Ethics are rules. They tell us what we should or should not do. Ethics are not about some abstract, ultimate notion of right or wrong (these concepts are empty, that is to say, fluid and dynamic). Ethics are based on practical observation. If you put your fingers in the fire, it will hurt. One ethical rule might be: don’t put your fingers in the fire.
Alistair Crowley dubbed himself the “Wickedest Man on Earth”. But even he saw the inner meaning of ethics in spiritual life. In his Liber Aba, Book Four, he writes about yama and niyama in Yoga:
They are the "moral qualities" and "good works" which are supposed to predispose to mental calm... Some of these are only the "virtues" of a slave, invented by his master to keep him in order. The real point of the Hindu "Yama" is that breaking any of these would tend to excite the mind...Subsequent theologians have tried to improve upon the teachings of the Masters, have given a sort of mystical importance to these virtues; they have insisted upon them for their own sake, and turned them into puritanism and formalism. Thus "non-killing," which originally meant "do not excite yourself by stalking tigers," has been interpreted to mean that it is a crime to drink water that has not been strained, lest you should kill the animalcula.Of course, being Alistair Crowley, he takes it a step further:
But this constant worry, this fear of killing anything by mischance is, on the whole, worse than a hand-to-hand conflict with a grisly bear. If the barking of a dog disturbs your meditation, it is simplest to shoot the dog, and think no more about it.But Crowley’s point is well taken. Anyone who has spent five minutes learning meditation knows that the mind is hard to control. It wanders, it talks, it dreams, it drifts. Swami Vivekandanda wrote, in his Raja Yoga:
How hard it is to control the mind! Well has it been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough some one made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy at the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!
The wise sages of old knew this “monkey mind” well. With such a mind, how is it possible to investigate reality? The mind must be calmed, settled and soothed before it can be a proper instrument of spiritual investigation.
Another popular metaphor for the mind is water. Zen masters like to talk about our minds like a cup of water with dirt in it. When it is stirred, the mind is unclear. But if you let it settle, the dirt dribbles to the bottom and the water is clear.
The sages, both Buddhist and Taoist, discovered that the first step on the spiritual path is the practice of ethics.
The simple rule behind ethical conduct is this: immorality is agitating to the mind. A mind that is hooked on sense pleasures never rests. It is looking, looking, looking; waiting and hoping for the next pleasure to come along. A mind that is full of hate is no longer an open, sensitive mind: it hardens, shrinks, tightens. Everything that is considered morally “bad” is rooted in this.
In Buddhism, the three root poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. In Buddhist psychology, once the mind comes in contact with forms (rocks, trees, flowers, faces) one of three instant feeling reactions arise: a pull toward (craving the pleasant), a pull away (aversion from the unpleasant), or nothing at all (neutral).
This movement of the mind are the roots of the three poisons. The three poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. These three movements become the axle of the Wheel of Life, powering the entire engine of life, death, and rebirth. A craving mind, a resisting mind, or a numb mind are incapable of seeing clearly. Seeing clearly is the foundation of realization.
Through thoughts, words, and actions, the mind develops habits of acting in a certain way. Over time, these actions wear a groove into the mind, just as a stream wears a groove into rock. Eventually, the path becomes so well worn and smooth it might hardly be noticed.
Ethical conduct seeks not only to calm the mind, but to ensure it is a healthy mind. Lao Tzu pointed out that the soft tongue survives longer than hard teeth. The nature of the mind is to be soft, flexible, flowing. Habits harden, deaden, and slow the mind.
So it could be said that when some one commits a sin (the word for sin in ancient Greece meaning "to miss the mark"), they are the first victim of the act. A murderer in the act of killing kills a part of himself: the mind becomes less sensitive, harder, less resilient. A thief will find that she gets no rest. The reward of the morally upright is a calm, clear mind and a good night’s sleep.
This is where Crowley was wrong. Killing the dog that disturbs your meditation will harden the mind, making true meditation even more difficult.
So why is ethical conduct given first? When the mind is agitated, restless, and unclear, nothing will be seen. In order to collect and cool the mind to the point where it is able to see even basic spiritual truths, it is given a moral code to follow. This code itself will help the mind calm down. Then one can begin meditation properly. However, meditation, investigation, or contemplation without a solid moral foundation will be useless because the mind will be upset and whirling.