one, but we didn’t have the money to buy it. We walked outside and asked a nice young man passing us if he would be willing to help us. He was happy to and we got our hat.

From Kurvi we walked to the nearest park to go through the guidelines of our retreat. Frank told us about the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and other practices like begging, sleeping outside and Council Circle. Then we walked back to Kurvi. The granite staircase leading down was filled with people shooting drugs, some of them were only teenagers. I got this sense of people being too fragile for this world. They were not tough or anything, they were too fragile to hold the pressures of this cruel and competitive world. I assumed that drugs felt like the only escape for these people.

I could sense how easy it might’ve been for myself to be one of them, and in a sense as I was here on this retreat, I was one of them. After a few moments we were begging for money to buy us some food for dinner. I walked around the area asking money from strangers. Many of them gave a few coins. A few of them wanted to know what was it for. I told the truth: we were a group of spiritual practitioners living on the streets for a few days. Some people didn’t know what to think of that, but decided to give nevertheless.

Some restaurants also gave us some food and some shops too. After an hour and a half we had plenty of food and some money to go shopping for additional supplies for our first meal. One of our Finnish participants was an extremely talented beggar. She was so energetic and happy. People really felt that she needed the money and they were obliged to help her out of the troubles she might have.

We got our shopping done and we walked to another park and sat next to a group of some guys dealing drugs. We laid our shopping bags in the center and sat down in a circle to do the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy. It is a liturgy that was originally made for ancestors and hungry ghosts to ease their pain. Bernie Glassman Roshi has included all kinds of things in the liturgy, but I guess the most important aspect for myself is that I call out all the neglected aspects of ourselves, and all the aspects in the society that are forgotten and set aside.

After the ceremony and our meal we spread into three groups to find cardboard for the night. I was certain that we would not find any. All the trash is locked in the courtyards of apartment buildings. After about five minutes my assumptions were proven wrong. We found more than we needed in a dumpster in a nearby construction site. About an hour later we met close to our possible sleeping site. We all had managed to get much more cardboard than we actually needed.

Sleeping on cardboard under an awning.

At our evening council circle I was so happy. We had managed to beg for our food and we had found cardboard. My assumptions were all proven wrong. I was elevated and not so afraid anymore. This was the most important lesson of Not-Knowing so far.

We slept very well next to the Helsinki City Theatre. We had a quiet place covered with a roof. In the morning we woke up and had our moment in silence and morning hymn and a prayer led by a Lutheran priest, Maika Vuori who was participating in our retreat.

Day Two

I had planned a few places to visit during our retreat. These were places to get a cup of coffee or something to eat. They were all places which were open to everyone, not just registered homeless folks of Helsinki. These places were the ones serving all people, including the paperless refugees. Along our way back to Kurvi we stopped at Vepa cafe, which is run by a local homeless organization.

They were so happy to see us. They gave us some coffee and tea and their staff member Faina Puustinen told us an amazing story that really shook us to the core. She had began serious drug use when she was only fourteen years old. She had spent twenty years totally immersed in substance abuse and living homeless. Then she had found a way to get into the rehab and stopped. She had now been clean for twenty years, serving the same people that she had been one of. At first she had seen many of her old friends, but they were all dead now.

We continued our way to Erityisdiakoniakeskus (Special Deaconess Center) to have breakfast. We were so happy to be there. A very nice place with wonderful volunteers serving people with love and dignity. Maija played the piano and it really felt like home.

This was an institute run by the state Lutheran church. They had all kinds of services for people with low income, refugees and homeless. They had a gym, showers, laundry room, breakfast cafe, a soup kitchen, and once a week they served waste food collected from the local supermarkets. They had also began to offer a temporary sleeping place for thirty individuals each night. Many of them were paperless refugees, who were not welcome at the other place run by the city’s social services. One of their deacons Kimmo Kajos introduced their services to us. In addition to his work at this place, he also did prison work.

Roshi Frank asked him what was the reason for him to do these things. Kimmo told us that one of the reasons was that he had seen a lot of kindness among the people he worked with, especially in prisons. That really struck us all. I had never thought that homeless and people in prison were especially kind people. I had been wrong. Kimmo was right. Another lesson of Not-Knowing.

