In studying Buddhism, I’m struck by the apparent friction between Siddhartha Gautama the man, and Shakyamuni Buddha who has conquered birth and death. Was Gautama a normal human who, through dedication and persistence, made the discovery of Enlightenment? Or was he a supernatural Being who incarnated in a human form merely for the purpose of teaching? The answer is, paradoxically, both.
There is the interesting incident of the fortune-teller, a Brahmin mystic consulted by the king—Gautama’s father—to predict the future of his unborn son. The Brahmin had insight into past lives and karma, and he was able to see that Gautama had amassed such vast amounts of merit—amazingly good karma created through altruistic deeds in his past life—that he would become a powerful and influential person who would have a huge impact on society: he would become either an emperor who would unite all people or a spiritual master who would influence the entire world. Gautama, because of his massive kindnesses in past lives, had no choice but to live a blessed life; his father wanted him to become a world-emperor, and we know that he tried to shelter Gautama from any harsh realities. That technique backfired, and when Gautama saw tragedy for the first time, he was so powerfully moved that he renounced pleasure and power to seek true freedom. So: Gautama was a “mere mortal” but was forced by his stockpile of merit to become something great.
At the moment of his Enlightenment, Gautama perceived all of his past lives. He told these stories to his followers, and they were recorded in a body of literature called the Jataka Tales—these tell of how Gautama’s previous lives amassed that amazing merit. For example, here is a brief summary of his last life before he was born as Gautama:
“In the story of the Hungry Tigress, a human, brahmin Bodhisattva stumbles across a starving tigress with her cubs while out meditating in nearby caves. Shocked and saddened upon seeing the dying creature; attempting to eat her own kin, the Bodhisattva deliberates how he can save this beautiful creature. He decides in a moment of passion and emptiness to hurl himself off the mountainside to where the tigress is so she can be saved by eating his body. His disciples become aware of this awe-inspiring act and are moved by the loving and kindness of this Bodhisattva.” (source)
This profound act of self-sacrifice, and the inspiration it caused in the Brahmin’s followers, was the final trigger for Gautama to be born with the merit to become either a world-emperor or a Buddha; only a Bodhisattva has the capacity for this level of compassion—so this brahmin was somehow a bodhisattva, but not a Buddhist per se. (You can read some more Jataka Tales here.)
However, that’s not the whole picture. We learn with the introduction of the Mahayana in the Lotus Sutra, that Shakyamuni Buddha has *always* been enlightened, and in fact there are countless Buddhas that exist beyond space and time, which are only mental constructs. From this perspective, Gautama is simply modeling the path that we all must follow to realize Enlightenment ourselves.
With the former explanation, Gautama simply had the right ingredients to create the recipe for awakening, amassed from many lifetimes of accumulating merit. From the latter explanation, that entire process is a play put on to inspire unenlightened beings to pursue Enlightenment. I think we can hold both explanations simultaneously!
But that doesn’t satisfactorily explain for me whether Gautama was born self-aware, able to speak and walk, and self-proclaim himself as a future Buddha as a newborn. I feel that was an embellishment introduced in the Buddhacarita by Asvagosa. So our speculation is left open-ended.