If you go to Asia and visit a wat (Thailand) or gompa (Tibet), you will enter something that looks very much like an abbey, a church, or cathedral, being run by people who look like monks or priests, displaying objects that look like icons, which are enshrined in alcoves that look like chapels and revered by people who look like worshippers.
If you talk to one of the people who look like monks, you will learn that he has a view of the world that seems very much like a belief system, revealed a long time ago by someone else who is revered like a god, after whose death saintly individuals have interpreted the revelations in ways like theology. There have been schisms and reforms, and these have given rise to institutions that are just like churches.
Buddhism, it would seem, is a religion.
But is it?
When asked what he was doing the Buddha replied that he taught “anguish and the ending of anguish.” When asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or non-existence after death), he remained silent. He said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as “God.”
Gautama encouraged a life that steered a middle course between indulgence and mortification. He described himself as an openhanded teacher without an esoteric doctrine reserved for an elite. Before he died he refused to appoint a successor, remarking that people should be responsible for their own freedom. Dharma practice would suffice as their guide.
This existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism was articulated in the language of Gautama’s place and time: the dynamic cultures of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. A radical critic of many deeply held views of his times, he was nonetheless a creature of those times. The axioms that he foresaw as lasting long after his death were refracted through the symbols, metaphors and imagery of his world.
Religious elements, such as worship of the Buddha’s person and uncritical acceptance of his teachings, were doubtless present even in the first communities that formed around Gautama. Even if for five hundred years after his death his followers resisted the temptation to represent him as a quasi-divine figure, they eventually did so. Asa the dharma was challenged by other systems of thought in its homeland and spread abroad into foreign cultures such as China, ideas that had been part of the worldview of sixth-century-B.C.E. India became hardened into dogmas. It was not long before a self-respecting Buddhist would be expected to hold (and defend) opinions about he origin and end of the universe, whether the body and mind were identical or different, and the fate of the Buddha after death.