Green Koans: Basho's Last Words

Clark Strand

CASE #8: Bashō’s Last Words

On the last day of his life, Master Bashō mostly slept, but awoke around noon to discover that many flies had gathered on the sliding screen. His disciples were taking turns trying to catch them with a lime stick. When he saw this, the master only laughed and said, “Those flies seem delighted to have a sick man around unexpectedly.”


“Bashō,” by Yokoi Kinkoku (c. 1820)

Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694) is Japan’s most celebrated haiku poet. A Zen devotee, he dressed as a priest and spent much of his life traveling on foot from place to place, composing haiku along the way and refereeing contests and renga (linked verse) gatherings. Bashō’s death poem (“Ill on a journey--/ dreams go wandering still/ over the withered moor”) is well known. But, although they are well-documented, few people are familiar with his final words.
Lime sticks are covered with a sweet, sticky glue and function similar to fly paper.

The flies are delighted with Bashō. And Bashō is delighted with the flies. So why are the disciples so upset? It’s a good thing the flies can go on preaching to them after Bashō has died.

Happy flies.
Happy Bashō.
But too bad about the disciples. They’re left holding the stick.

Fly keeps coming back
No matter how many times
The tail swishes it.
It’s just this dance they go through,
Being a tail and a fly.

Green Koans Case 1: Shakyamuni Touches the Earth
Green Koans Case 2: Shantideva's Sword

Green Koans Case 3: The Great Compassionate One's True Eye
Green Koans Case 4: One-Page Dharma
Green Koans Case 5: The Person of the Way
Green Koans Case 6: The Green Yogi
Green Koans Case 7: Rain of the Law
Green Koans Case 8: Bashō's Last Words

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Brian Fuke Howlett's picture

maria pia's picture

I imagine it was painful for the disciples to witness what they did since they viewed those two worlds so separately. It's a simple concept that life and death go hand in hand, yet it's difficult to accept because we become so tied to our emotions. 

prisca10's picture


So why are the disciples so upset?

Don't they realize that Basho and the flies are at ease in each other's world?


It's a good thing the flies can go on preaching to them after Basho has died. 

Even without words, flies and nature say it best - life and death always go hand in hand.


But too bad about the disciples.  They're left holding the stick.

Don't they know they can set it down?


Fly keeps coming back  No matter how many times  The tail swishes it.

A fly needs a tail, and a tail, a fly.  How else can the dance take place?