Roshi Frank DeWaele speaking at the Civil War memorial

We were kind of close to a 1918 Civil War memorial for those killed on the “Red” side, so we decided to walk there to have a moment of reflection on how the civil war had affected my own family and possibly the family histories of some of our other Finnish participants. (The Finnish Civil War was fought between the “Reds,” a paramilitary group composed of industrial and agrarian workers, supported by Russian forces, and the “Whites,” a conservative Senate-led paramilitary group, composed of peasants and middle- and upper-class factions, supported by Imperial Germany.) I got very emotional as I talked about the tragic and violent events of the Civil War and during the decades that followed. It is a big sore in the Finnish psyche. We left after offering a beautiful ceremony for all the hungry ghosts left here, during and after the civil war one hundred years ago.

It began to rain as we meandered aimlessly back to the more familiar neighborhoods. We stopped at the free panorama ride at the local amusement park called Linnanmäki. That lifted us up in the air and we could all see this beautiful city opening in front of us. The city itself was becoming a part of the retreat.

It began raining harder. We were really concerned what and where we should eat. And whether our cardboard was still dry at the place we had stored it. We still had plenty of money. We had begged in the morning, and we still had more than 60 euros. We passed another deaconess center and asked them if we could stay there for the night. They didn’t let us in, but I found out later that they had spoken about us the next day. They could’ve actually taken us in, but the caretaker just didn’t want to. However it was good to know that they actually sometimes take wandering strangers in.

Our group was getting hungry and the rain was really getting on our nerves. Some of us decided that maybe we should just go to restaurants and ask if they would offer us dinner with the money we had. Some of us, Roshi Frank included, thought it was a useless idea. But as we walked past the nicest vegetarian place of the whole area two of us went in and begged. We offered all the money we had begged if they would take our seventeen-member, smelly and soaking wet group in to let us eat. They thought about it for awhile and finally it worked. We were invited in and they let us eat as much as we wanted at their buffet, including desserts with coffee and tea. That was a lesson of how elevating and rewarding it really is, if we let go of all fixed ideas about everything.

We were all so happy after the dinner. We walked back to our cardboard and hauled it to the same nice location we had stayed the night before. We all fell asleep with big smiles on our faces. But we woke up only two hours later. We had bad news. The private security guards had decided to kick us out. They wanted to know if we had a permit from the theater to sleep on their grounds. Of course we didn’t. It was a public space.

I had already spoken with the chief of police about sleeping outside and we were not breaking any laws here either. They wanted to know if we were members of some association. We laughed later at another location, that maybe we should’ve told them that we were members of the “Full Moon Campers Society”. Maybe they would have recognized this fictional association and told us: “Why didn’t you say so? We love those guys! Those guys are awesome!” I can still see Roshi Frank laughing in his sleeping bag as the huge full moon was protecting us with its warm glow.

Day Three

In the morning we walked past another civil war memorial place. It is a site of one of the last battles between the Reds and the Whites. It’s a bridge called Pitkäsilta that still separates the working class neighborhoods from the more rich southern areas of Helsinki. We went to the Central Railway Station to beg for money to get breakfast. Begging was very difficult. I only had some small change and a series of nasty remarks. It felt terrible.

Emilia in a Church

Luckily we had enough for the optional donation at the breakfast place at the Annankulma, which is a kind of “living room” organized by the lutheran church. It felt so nice to get there. They were so happy to see us. They sang a hymn first. My wife Maija offered to play the piano and everyone loved it. They wanted me to say a few words of our practice. One of the retired old ladies thought that it’s a disgrace to beg. According to her, there should be no begging in Finland. We had a great welfare system and no one should have the need to beg. She also told that the church should be a place of spirituality, not a place for socially challenged individuals.

The deaconess who had invited us for a visit, stood up and gave a great speech about the social responsibility of the Christian church. She told that the church is obligated to help the unfortunate. They should not ask any questions. They should be ready to serve everybody. The spiritual teaching comes after that. I was so struck by that. My overall sense of the role of the church has changed dramatically. There’s so much goodness and dignity in the work they’re doing. I got the sense that their spiritual practice was actually socially engaged work. They were serving the people and becoming the Christ in this process. This was another lesson of Not-Knowing. I had no idea that their practice is so close to ours. Our reason for socially engaged work is to experience the oneness of life.

