Buddhists follow three main traditions; the Theravada or Southern tradition; the Mahayana or Northern tradition; and the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition.
Long ago, Buddhism began to spread southwards from its place of origin in Northern India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Indo-China and other South East Asian countries. It also moved Northwards through Kashmir Afghanistan along the ‘Silk road’ into the Himalayan kingdoms (Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal), Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia, and also into China, and later Korea and Japan. This was a fortunate development because Buddhism had all but died out in India after the Muslim incursions of the eleventh Century CE. In more modern times, the spread of Communism has also virtually obliterated Buddhism from various other countries where it was once strongly established (e.g. China, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia etc.). There is now a resurgence of Buddhism in these countries. Nowadays, however, Buddhism is attracting an increasing following in Europe and the Americas. In Asia, it is thriving in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Korea and Japan
In Theravada (Southern) Buddhist countries, the monks (bhikkhus) are easily recognized because they wear the characteristic orange robe, have their heads shaven, and go about barefoot. They are given a new name and the robe, and will live according to a code of 227 rules (the Vinaya). A monk may decide to disrobe (cease being a monk) at any time.
Bhikkhus live a strict, simple life of meditation, study and work, with very short hours of sleep and only one main meal a day. They do not own money or any possessions. They help with the important task of teaching and assisting lay people, and conducting ceremonies.
In Mahayana (Northern) Buddhist countries there are two main branches, the Tibetan with monks wearing the characteristic maroon robe, and the Far Eastern Zen, which also has an unbroken line of nuns, where the robes are black or grey.
Courtesy: The Buddhist Society, London