Q: In Tannisho, Shinran declares that he has not even a single disciple, but is that actually true? If it were true, how could his teachings have been handed down to us?
A: The grace of Amida’s great compassion
I must repay, though I work myself to the bone.
The grace of the teachers who led me
I must repay, though I wear myself to bits.
—Song of Amida’s Grace and Virtue
The benevolence of Amida Buddha and the debt of gratitude I owe to teachers of his Vow can never be repaid, no matter how I exert myself. All I can do is weep at my own inability to make a particle of recompense.
Mindful solely of the depth of Amida’s benevolence, I pay no mind to others’ derision.
—Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment; “Faith” section
When I think of the immeasurable grace of Amida Buddha I cannot contain myself, no matter how I may be attacked or censured.
As these quotations show, Shinran was on fire with gratitude, and staked his very life on spreading Buddhist teachings. It is unimaginable that he would have had no disciples who accepted those teachings and followed him wholeheartedly, undertaking to share in the dissemination of truth.
In fact, many names are inscribed in lists such as Shinran shonin monryo komyo cho, “List of Close Followers of Master Shinran.” If we add the names in that list with those in Nijuyo haicho (“List of 24 Direct Disciples of Shinran”) and those that appear in letters he sent to his followers after returning to Kyoto, it becomes evident that Shinran had an ardent following of more than seventy people.
Shinbutsu-bo, Shoshin-bo, Junshin-bo, Nyoshin-bo, Kenchi-bo, Yuien-bo, Renni-bo, Myoho-bo: eminent figures such as these were widely distributed in the Kanto region of Japan. We know that Shinbutsu-bo, for example, carried on missionary work in Takada, Shimotsuke province (present-day Tochigi); Shoshin-bo in Inuyama, Shimousa province (present-day Chiba prefecture); and Junshin-bo in Kashima, Hitachi province (present-day Ibaraki prefecture). Others are known to have been active in Aizu (Fukushima); Waga (Iwate); Fujita; and Ota, Musashi province (Tokyo and Saitama).
These men regarded Shinran with the same deep affection and reverence that Shinran felt for Honen, as shown in Renni-bo’s ready acceptance of the revelation that Shinran was a manifestation of Amida Buddha.
Then why did Shinran make the unambiguous claim, “I, Shinran, do not have a single disciple”? The answer is that he was not speaking of historical facts.
He meant that he did not think of any of those people as his own disciples.
His claim can be paraphrased this way: “On the surface, they all listened to Buddhism from me, learned of the crucial matter of the afterlife, and applied themselves to listening to Buddhist truth—but in fact that didn’t happen through me, but solely through the working of Amida. None of it took place through my power or good offices, but rather through the benevolent workings of Amida. Had there been any who believed in the Vow and said the nembutsu through my power or good offices, they might have deserved to be called my disciples. But since my every follower was saved entirely through the power of Amida Buddha, I do not claim any of them as my own. They are brothers and friends, saved like me by the power of Amida’s Vow.”
Shinran’s declaration that he had “not a single disciple” is a confession of his faith in other-power.