Saving grace, as was made clear by Shan Tao's dream and advice to Tao Cho, only comes through the sange-mon.
Sange means confession or contrition. The sange mon is, literally, the “gate of contrition”.
According to the story, toward the end of his life, Tao Cho was worried about his own karma. The thing that worried him was that during his time as a great teacher he had caused quite a number of monasteries and Buddhist centres to be built and in the course of building it is almost invariably and unavoidably the case that many small creatures get killed and their habitat destroyed. Tao Cho was worried that all this destruction would have created bad karma for him. After he had talked about this, sharing his concern, his disciple Shan Tao had a dream. In the dream Shan Tao saw that Tao Cho had to make a confession to the community. Shan Tao told Tao Cho about the dream. Tao Cho did as the dream instructed and soon afterwards Tao Cho died peacefully.
Tao Cho was able to receive the saving grace of Amida because he had opened his heart.
It is good to reflect upon the degree of sensitivity here. Where I live I am continually engaged in gardening and in building work. Inevitably worms and insects and occasionally larger creatures get damaged or die as a result of my actions. What about in the building of motorways or cities? The “modern” utilitarian way of thinking is insensitive to all this destruction of life.
We see here the functioning of the master-disciple relationship in an interesting light. In this instance it is the master who receives advice via the dream of the disciple. Here again there is a great sensitivity at work. Because of the deep love between them, this is possible. Here there is no competition in cleverness or achievement, only two humble souls in deep communion.
When such fine sensitivity exists, then there is saving grace. By sensitivity, here, I do not mean pursuing principles to an extreme. What I am trying to find words for is a kind of tenderness in which the glory and tragedy of human existence - the fact that you cannot build even a temple without crushing beetles - yields a poignancy to all our being, both in ourselves and in relation to one another. This is why we take refuge.
Such tenderness existed between Tao Cho and his disciple and it is that spirit that is still being transmitted to us more than a millennia later.