Three Young Monks Were Sent to a Brothel…

(A Zen fable for today, taken from the book Zen Fables for Today)

To a brothel the controversial Zen master took three students, paid the madam, and announced to the startled youths,
“I will see you tomorrow after the third bell in the Zendo [meeting hall].”

Next morning after the class assembled, the master quizzed the three monks one by one with the question,
“What lesson did you take from this experience?”

“Unlike certain others I learned that I can rise above desires of the flesh. I made the woman sleep on the floor,” announced the first.

“I consciously resolved to have intercourse but for only one reason,” said the second, “to prove that I could treat this woman not as an object, not as something separate from myself, but as an integral part of my person. In all truth I tried repeatedly and was unable to achieve that elevated state of mind – five-and-a-half times.”

The third young monk began, “My objective was to know a woman truly by being one with her, hiding nothing – not even my heart.

We talked and made love and talked and made love until we could do neither anymore and we went to sleep like nested spoons. I discovered how lonely I have been and must now reconsider my commitment to a celibate life and this monastery.”

“What lesson should we have taken?” the class asked in unison.

“No lesson,” said the master with a shrug. “Other than what you teach yourselves. No teacher other than experience.”


“We’re not Gonna Need that in Real Life,” they said.

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.”

~ Plato

We’ve heard it before. Our working friends say it, our parents admit it: more than 50% of what we learn in university, we’re not going to use in ‘real-life’. And you’re hearing it from me now that I earned my degree in Psychology, spending years learning how to deal with people, and currently work as a Market Research Executive, spending my days dealing with products and numbers.



I’d fit the profile, of someone who ‘has wasted their time studying’. Unless, there’s more to learn in our studying days than what we’re ‘supposed to’. Unless, I actually did.

1. I remember my first few days in uni flipping through my textbooks and going, “What on earth did I get myself into…” By the end of my three years I could probably give a two-hour lecture on Psychology if I had to. Our uni days are the time we learn how to be an expert at something. Because in the ‘real world’, where many of us will find ourselves doing what we are not put up for, it will need that same level of attitude before we can really say, “Yup, this is what I do now.” Only in a much shorter time, with no textbook as a guide. So be thankful that,


2. University is a time we learn how to be resourceful. We’ve had that one assignment we can’t find the solution in Wikipedia for, that event project we need to find sponsors for. Remember those times we took the trouble going around asking the right people, searching further than Google, or taking the initiative to plunge right into something to learn by doing. Because in the ‘real world’, as we scavenge for clues to figure out precisely how to do what we do and do it well, it will need that same amount of effort before we can really say, “Yup, I got this.”


3. And just as we settle down, comes the heightened responsibilities, the demands and the deadlines of the ‘real world’; the job request that comes in the morning and needs completion by the day’s end. Takes you back to all those times you burnt that midnight oil completing a 1000-word report overnight. But if you have learned how to shut out all distraction and focus your mind to produce requirements-meeting good-quality work under uncompromisable time pressure, then you have learned in university one important skill you will need in ‘real-life’.


Some of us will be fortunate enough to be able to bring into the workplace precisely the knowledge and skills they have been taught. And some of us will be okay not to. Because the fact is that we will still have learned, often more than we realize or give ourselves credit for. And as long as we invest our efforts beyond the information and into the process, we will learn just what we need in life.



As written for and published on Leaderonomics Campus on May 15, 2012.