“Though his teaching is highly systematic, there is no single text that can be ascribed to the Buddha in which he defines the architecture of the Dhamma,” writes Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi in his highly acclaimed book In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. “The purpose of the present book is to develop and exemplify such a scheme. I here attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the Buddha’s teaching that incorporates a wide variety of suttas into an organic structure.”
Anyone who tried to study Buddhism knows how difficult it might be to orient oneself among the numerous doctrinal schools that have a unique way of following and presenting the Buddha’s teaching. In an article I wrote a while ago titled “What is Theravada Buddhism?” I suggested that it’s a good starting point for anyone who is new to the path and trying to build a solid foundation for further studies. Should you choose to start your journey from this particular school, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book In the Buddha’s Words (paperback | audiobook) can be a great asset that will help you increase your knowledge and gain a deeper insight into the inner structure of the Dhamma. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Although my particular use of this scheme may be original, it is not sheer innovation but is based upon a threefold distinction that the Pali commentaries make among the types of benefits to which the practice of the Dhamma leads: 1) welfare and happiness visible in this present life; 2) welfare and happiness pertaining to future lives; and 3) the ultimate good, Nibbana.
The first type of benefit the study of the Buddha’s teaching is intended to bring, namely “the welfare and happiness visible in this present life,” is connected to adhering to ethical norms in our family relationships, livelihood, and communal activities. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Although Early Buddhism is often depicted as a radical discipline of renunciation directed to a transcendental goal, the Nikayas reveal the Buddha to have been a compassionate and pragmatic teacher who was intent on promoting a social order in which people can live together peacefully and harmoniously in accordance with ethical guidelines. This aspect of Early Buddhism is evident in the Buddha’s teachings on the duties of children to their parents, on the mutual obligations of husbands and wives, on right livelihood, on the duties of the ruler toward his subjects, and on the principles of communal harmony and respect.
The second type of benefit to which the Buddha’s teaching leads is “the welfare and happiness pertaining to the future life.” It’s connected to the Buddhist concept of obtaining a fortunate rebirth and success in future lives through the accumulation of merit, a term which refers to wholesome kamma (Sanskrit: karma). Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Our deeds generate kamma, a potential to produce fruits that correspond to their own intrinsic tendencies. Then, when internal and external conditions are suitable, the kamma ripens and produces the appropriate fruits. In ripening, the kamma rebounds upon us for good or for harm depending on the moral quality of the original action. This may happen either later in the same life in which the action was done, in the next life, or in some distant future life.
The third type of benefit that the Buddha’s teaching is intended to bring is the ultimate good, Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), which can be attained through the full development of the Noble Eightfold Path. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
This path [to liberation] builds upon the transformed understanding and deepened perspective on the nature of the world that arise from our recognition of the perils in sensual pleasure, the inevitability of death, and the vicious nature of samsara…. It aims to lead the practitioner to the state of liberation that lies beyond all realms of conditioned existence, to the same sorrowless and stainless bliss of Nibbana that the Buddha himself attained on the night of his enlightenment.
Complement In the Buddha’s Words, one of the best books to help you grasp the overall scheme of the Buddha’s teaching, with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on liberating quality of limitations in Buddhism, the First Noble Truth, the Second Noble Truth, and the Noble Eightfold Path.