Did he ever—and they function as core teaching stories in the Buddhist scriptures.

According to Buddhist teachings, all beings cycle endlessly from one rebirth to the next, escaping only through enlightenment. The Buddha was no different—although the stories of his past lives, known as Jataka tales, indicate a pretty remarkable being.

In these Jatakas, the Buddha-to-be takes birth as various kinds of humans, ranging from murderers to sages to princesses; myriad animals; and numerous other deities and metaphysical beings. Jatakas are chock-full of colorful characters—wily criminals, evil seducers, and magnanimous kings.

Each story is a teaching about the virtues that the Buddha-to-be perfected on the path to enlightenment: selflessness, compassion, determination, wisdom, and so on. In one of the most famous, he is a rabbit who throws his body on a fire in order to feed a hungry mendicant in the forest. The beggar turns out to be the god Shakra, who then marks the moon with the image of a rabbit to commemorate its generosity.

In another, he is a wandering ascetic named Sumedha, who happens to bump into Dipankara Buddha and his followers while traveling on an unfinished road. As a sign of respect, Sumedha offers his body for Dipankara’s entourage to use as a bridge. While being trampled, he recites a vow to achieve Buddhahood in a future lifetime, which Dipankara confirms to be his fate.

In another, he is the captain of a ship carrying 500 passengers. Realizing that one of his passengers is plotting to kill everyone aboard, the Buddha-to-be takes the life of the would-be killer—not only to save 499 other lives but also to prevent him from amassing the negative karma that such a deed would incur. Even as an act of compassion, taking a life lands the Buddha-to-be in hell for eons.

There are many collections of Jataka tales that differ from tradition to tradition. The Pali canon, for example, catalogs a whopping 547 Jatakas—though it does not include the story of the thwarted mass murder mentioned above.

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