The village clung to the steep mountainside like a foolhardy mountaineer who suddenly realised he had climbed beyond his abilities and was now too overcome with vertigo to move either up or down. The houses were old, decayed and obviously unmaintained for many years. Smoke was rising from a few of the crumbling chimneys but most houses were just empty shells, offering shelter only to the few birds and rodents that could survive at these altitudes.
Tired from the long climb up from the valley he hoped to find shelter for the night in one of the occupied houses. Maybe there was a chance of a warm meal or a soft mattress. But just some warmth and protection against the piercing wind would be worth a lot.
Having reached the village square, he chose the very first house with smoke coming from its chimney. One could barely call it a house: it was a timber construction that leaned against the stone wall of the house behind it like an old man pausing for breath after a short walk up a steep flight of stairs. The house looked like he felt. Maybe the recognition between fellow sufferers would encourage some hospitality towards him?
He knocked on the door.
It took a while before he heard how a bolt was moved aside and someone laboriously pulled open the heavy, crooked wooden door just enough for a face to peer through. An old man looked at him curiously with eyes that were surprisingly clear and lively in that old and furrowed face.
“There you are.” the old man said, “That took you long enough.” “What do you mean?” he said, taken aback, “Were you expecting me? Or did you see me climb up from the valley?”
“No, none of that” the old man replied, “but I knew eventually someone like you would arrive and knock on my door. The very existence of this door in my house made that inevitable.” “Why?” he said, somewhat confused, “The existence of this door bears no relation to whether someone ends up knocking on it, does it? Why would this door make my knocking on it inevitable?” “Right!” the old man said happily, “Exactly! A normal door lets people enter and leave and that justifies its existence. But I have been sitting inside since this house was built up around me. I never go outside and none of the villagers would dream of coming in. And yet, here is this door. It’s obvious!” De old man made those last words sound like the triumphant conclusion of a convincingly won debate.
When he didn’t immediately reply, the old man started laughing. “Never mind, never mind. I don’t expect you to understand this straight away. After all, I have spent my whole life thinking about these things. Whereas you, if I judge you correctly, have barely begun to think.” The old man pulled the door further in now and invited him in with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. “Be welcome in my domain, long expected traveller.”
The old man’s smile was too friendly and inviting to resist. He followed the old man inside the dimly lit interior. There he saw a mattress and blanket against the stone wall and a low table with a lit candle and two tin plates on it. In a corner stood a wooden crate with a water pitcher, a couple of mugs and few chunks of bread. In a niche in the stone wall a wood fire was burning, with its smoke disappearing through a smoke hole in the roof. The rest of the room was bare and empty. A place to shelter against the winter storms. Nothing more.
The old man told him to sit by the table and offered him a piece of bread and a mug of luke-warm water. “Please enjoy.” de old man said, “My palace is your palace, my abundance is yours.” Too perplexed to respond he ate and drank what the old man had given him.
They sat in silence for a while.
Suddenly the old man got up and walked to the outside wall. That turned out to contain a small wooden panel that could be moved aside to reveal a narrow opening. It was just wide enough to reveal a bit of the street outside. “Come,” the old man said, “it is about to happen. You don’t want to miss this.” He stood up to stand next to the old man and peer through the narrow opening with him. “What’s going to happen then?” he asked, but the old man gestured for him to be silent and to keep watching.
And then it happened. Slowly a cow moved past their view. First there was the pink nose, then a large, dark eye, a nervously moving ear, a bit of a horn. Next came its back rolling past like a slow-moving wave. The display ended with the tail, with its dangling plume as a final punctuation mark disappearing from view. And then there was nothing again.
The old man looked at him triumphantly. “Now you have seen what I have been thinking about all these years. This is the mystery I was called to solve: the mystery of causality.”
Not understanding, He looked at the old man. “The mystery of what?” he asked.
“Of causality, dimwit. The beginning and ending of all things.” “But all I saw was a cow passing by.” he said “What does that have to do with causality?”
The old man’s grin was as wide as his face now. “All he saw was a cow passing by. A cow! That’s all. The Universe revealed itself to us, the beginning and ending of everything unfolded before our very eyes. And all he saw was a cow.” The old man looked at him as if this should have been enough of an explanation for him to show some understanding. When he didn’t respond, the old man shook his head. “Boo!” the old man shouted, so loudly he stepped back, startled, and knocked his head hard against a low hanging beam. “Boo! Boo! Boo!” The old man clearly enjoyed his reaction. When he touched his head to feel if he wasn’t bleeding the old man burst out laughing. “He had to split open his head to let in some understanding.” the old man laughed. “His eyes are closed, his ears are clogged, maybe the hole in his skull is letting in some light.”
