(Ushi ni tai shite koto wo danzu; “Playing a koto for a cow”)
No matter what you say to a fool, your words are wasted. Even the most moving stories or the most edifying sermon, or the most beautiful music, will fail to move the heart of a cow.
We begin at the end, with verb 弾ず (danzu), “to play a stringed instrument,” in conclusive form. This is an interesting usage because the character 弾 indicates a sort of elastic snap, and can refer all sorts of related concepts from beads to bullets, stimulation to momentum, popping to repulsion. In this case it refers to the twang of a plucked string, but even for that single meaning, 弾く (hajiku), 弾じる (danjiru), or 弾ずる (danzuru) would all be more common renditions than the aggressive pithiness of danzu. (Note that of the three alternatives, the latter two are common ways of making a single kanji character – grammatically a noun – into a verb, and function identically to simply adding する (suru).)
Anyway, particle を (wo) marks noun 琴 (koto), “koto,” a zither-like stringed instrument, as the direct object of the playing. Skipping back to the beginning, we find the noun 牛 (ushi), “cow.” And the relationship between the cow and the koto being played is described by directional particle に (ni), noun 対 (tai), “with regard to,” and verb する (suru), which turns the preceding noun into a verb, and appears in conjunctive form in order to attach this clause to the koto’s clause.
Note that the koto is Japan’s national instrument; also that, with 13-string and 17-string variants, it seems to have been chosen as an example of the pinnacle of musical mastery.
Apparently, this saying comes to us from the Zuting shiyuan (祖庭事苑, Japanese Sotei jien), a Chinese Song-era annotated dictionary of Zen-related terminology from around 1100 CE. The story goes that in the state of Lu, a famed musician encountered a cow while out walking. Inspired by the pastoral scene, he began playing with his utmost skill, but the cow remained completely unresponsive. When he tried a more common tune, though, the high notes seemed to remind the cow of the sound of biting flies, so it perked up and became attentive. The great scholar concluded, quite rationally, that cows simply have no taste when it comes to music.
That said, it’s quite easy to find videos online nowadays of cows strolling over to watch curiously as humans play music at them, so maybe he just didn’t know his audience.
(“Jibun no itteiru koto wa donna ni gouriteki da to omotte mo, intaanetto de touron suru no wa shosen, ushi ni tai shite koto wo danzu you ni jikan no mudadzukai ni suginai no da to omoete kita.”)
[“I came to believe that no matter how rational your words, a debate on the internet was ultimately nothing more than a waste of time, whistling into the void.”]