During that day we saw many things. We had an improvised service at the monument dedicated for the eight Jews who were deported to Estonia during WW2 and ultimately exterminated by the Germans. We performed another service at the monument that was dedicated to a group of 123 German soldiers who had fought at the Finnish civil war but sank on a boat on their way back home. And we held a Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony at the German mass grave for the victims of the Civil War. After the ceremony we held at the Red Guards’ monument the day before, it felt extremely touching also to recognize the opposing side of the conflict.

We still had to beg. And we were going to Kamppi, which is one of the most hectic places in town. We sat for awhile at an ecumenical open chapel which is a contemporary building with wooden rounded walls and high ceilings. It was a perfect place for our moment in silence. A moment of silence just before going begging in one of the craziest places around.

Roshi Frank said later that it was one of the most Samsaric places he had ever been to. It is a huge square with people running from place to place. There’s people shooting heroin, prostitution, Romanian beggars, kids drinking, businessmen in fancy suits, shoppers with their bags and headphones. And our group was there too. We were asking for money, it was so difficult. I only got a few coins, but managed to beg for food from restaurants. I even got some chocolates and a nice hot cup of tea.

Learnign about homelessness in Helsinki at Vepa

One Nepalese restaurant was very happy to give us food for the evening. That really felt nice. But all of us agreed, it was a terrible place. It feels like the whole experience boils down to Maija’s experience. She was asking for small change and the answer was “Haista vittu!” (fuck you!) One participant from Ireland told us that it actually sounds like “nice to meet you”.

We still had a long walk to the escape the busy center of the town. We were weighing our options where to sleep. It was going to rain very heavily on our last night. We also had to find a place indoors for the Jukai on our last day. Suddenly we were invited to sleep at a local theater. Maika who was our master beggar had managed to beg for two bottles of red wine for our last dinner. We all slept very poorly indoors on a hard concrete floor, but the dinner we had begged for was perfect.

Day Four, The Closing

The next morning it was still raining very hard. We walked to a place that served free hot oatmeal and very cheap coffee. They were also happy to have us as their guests. We were happy to be indoors but we had to get moving quickly for our closing circle.

The Peacemaker Jukai was held at the same theater where we spent our last night. Roshi Frank set up the place very nicely. The whole group of retreat participants were sitting there in a circle, with my son and some family members and friends as Maija walked me in. It was a very moving experience to sit inside that circle and feel the energy of all those amazing people who had come to this retreat.

At some point I just felt this awesome gratitude of being in that moment and with those people. I began to cry tears of joy and happiness. At that moment of joyous tears Roshi Frank handed me my Rakusu and my dharma name which was Rakushin Angyo (Joyous-Faith Peacemaker). The way Roshi Frank described me was the way I see all people. I see them with joy and the belief that they all have the ability to shine and love.

Roshi Frank De Waele performing Jukai ceremony with Mikko

I had thought that the ending lunch at a local pizza place would’ve been the most luxurious thing ever, after all we had experienced. But it wasn’t. We had been so overwhelmed with the abundance the streets had always offered us. We were never without anything. We always had food and friendship.

Asking for money from strangers was the hardest thing for me. I barely got anything. But I wasn’t alone so it didn’t matter as some others got much more than we needed. Having the trust in the group and in the people we were interacting with was one of the most important experiences. I have always been working alone. I have trusted only in myself. As the retreat went on, I feel I became more open and accepting. I felt tremendous love towards everyone, not just our group, for everyone. I sense that the true power of humanity comes from collaboration and interdependence. Now I feel that the only way I can continue my work is to connect with other people. And that is what we have done.

We already have a group of people who feel committed to volunteering for homeless projects and prisons, and we have been told that some other groups are finding ways to make offerings for the places that had offered their services to us. Some participants have also decided to join the Zen Peacemakers! We are slowly building up a new sangha here in Finland.

After the Retreat

Delivering our Mala-donations was a very moving experience too. So many people had been seriously worried about us and had felt tremendous respect towards our practice. Many of them told us that the politicians should do what we’re doing to have some sort of sense of what is it like to live on the streets. Even for a few nights. They told us that from their perspective, it would change everything. It had worked for us. They also wanted us to speak out. To become the voice for them, as nobody wasn’t really paying attention to their needs. With humble respect I will do my best.

