“The Doctrine & Discipline that I have set forth and laid down for you shall be your teacher after I am gone.” (The Buddha)
The Lord Buddha often referred to his teachings as the Dhamma & Vinaya, which can be translated as the Doctrine & Discipline, and which are known as the Two Fundamental Teachings, or Pavacana. This divides the Buddhist Way into two main aspects: the teachings, along with the rules and guidelines for Buddhist practice, which encapsulate the three sections of the Tipitaka, or the Pali Canon, which is the vast collection of Buddhist scriptures. These three sections are: Vinaya Pitaka, Suttanta Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka, and form the scriptural basis for the practice of Theravada Buddhism, which is found in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand (including the lineage of Ajahn Chah).
Regarding the Dharma, this covers a multitude of utterances that the Buddha gave on the nature of existence, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics, along with more complicated teachings such as paticca-samuppada (dependent arising). In the Tipitaka, the section called the Suttanta Pitaka mainly contains teachings on the Doctrine, as above, as given by the Buddha and his immediate disciples. The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a collection of highly systemized philosophical teachings elaborating on those found in the Suttas.
The first section of the Tipitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, centers on those teachings of the Blessed One concerned with the discipline of the Sangha, the orders of monks and nuns – the Theravada Buddhist nun order has long died out, in fact, although it is currently being reinstated in several countries as you read this. If one wishes to find out how a particular rule for bhikkhus came about, and what the Buddha actually taught on it, it is in the Vinaya Pitaka that one will find the answer.
There are many good translations of the major parts of the Tipitaka available in the English language nowadays, often in concise forms which organize them into subjects convenient to the reader. One such translation is “In the Buddha’s Words,” which has been translated by the highly respected American scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, and is published by Wisdom Publications. For superb free online resources on the Tipitaka, as well as related teachings including those of the great Thai forest ajahns, go to: Access to Insight
When ascertaining the worth of bhikkhus today, it is to the Tipitaka that one can turn to see if they are living up to the Doctrine & Discipline set forth by the Lord Buddha over two and a half thousand years ago. For, if their teachings deviate from those of the Blessed One, or their conduct is not in line with the Vinaya as taught by him, then it is probably better to seek out different teachers for one’s spiritual guidance. (This is one of the major factors in my own deference to the bhikkhus of the Forest Sangha of Ajahn Chah – they’re teachings echo the Buddha’s, and their adherence to the monastic rules is immaculate, unlike most monks in modern Thailand.)