Suddenly the old man composed himself and gestured for him to sit down. The old man joined him on the floor. “That’s enough fun for now,” the old man said, “these are serious matters. Now tell me exactly what you just saw, and I will explain it to you.”
He took some time to think. “I was watching the street. That opening in the wall is very narrow, so I couldn’t see much. Then a cow came along. Then all I could see was that bit of the street again. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” the old man shook his head in disbelief. “How easy it is for the unenlightened mind to under-appreciate the mystery of existence.” The old man paused for some time, deep in thought. Then he continued: “First there was the street. Then there was a cow. Then the street again. Great. You saw what was there. But what you didn’t see is what it’s really all about. Where did that cow come from?” The old man looked at him with a penetrating gaze. “Where has that cow gone to? What causes that cow to appear and disappear like that?”
The old man straightened his back to emphasise his words. “I have thought about this my whole life. I even had this house built around me so I could completely dedicate myself to this task without getting distracted. And finally, after endless observation and deep reflection, I can now reveal to you my answer. Because you found my door, you will be the first one to hear this from me. Listen … “ the old man paused to heighten the tension.
“… the answer to the mystery of existence is this: …” another pause “… the nose causes the tail!” Victoriously, the old man looked at him. “The nose causes the tail. That’s the secret.”
He looked at the old man with his mouth open. This couldn’t be true. This had to be a joke. He laughed nervously. “The nose causes the tail? Is that it? That’s the answer to everything? That’s what I climbed this mountain for? That’s what I bumped my head for against your stupid roof?” His laughter had turned into anger. “Old man, you’re out of your mind. ‘The nose causes the tail’ is an old koan, a Zen-buddhist riddle. It illustrates our tendency to explain things on the basis of our limited observations. When we forget that we only see a little piece of reality, we tend to over-generalise that small piece and read more into it than we should. We see the Universe in a grain of sand. We see a cow and think it explains creation. The nose doesn’t cause the tail. That’s nonsense. That nose simply comes first because a cow walks forwards not backwards. You are confusing correlation with causality, that’s all.”
He stopped to catch his breath and to see how the old man would react. Would he be upset by this little rant? Had he been too hard on the old man? The old man had apparently spent his whole life thinking about this answer. Should he have left him his dignity and simply agree with him?
He was a bit surprised to see the old man still grinning at him. “Are you done with your story?” the old man asked. “A koan, you say? A riddle about the limitations of our observations? If that is true, O wise one, explain to me this. You saw that cow pass by; first the nose, then the tail, then nothing at all. Where has that cow gone to then? Just look outside. Nothing there. Just an empty street. Can you explain that? The old man looked at him. “I don’t think so.”
“Of course I can explain that.” He said. “That cow just walked through the street on its way to a meadow somewhere outside the village. It’s probably grazing there now. Or it was on its way to a stable nearby. Simple. No mystery, no revelation, just an ordinary cow on its way from point A to point B.”
“Oh” the old man said, “simple, eh? That cow is just standing in a stable or grazing in a meadow. You are sure of that?”
The old man pulled open the door for him and said: “I never leave my house and yet have managed to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. You have been everywhere but appear to have seen nothing. Please go outside for me and see if you can find that cow. And then come back. We’ll talk further then.” The old man waited for him to step outside and then firmly shut the door behind him.
Once outside, he looked around. Where would that cow have gone to? The direction from which it had come was the same direction he had entered the village from. The cow then had passed the old man’s door into that dark, narrow alley. He took a few steps in that same direction. To his surprise he almost immediately ran into the same stone wall the old man’s house was leaning against. The alley ran straight into that wall, which also flanked both sides of the narrow street. A stone wall, without doors or windows, or any other openings of any sort. The ‘alley’ was not much more than a fairly shallow niche in a very high wall.
Where then had that cow gone to? There were not exits here. The niche itself was barely deep enough to contain the whole beast and yet he had seen with his own eyes how the animal had walked past and disappeared from sight. To be certain, he felt along all sides of the niche. Nothing. Heavy stones, impossible to move. No hidden trapdoors either. Now he really was confused. He turned around and knocked on the old man’s door.
The old man opened the door straight away, still with that grin on his wrinkled face. “Did you find the cow?” he asked, mockingly. “Was she grazing in that imaginary meadow of yours? Or resting in the stable of your fabricated reality? I hope you learn something from this, with your koans and buddhist riddles. The world reveals itself to those who can see it for what it is and can interpret what they see. That cow is both the mystery and the answer to everything. I will repeat this one more time, before sending you on your way: the nose causes the tail! And that’s all there is to say.”
The old man started to close the door and muttered “confusing correlation with causality, my nose!” And as his face disappeared behind the door as it slammed shut, the old man, too, vanished forever.