With love and respect,


Originally published at by Anthony Saracino

Bearing Witness Retreat in Bosnia Herzegovina

By Mikko Ijäs

The Bosnian retreat organized by the Zen Peacemakers Europe was a very different kind of a retreat compared to the previous retreats organized by the Zen Peacemakers International, like the ones in Auschwitz, Rwanda and Black Hills. The Zen Peacemakers always urges us to have the courage to let go of our preconcieved notions and ideas, to just listen, to open our hearts and to Bear Witness. The people are encouraged to see through their fears and fixed ideas and to see ourselves as others and others as ourselves. The Buddhist practice teaches us to see and experience how the whole world and all life is interconnected. It is all one body. For this reason we cannot separate things into dualistic categories such as “right” and “wrong” or ”good” and ”bad”. It is all a matter of perspectives and opinions and there is suffering on both sides of all arguments. This perspective is extremely challenging to maintain in a place like Bosnia.

During our trip we were mostly immersed in accumulating information instead of self-reflection. There was very little time for reflection and moments in silence, instead we were constantly traveling to new places and listening to the stories from all sides of the conflict. Some participants who were more familiar with the previous ZP projects seemed to feel like that this was the biggest difference.

From my own perspective, accumulating this new information was important and necessary. The Yugoslav Wars and especially the war in Bosnia was a very complex event and it is difficult to grasp. At first I thought it was a very simple thing. I thought that it was only the Bosnian Orthodox Serbs who inflicted a horrible genocide on the other Bosnian ethnic groups, especially the Muslim Bosniaks. As the information accumulated during the retreat, I became much more aware of the sufferings of the so called “perpetrators”. On our last day in Sarajevo we payed a visit to a center in Eastern Sarajevo that still houses the remains of the c. 250 Bosnian Serb civilians who were brutally killed and thrown in to mass graves. It has been extremely difficult for the Bosnian Serbs to get DNA test results from the international communities, since they had lost the war and it was them who are been sentenced The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag, Holland. But although the numbers on their sides were minuscule compared to the several thousands of Bosniak casualties, it doesn’t matter. All casualties are someone’s father, mother, child or some other dear member of a family. All pain should be treated equal, and people need to be understood, helped, discussions, resolutions, reconciliations, and eventually peace.

Remains of the Serb civilian victims

Remains of the Serb civilian victims

The most moving experiences for myself were the personal accounts by the local Peacebuilders who had been children during the war. Especially the story of Hasan Hasanović who survived the Muslim genocide in Srebrenica, made a very big impression on me.

Srebrenica was a small town with only 5,000 citizens. The raging war brought about 50,000 Muslim refugees into the town. The Bosnian Serb military sieged the town from its surrounding hills for almost four years turning it into a modern day concentration camp. The UN peacekeepers arrived in 1993 and declared Srebrenica as the first UN safe area.

The valley of Srebrenica

The valley of Srebrenica

In July 1995 the UN ultimatum failed when the NATO decided not to make the demanded airstrikes. The Serb military invaded the town on July 7. lead by its commander Ratko Mladić and the massacre began with UN Dutchbat standing helplessly. Hasan Hasanović was only 19 years old when he and about 10,000 men fled the sieged city of Srebrenica. On their 100 kilometer trek to Bosniak territory he bore witness to the killings of thousands of his fellow escapers including his uncle and father.

The Srebrenica memorial site is huge. There are still plenty of unidentified remains found from the mass graves. The identified victims are buried here every July

About 25,000 refugees from Srebrenica sought refuge from Potocari compound held by the UN Dutch forces. After two days the UN gave in and ultimately assisted the Serb army to separate women and kids from the men and boys. The women and small kids were transported, but the c. 9,000 men and boys (over 12-14 years of age) were left to the hands of the Serb military. Not many of them survived. Hasan Hasanović is again living in Srebrenica and works as a curator at the Srebrenica Memorial Center.

Belgian zen teacher Frank De Waele Roshi discusses with one of the retreats’ spirit holders Vahidin Omanovic from the Center of Peacebuilding (CIM) in front of the battery plant that was used as an UN headquarters in Potocari, where the Srebrenica massacre really began. Survivor Hasan Hasanovic on the right side of the image.

Many of the young Peacebuilders had lived through the four year siege of Sarajevo as small kids. The whole city was cut off from communications, electricity, water, food and access to the outside world. There was no way in or out. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed, 11,000 people were killed and over 50,000 wounded.


