04 March 2011


Mandala sand painting is a sacred art traditionally created by Tibetan monks.  In this practice, "millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks." Then, according to tradition, the monks destroy the mandala shortly after its completion.  This is a metaphor for "the impermanence of life."  Watch this video (made from nearly 1000 images) to see the beautiful intricacy of these mandalas and then the abruptness with which they are swept away.

Reciprocity is a popular topic among field study enthusiasts.  It refers to a mutual exchange of privileges or benefits.  I recently learned that children reciprocating the care and attention of their parents when their parents grow old is an important part of Tibetan culture--and an area in which American culture differs a great deal.  Indeed, as we discussed in my prep class, reciprocity is closely tied to kinship.

Americans operate on contracts: I'll give ten dollars and I'll receive this good or service that was priced at ten dollars.  Within my family, my parents are bound to take care of me because that's part of the requirement of having a baby.  However, once I'm an adult, my parents are no longer bound by the contract.

In my prep class I learned that Americans don't know how to reciprocate well.  I certainly learned this in my conversations with Norbu and Mr. Tenzing--they were giving me their time and sharing their knowledge, even personal stories about their families, and I was not doing anything to repay them for their generosity.

Due in part to the Tibetan awareness of the impermanence of life, and also partially due to their belief in doing good in order to generate good karma, Tibetan culture has a "century old custom of love, compassion and warm-heartedness."  Tibetans have already shown me a great deal of kindness, and I'm sure I will experience more while I'm living with a host family in the Tibetan community.  Even though reciprocity isn't something I can list as a benefit to participants in my research on my IRB proposal, it is part of human decency and necessary to proper interaction in any community.

Here are some of my ideas for how I will reciprocate this kindness:

  • Smile and say "toCHENah" (which, I learned from Tibetan, means thanks)
  • Give photographs of me with my family 
  • Take people out to dinner
  • Spend time with my host family (perhaps watching TV?)
  • Help prepare meals, clean, launder, etc.

I'd really appreciate any other suggestions!

Video credit camera_obscura [busy]


  1. Yeah, I am really curious what the proper way to show reciprocity will be in our community. It will probably be much different than what we are expecting. I wonder what is the best thing to do for people to show that we are genuine and really appreciate what it is they are doing?

  2. I am having the thought that reciprocity can be particularly challenging to do well when we go from a culture that primarily values "doing" to one that may place more value in 'being.' Contracts typically involve an action of visible exchange - I give or do and you give or do. Sometimes I think we have a harder time learning how to "be" in such a way that expresses appropriate reciprocity. Certainly this may include doing or giving, but perhaps it is not limited to that. Any thoughts on this as it may relate to your own experiences past, present and in-field?

  3. Rachel, I agree that showing genuine appreciation is a great way to reciprocate kindness. There was a beautiful moment in this interview where I was complimenting Norbu on his excellent work for the TCV. He didn't want to accept the compliment, but I insisted. That was one of the moments that I felt that Norbu and I were friends.

    Ashley, that's a hard question! Maybe it means just being a genuine friend to someone. I don't know, though!

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  5. I also wonder how we will be able to show reciprocity in India. I wish I had some amazing ideas to give you! But I'm sure we'll be able to figure it out while we're there.
    Question: where did you find the video of the sand mandala? It's really fascinating!

  6. I like your faith in us Elizabeth :)

    Answer: I found it on flickr. If you click the link after "video credit" at the very end of the post you'll find my source.