To see things as they are,
we need to see them
not in the ways we are.
When we gaze at a bunch of clouds, there is a high chance that we will habitually make out a puff to resemble something familiar. This tendency to seek and see patterns in that supposedly ‘random’ is called pareidolia. As this works based on images we already know, it is more self-limiting than creative, though some imagination does need to come into play. In this sense, we usually see what we have already seen, to some extent. Our minds work in this way due to our innate instinct to, for survival, swiftly make sense and order of everything, including that which is essentially senseless and chaotic. This is similar to the Rorschach Test, which is the use of ‘random’ inkblots by psychiatrists for patients to assess what they are occupied with.
Occasionally, we will encounter Buddhist friends sharing photographs in person or online, of the elements, such as clouds, light (including rainbows, lunar and solar halos), flames and even relics, while commenting that they clearly resemble the auspicious, such as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Usually, some viewers will concur and rejoice upon sight of them. However, squint as they might, others might not see anything special, or they might disagree that the pictures are definitive of that mentioned. Then, there are those who are ambivalent, who claim to understand how the pictures might be seen, yet uncertain that they should be seen only in those specific ways. In other words, there seems to be a sliding scale of what is perceived, according to perspective.
We tend to see what we want to see, that we are karmically inclined towards, even if subconsciously. For example, we tend to see our favourite Buddha in more places, often because we pay more attention to him. Such phenomenon usually reflects the viewer’s character too, as the faith-inclined usually more easily see the auspicious, while the reason-inclined usually first try to explain the pictures scientifically before agreeing with what the more faithful see. They look at weather conditions, and even possible accidental lens effects! Is there an objective way to affirm or negate what was photographed? Perhaps not, for many cases, as photographic ‘evidence’ is often inadequate to prove much. Different folks have different thresholds of acceptance too.
There is also more frequent sight of what seems to be the auspicious in clouds and such in the midst of Dharma ceremonies. Yet, this is also when more devotees gaze to the skies for inspiration, especially when dedicating prayers in the open. Of course, it is possible that it is precisely due to such events being auspicious, that such sights manifest to be beheld. However, it is also due to these events that more attention is paid to the above, meaning that the similar might be there, when there are no such events, even when not beheld. If so, are they truly special sights or not? Again, there is no clear way to tell. Perhaps, as long as the seen inspires more diligent Dharma learning and practice, seeing them as special is alright?
That said, it is probably unhealthy to go around circulating while insisting the photographed to absolutely be what one believes. We need to remember that there is ‘contention’ exactly because the photographed is not defined enough to be beyond dispute. It would not bode well if such photographs are proven doctored by anyone. But this does not mean there is a need to deny what others see too, especially if the photographs are really vague. Again, so long as the photographs do not distract them from proper learning and practice, they are probably not only harmless, but helpful motivators. All in all, it is alright to share such photographs, but better to not make too much a fuss of whether they are indeed of the holy or not, if no one can truly tell.
Why is there relatively little hard ‘evidence’ of the auspicious ‘in the flesh’ caught on photographs? As taught by Great Master Zhìzhě (智者大师) in ‘The Treatise On Ten Doubts About Pure Land’ (净土十疑论), ‘… ordinary [unenlightened] beings with outflows [of spiritual defilements, that “flow out” to form deluded experiences], to corresponding degrees [as dependent on their purity], can attain sight of the coarse form of the Buddha’s body; while Bodhisattvas see his extremely subtle [or refined] form.’ (‘… 有漏凡夫，随分得见佛身粗相也；菩萨见微细相。’) This means that according to our purity and merits, refinement or definitiveness of the auspicious seen accordingly varies. If our impurities and negative karma are generally heavy, it might be that all we can see is the photographed ‘Buddha’ in that ‘cloud’ – for now!
All Buddha Lands
[are] equally [and] universally magnificent [and] pure.
[As] sentient beings’ karmic actions differ,
that seen [by] each [is] not [the] same.
– Virtue Foremost Bodhisattva
(Flower Adornment Sūtra)
The Faith Factor: The Treatise On Ten Doubts About Pure Land’ (净土十疑论)