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 have to 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 meal a day. They do not own money or any possessions to speak of. 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, which also has an unbroken line of nuns, where the robes are black or grey.
Lay persons form the vast majority of Buddhists. In Theravada the ordained Sangha have a special place in that they practice the Dhamma on a full time basis though it is understood that lay persons can also progress very far on the path.
In the Mahayana the distinction is less marked to the extent they can become fully emancipated. Vimalakirti in Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra was a layman, for example. Similarly in some western movements.
In all traditions the lay persons are considered important in that they
give material support to temples and by their daily work provide the economic
foundation for the teaching and practice of Buddhism. They also participate
in such activities as festivals, ceremonies and pilgrimage.
Buddhism has tended to merge into the everyday life of the countries where it has taken root. Buddhist festivals have religious, social and historical dimensions, and in some countries (e.g. Nepal) these are numerous and very colourful. The highpoint of the Buddhist calendar in Theravada countries is WESAK, when the birth, Enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha are celebrated. This generally falls on the full moon day of the month of May each year. In Mahayana (northern) Buddhist countries, there are regional and sectarian differences as to how these great events are celebrated.
There are no universal Buddhist birth, marriage and death ceremonies (rites of passage). These also vary from country to country and from tradition to tradition. In many places, however, monks or priests will participate in some way, by chanting from the scriptures (sutras), giving blessings, delivering a sermon and so on: also the people involved may go to a Buddhist monastery or temple for some kind of ceremony.