Every morning in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, and dozens of other Buddhist countries, orange saffron-robed monks move quietly from house to house collecting food. The priests do not say thank you for the offerings, since they feel they are allowing the people a favor, which gains them merit to achieve higher status in the next reincarnation.

Buddhism is based on the sixth-century B.C. teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha. His focus was on man, not on gods. He taught that life is basically a pattern of pain and suffering that results from desire. The ceasing of all human desires, then, would signal the end of suffering. The goal of life is to move as rapidly as possible toward the absence of desire, known as nirvana.

By the third century B.C., Buddhist teachings had been crystallized in written form in a language called Pali (related to Sanskrit) on the island of what is now Sri Lanka.

The nonreligious, philosophical aspects of Buddhism - that it has nothing to do with a Deity - is obvious in the doctrine of anatta. This teaching asserts that a person has no soul - no personal center exists. A human, rather, is composed of five khandas, or "aggregates," that give the illusion of identity. That illusion can be swept away only when the tensions of suffering and desire are erased through discipline. Discipline eventually leads to nirvana ("emptiness" or "nakedness"), the state in which the lack of desire allows perfection and pure peace.

In common practice, Buddhism usually takes the form of merit-making acts and Buddhist festivals and ceremonies. Throughout Buddhist countries, citizens invite monks to chant the Sutras, protective formulas for blessing and protection, in all household ceremonies and in funeral and memorial services for the benefit of the cremated deceased.

For the layperson, the principles of Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path consist of five don'ts: Don't steal, lie, take a life, engage in illicit sex, or drink liquor.

Most Buddhists also reduce their religious commitment to a simple pattern of gaining merits for good karma, the sum of the positive and negative actions in a person's life. Buddhism, as practiced by common folk, is generally an outward activity of doing good to the monks who can give merit, of participating in ceremonies and rituals, and of contributing toward the construction and maintenance of the local Buddhist temple.

Although Buddhism teaches that people are caught in samsara, an eternal cycle of birth and death by which a person's karma moves perpetually on to rebirth, or reincarnation, few typical Buddhists place much emphasis on these cycles and levels of future existence or on gaining nirvana because their life is occupied with the simple struggle to survive. Their interest in gaining merit has more to do with an improved life now.

Many laypersons following Buddhism simply feel that no one can protect himself from the eternally linked laws of karma because a previous form of life has dictated one's level of suffering. This fatalism leads most people to practice the forms of Buddhism, while still believing in the existence of various spirits. Beneath Buddhism's philosophy - in which there is no God and man has no individual soul - most Buddhists harbor a deep, ancient belief in spirits, which they fear.

For more indepth information, check out the Buddhism Religion Profile