Comden and Green on Intentionality in Buddhism

by Dan Nussbaum

“Long Before I Knew You” is a romantic song from the musical, The Bells are Ringing, which originally ran on Broadway in 1956 and became a movie in 1960.

Long Before I Knew You

Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adoph Green

Dearest, dearest, one thing I know, everything I feel for you, started many ages ago.

Long before I knew you,
Long before I met you.
I was sure I’d find you someday somehow.
I pictured someone who’d walk and talk
And smile as you do,
And make me feel as you do right now.
All that was long before I held you,
Long before I kissed you,
Long before I touched you and felt this glow.
But now you really are here and now at last I know
That long before I knew you I loved you so.

Here’s Barbara Cook singing it on YouTube.

What seems like a pretty song with a sentimental lyric upon examination turns out to be a pretty song that raises philosophical issues having to do with what we know and how we know it. How do we know our experience? What gives it its flavor, its solidity? Why does experience feel as if it’s happening to me?

The singer tells us she “pictured someone who’d walk and talk and smile” just the way the one she’s in love with walks, talks and smiles. She sings about a wish fulfilled. The feeling that when something new happens that there’s an aspect of familiarity about it, that it’s not really new, because it was experienced in such full detail in the imagination. It might feel uncanny. Destiny has made it all happen. Or perhaps the singer made it happen by the power of her dreaming.

“Everything I feel for you I felt ages ago,” the first line in the song, could also be the title of a dharma talk on how intention is seen in early Buddhism.

In Buddhist philosophy intention includes the same process that we conventionally regard as intention: thinking about performing an act before doing it. Juries debate premeditation in deciding whether a defendant should serve time or not..

But the early Buddhists saw intention as including a broader range of actions and mental behaviors. They  also regarded the daydreaming typified in the song as intention. When the sweetheart in the song appeared, the stage had already been set. Their relationship didn’t begin with their first meeting, its history includes the protagonist preparing for it in her imagination. Fantasy is intention. But that wasn’t the beginning either. The conditions that led her to conjure up those traits in him go back even earlier. Did she identify with a couple in love that she saw on a movie screen when she was younger? Did she think, I want to be in love just like them?

When you admire a character in a novel, imagine a career, leaf through a catalog of bathroom fixtures, consult with an investment strategist about retirement, do an online search for baby names even while thinking I’ll never have children, then you’re adding some intentional energy to processes already in motion. The song catches the idea that there can be a long gap between these intentions and some kind of fruition. You find yourself living in Alaska, making eye contact with a caribou  one day and wonder how you got there, forgetting that as a small child your happiest moments included bright mornings in winter building snow forts with your friends.

When people hear that the Buddha defined karma as intention they may think if they can’t find premeditation before an action they took then they’re off the hook, like a defendant hearing a not-guilty verdict. But then they hear that the Buddha defined intention so broadly that having a fantasy is karma. Back on the hook. But karma isn’t about punishment for doing bad deeds. Teachings about intention allow us to learn more about how our thoughts resemble acts that we take rather than insignificant airy nothings.

The protagonist in the song didn’t  make her lover appear by imagining him. But when someone shows up who reminds her of her daydreams, she’s hooked. Her prior fantasizing created an ideal object of love; she’s already in love with that. When she sings that she knew him before she met him she signals that she’s fallen in love with an idea of a person, more than the person in front of her.

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