In our collective minds, the word mirage evokes images of deceptive water puddles that lurk in the distance and then disappear when approached, or those illusory oases that are commonly seen in the deserts – concepts made popular by film producers. Both scenarios have become so common that they no longer represent a surprise, but mirages are not just limited to those events.
Recently, testimonies of mirages have abounded. Brightly colored and moving images of houses, people, mountains, and forests have been appearing out of nowhere in places where they are not supposed to be. Afterward, these gigantic displaced images dissipate as fast as they came to be.
In June 2011, the city of Huangshan, East of the Chinese province of Anhui, had the opportunity of witnessing such a spectacular sighting. A gigantic image of mountains, buildings, vegetation, cars, and even people appeared during the evening over the Xin’an River – a spectacle that was clearly visible for the whole city.
Thousands of residents and tourists could appreciate the incredible view, which was also filmed by the local media. The new living landscape had perched itself along the river until it reached the horizon. That was not the first time that the small city had experienced a great mirage. In fact, this phenomenon is so common that the city has been baptized as “the city of Gods.”
How do mirages really form? It is said that they usually occur over the sea or in the desert. The official theory explains that a mirage is a naturally occurring optical phenomenon in which, due to temperature differences in the air, light rays bend to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky. But this explanation leaves many loose ends.
In 2006, three Taiwanese students conducted an experiment whose results called into question that theory, pushing scientists to reevaluate their knowledge. Li Xuan, Dai Yirong, and Chen Kuanhua – from Chiayi Women’s School in Taiwan – planned to measure the refractive angle of the mirages on different roads, basing their study on the official textbook theory that “mirages are formed by the refraction of the light through layers of air.”
The experiments were very difficult to carry out during the day. The strong sunlight and the sheer quantity of cars made it almost impossible – the students failed again and again. But they were not going to give up so easily. After many discussions, their mentors – Zhuang Lifan and Zhuang Lishan – decided to continue the experiments for several consecutive nights on the road that led to the Chayi dam, where there would be no traffic.
The girls’ parents were not thrilled at the prospect. The thought of their daughters alone in the middle of the night conducting experiments close to a dam was scary, but the three students insisted on continuing until they reached their goal. They also sought help from other students, until finally, they got amazing results.
According to science, mirages appear only during hot days. When air near ground level is heated strongly by contact with the hot ground, it becomes less dense. This is because the air near the heated ground becomes considerably hotter than the air above, causing refraction of light rays from the sky since the refractive index of air depends on its density and therefore on its temperature. As a result, the relationship between objects and the horizon becomes distorted. However, the students were able to capture these illusions during the night, when temperatures are lower.
They conducted four experiments at night. They illuminated the asphalt with a high-powered laser and observed through a telescope how a mirage still appeared in the distance. They also tried to cover the asphalt’s surface with some black cloth, sand, mirrors, ink, and other materials, to see if different surfaces affected the appearance of mirages.
The results of the experiment demonstrated that mirages can appear when a ray of light is reflected on the ground, and established that the official theory no longer fully explained their appearance. The girls’ experiment won the first prize in Physics in their high school science fair.
After this discovery, we might want to ask ourselves again: What are mirages exactly?
The answer can be found in ancient wisdom
The ancient Chinese understood that mirages are reflections of scenes from other places than our world. Since the beginning of time, historical records have shown that not only spiritual leaders but also common people believed that “other worlds” existed. Several stories, dating back to ancient times, narrate about people who were able to enter and come back from different worlds. Among them, the story of a monk who went to the World of Supreme Happiness is the most notable. In the anecdote, the monk spent a day far away from Earth, but once he came back, he discovered that six years had passed since he had left.
During those times, it was also believed that ghosts’ bodies – lifeforms from a low-level world – were made from another world’s matter. That is why they thought only certain people could see them. According to this belief, in the ghosts’ world, the day ran parallel with our night, and this is why it was said that ghosts only come out at night. The ancient also believed that they should never ask wishes of ghosts because they could grant them and take something of theirs in return. They also knew that they should never invoke ghosts, and venerated the gods to receive protection.
They presumed that different types of lifeforms inhabited different worlds. Different lifeforms come in different shapes and are composed of thousands of different materials. Nowadays, these beliefs sound like pure fantasy, or like a “Chinese story.” However, this knowledge used to be an integral part of a culture that was rooted in the blood of ancient China and passed on verbally from generation to generation.
Buddhist philosophy says that there is a space below the Divine Kingdoms, that is called the “Three Kingdoms.” It is commonly believed that the name refers to the Earth, the Sky, and the Underworld, but in reality, this term encompasses countless worlds in which lives pass through the endless cycle of reincarnation. These worlds, which are non-divine in nature, exist in the same place and at the same time. In the texts, there is also mention of the “nine levels of Heaven” and the “eighteen levels of hell.” Celestial beings and ghosts exist on different planes of existence – worlds or dimensions composed by different-sized particles that human eyes cannot see.
Human eyes are made of molecules from our world, and can only see the light within a narrow range of frequencies. The visible light spectrum for the human eye ranges in wavelength from approximately 400 to 700 nanometers. The reason we see objects is because our eyes can detect the light that is reflected by them. We cannot, for example, see the infrared light emitted by these same objects at night since they do not fall within the spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Even within the range of visible light, we cannot see a light that is either too weak or too strong.
Human eyes are made up of molecules and cannot see things that are made up of smaller particles. These materials’ reflected light is not visible to the human eyes. We can only see them through a microscope, but we cannot see the planes that they form. Buddhist philosophy says that human beings live in illusion because they cannot see other worlds or the truth of the matter, while the beings that inhabit other worlds can see them according to their level. It is to say that beings in other worlds can perceive the light reflected by our world’s materials, and can consequently, see them.
From ancient wisdom’s perspective, it can be gathered that the scenarios that appear in the mirages are, in fact, always present. They belong to another plane of existence that occupies the same place at the same time. The objects or beings in the mirage are in movement or activity, as they presumably exist in another world. When certain special conditions are met, they are suddenly reflected and we can finally see them.
One of the conditions under which mirages occur is humidity. It is scientifically feasible that masses made up of humid air can facilitate the formation of a lens system – like a giant magnifying glass. It can be then hypothesized that under such conditions, and perhaps other unknown circumstances, scenarios from other planes of existence can be reflected on Earth. This would explain why mirages often occur close to bodies of waters or after it rains.
As science evolves, it becomes increasingly easy to understand what the ancients already knew: that our plane of existence is not the only one in the universe. Sakya Muni (Buddha) said 2500 years ago that there are three thousand different worlds in a single grain of sand, thus showing an understanding of matter’s structure that science has only managed to demonstrate in the last two hundred years. Some masters even say that in a pore there may be hidden cities where trains and cars run. It seems inconceivable, but new scientific knowledge makes it easier to believe in the existence of other invisible and impalpable worlds.
Water, landscapes, people, even modern buildings – knowing what is happening in other planes of existence is not that difficult. You just have to run into a mirage and trust ancient wisdom.