Sniper marks, Sarajevo

Buildings with sniper marks are still everywhere you go. The marks are always next to windows, since their targets were the ordinary civilian citizens in their homes

The Tunnel of Hope, Sarajevo

The Tunnel of Hope, Sarajevo

During the siege, the people of Sarajevo built a tunnel, that was half a mile long and a bit over five feet high. This was their only access to the outside world. It was used to transport mail, food, guns and people. This cramped and dangerous tunnel was extremely necessary for the survival of the people of Sarajevo.

The president of the Serb republic Radovan Karadžić wished to eradicate the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) of the whole country. However, there were plenty of other ethic groups living inside the sieged city. They all suffered equally.

The country is still governed according to the Dayton peace treaty, which acknowledges the three major ethnic groups; Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats. The country isn’t even fully independent. It is governed by international community through UN. The Dayton treaty is used as a foundation for the Bosnian constitution. It is problematic as it excludes all the individuals who have mixed ethnic backgrounds, and also the Roma people.

The county is still divided into two equally big constitutional entities: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a separate autonomous entity with Serb majority known as the Republic Srpska, which has its own president. Interestingly enough, the Republika Srpska does not want to be a part of Serbia, but somehow still dreams of one day becoming an independent country. At the same time, it probably benefits from its current role as a symbiotic state within Bosnia.

Interfaith and cross-cultural Sarajevo

Our Bosnian multi-ethnic and interfaith Peacebuilder hosts felt that the fact that their country is divided into separate autonomous areas is a problem. However, they did not feel that there is an active threat for another war, but tensions were evident. The police couldn’t guarantee our safety in Srebrenica for many days, so we had to change our schedule a bit only a bit before our trip. The population lives peacefully in diverse culture, but I got the impression it is the politicians and their own interests that makes the peace a bit more complex.

The young peace builders of CIM

The young peace builders of CIM and Frank De Waele Roshi

Personally for myself the experience of bearing witness to an interfaith and multiethnic society with majority of Slavic Muslims was the most important one. Our western world is currently demonizing the whole Islamic culture and it felt important to make long lasting personal relationships with the Muslim community.

I feel honored to consider the Peacebuilders of Bosnia as my friends. Especially their founders Vahidin Omanovic and Mevludin Rahmanovic (both Muslim Imams) made a huge impression on me and I am proud to have had this chance to learn from both of them.

CIM leaders imam Mevludin Rahmanović and imam Vahidin Omanovic with their peace ambassador Elma Softic-Kaunitz who is a peace activist and the leader of the Bosnian Jewish community.

The emotions that arose from this experience are complex. There wasn’t enough time to let the massive amounts of information to seep in and bear witness to it. I guess I can call this experience as a plunge in to the ethnic conflict and war in Bosnia. For now, I have to bear witness to the emotions that are arising on my own and see what comes up. It is still too early what that might be and what actions I might take because of it.

The initial sense that I got, was the frustration of the fact that the international community did nothing while these atrocities happened. Especially it felt impossible to comprehend how the genocide in Srebrenica happened within UN Safe Area. How it is possible that UN let almost 9,000 muslim men and boys being massacred under their noses in few days in July 1995?

Srebrenican genocide memorial at the front of Potocari compound.

The saddest part of this all is that the same thing happens now in several other countries like Syria. After this experience I am not so sure if international intervention makes situations better or worse. The conflicts are very complex and there are always victims on both sides. Everyone is affected. Fighting violence with violence is not necessarily a wise move.

The young and inspiring members of the Center for Peacebuilding gives me a lot of hope. They are all traumatized by the war, but they still look hopefully into a peaceful future. They do not necessarily believe another war is possible, and they will do everything they can to prevent it by actively building peace by interaction with all sides of the conflict. They also wish that the Bosnian government would one day start a reconciliation project to serve the people of Bosnia who all suffered tremendously. So far, this is not happening, but luckily there are organizations such as CIM with amazing people working for peace with all their heart.

”May we always have the courage to bear witness, to see ourselves as other and to see other as ourselves.”

Center for Peacebuilding

Survivor story by Hasan Hasanović

Center for Council

Zen Peacemakers International

Inshallah (if God wills)

Originally published on June 27th 2017 at the website of the Zen Peacemakers Europe