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Religious Leaders Draw Spiritual Meaning from 'The Gates'

With the dismantling of the massive art project titled The Gates, New Yorkers are looking back with a variety of emotions at an installation that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the city's Central Park. Over 16 days last month, the project's 7,500 orange steel frames with their billowing saffron curtains inspired wonder, puzzlement, merchandising opportunities…and, for some, a sense of spirituality.

Nowhere was that more evident than during an interfaith event titled Spirit of the Gates. This silent, meditative group walk on February 21 attracted Hindu priests, Buddhist monks, Voudon priests, Sikhs, rabbis and other religious leaders, along with hundreds of other spiritually inclined New Yorkers.

The striking of a ritual gong began the walk through the five-meter-tall gates designed by environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. James Morton, Dean Emeritus of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, saw the march as a symbolic pilgrimage.

"That to me is what is so extraordinary…using the park and its beauty as a means of getting people to feel seriously about the environment and its beauty and its fragility and what needs doing," said Mr. Morton, founder of the Interfaith Center, the ecumenical co-sponsor of the walk. "The lake becomes the Red Sea. It becomes the Mediterranean. It becomes the tsunami where people died. And the park itself and all of its acreage becomes really the planet…and the gates are a pathway through this microcosm."

Rabbi Tamar Crystal of the New York Board of Rabbis remarked that gates have always been a potent spiritual symbol for the Jewish people - whether they be "gates of prayer" or "gates of repentance." For example, Rabbi Crystal mentioned Psalm 118, "which means…'if You open for me the Gates of Righteousness, I will come and praise You.' Any time you have a peaceful gathering, a gathering where people come to celebrate beauty, you are promoting the places where people come and praise God."

Randy Brown of the Tricycle Foundation, which publishes a main stream Buddhist journal, said her organization was inspired by the art project's saffron motif. "In Buddhism, saffron represents tranquility," she said. "It is a radiant tranquility, and therefore a very alive color. Tranquility in Buddhism is not seen as something passive. It is, in fact, seen as something very active, where you've shut down a lot of mental busy-ness and static so you can really open up to the aliveness of the moment."

Ms. Brown expressed delight at the endless ways New Yorkers interpreted The Gates and the sense of community and dialogue that resulted. "In Buddhism," she said, "there is no absolute perspective on things…our perspective is always changing. And that means that no perception is absolute. My feeling is that most people have experienced The Gates that way. They just really loved the openness of it, loved the friendliness of it." She said the project created an environment "where people are free to interact with each other without fear, without paranoia."

When the Reverend T.K. Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Temple first saw The Gates, it was late at night and the park was quiet. He was reminded of the torii - or temple gates - in his homeland. "My first impression," he said, "is…is this Japan or something?"

In Reverend Nagagaki's view, a walk through torii gates symbolizes ever-deeper levels of insight into oneself and the world. As he prepared to lead the silent walk in New York, he said the question of whether one ever reaches a final gate, or just keeps "passing through" has no inherent meaning. Similarly, he said, Christo and Jeanne Claude's artwork apparently had no meaning.

Reverend Nagagaki said this concept is an integral part of Buddhist philosophy. "Because of nothing, everything exists," he said. "It's like water, which doesn't have color. That's why water can be any color! The ocean changes from blue to red to all kinds of colors. The Gates are part of the same idea. Because there is no meaning, so many kinds of meanings can be put in."

Through the Spirit of the Gates walk, spirituality has been one of the meanings derived from this temporary art project - which Christo and Jeanne Claude have said will never be installed again.