An interview with the artist, former nun, and latex lover Damcho Dyson about the different masks we wear and awakening to who we truly are
The image is stunning: A young woman sits in perfect meditation posture, cross-legged, hands folded at the heart, in front of a Bodhi tree leaf, but instead of in a more traditional Buddhist garb she is clad from top to toe in black latex. The story behind the image is even more intriguing: The Australian-born artist Damcho Dyson used to wear a very different kind of outfit. For ten years, she wore the simple maroon robes of a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Damcho is the Tibetan name her spiritual teacher gave her when she ordained. Born Michelle Tonkin, she was a successful installation artist in Melbourne before she moved to Europe to live in a Buddhist center and took celibate vows at age 29. She served as the personal attendant to many great Tibetan masters, including HH the Dalai Lama. Now, at 44, she circles back to her art to pursue a PhD at the Royal College of Art in London and to explore the connection between femininity and ritual, boundaries and breaking them, and the different masks we wear.
Michaela Haas: You call your project “Bodhi Unbound.” What is Bodhi? And what do you mean by unbound?
Damcho Dyson: Bodhi is a Sanskrit word meaning “awaken/awake.” In Buddhist terminology, we frequently hear Bodhi coupled with the words ‘sattva’ (being) for awakened being, or ‘citta’ (mind/heart) for awakened mind. The pronunciation of Bodhi is strikingly similar to body, and so when coupled with the word unbound, I am hoping to evoke the potential of being loosened from the restrictions of form, or preconceptions related to the body. I hope it might allude to a potential of awakening from within our very own form.
What inspired you to become a nun at age 29?
The first inspiration to become a nun came when I was 23 years old. At a time of great personal challenge, I started to study Tibetan Buddhism and Christian Mysticism. I was seeking a way to find meaning in life and wanted to understand the experiences of mystics of the past and looked to them for inspiration. Using my art practice as the contemplative medium, I was considering the writings and life stories of historical figures such as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Augustine in the Christian tradition, and Padmasambahva and Yeshe Tsogyal in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I remember a striking heart-felt connection with both lineages when, respectively, I connected with the fire of the love of god in the heart, and the practice of devotion. I knew then that I wanted to immerse myself in a devout practice and yearned to be a nun. But I also recognized that I was just a beginner student in both of these traditions and so I should commit to one path of spiritual practice, to study and practice and test it out before making such a radical life change. I determined then to choose Buddhism as I felt like I had made a connection with a tradition and teachers that embodied a living wisdom and recognized that this was a unique opportunity.
Did you continue to express yourself through art?
I continued to use my art practice as the mode through which I reckoned with the concepts that I was studying such as shunyata (usually translated as ‘emptiness’); contemplation on death and impermanence; on the limitless potential of the mind; of the law of cause and effect and the importance of intention. It was very fertile territory for exploration through art and I aspired that it would be of some benefit to my audience and at the very least a fresh and relatable view in a contemporary art scene that was largely shrouded in critical theories and art trends. Though numerous people may have viewed my exhibitions, I felt that those who might actually gain something worthwhile from it were exceptionally limited. Seeing the transience of art trends, my effort began to feel futile. I more and more came to believe that the most important element of the practice was the intent rather than the form. I also started to recognise that the activities of the Buddhist teachers whom I had made connections with were doing far greater beneficial work for the sake of others than my art installations were. So, it seemed logical to me that I should put down the metaphorical paintbrush and sit on a cushion where my creative mental intent would be cultivated like the mystics of the past to practice and contemplate wholeheartedly for the benefit of all beings. In my last exhibition about 6 months before I took ordination, I sat in a gallery for three weeks, systematically erasing over 1000 drawings which were hanging on one wall (the result of three previous art projects), and then hung the empty drawing on the opposite wall, thus negating the form and validating the intent.
What made you give back your vows and your robes 10 years later?
Being a monastic was an incredible journey and was one in which I feel I often thrived. I experienced the very devotion that I had read about early on in my path, and it was an exceptional fuel that transformed my meditation practice and service to the Buddhist community into an arena of joy, compassion and insight. At the same time, as one of only a handful of monastics in a community of thousands of lay practitioners, I felt like eyes were constantly on me to uphold a cosmetic ideal of a good nun: poised, emotions in check, never tempted to stray from the vow of celibacy, able to withstand endless hours of service any time of the day or night, at the expense of my own needs and health or regardless of my own urges such as wishing to be creative with my hands, or spend an afternoon cooking a delicious meal for friends.
The Buddhist teachings say the mind is the driving principle, and the emotions and body follow its lead. I had such high ideals for what I was trying to achieve, of what I represented and for the way in which I wanted to please my teacher and community, that my mind worked tirelessly to be good and do good. However — despite knowing it intellectually — I missed one crucial point of this which was to also be good and do good towards oneself. So, I burnt out.
What did you do to nourish yourself?
In an attempt to remedy this, I took myself to India, where I romantically pictured myself finding a Himalayan nunnery where I would be able to devote more time to meditation practice. Whilst in India, I spent an intensive 5 weeks cloistered in an Ayurvedic hospital. The treatment was simple but profound. One way in which medicinal herbs were administered daily was through the skin with an oil massage on a hard wooden table. Believing that I might misconstrue such sensorial touch as sensual and indulgent, I made every effort to view this as essential medical treatment that would help me regain my strength so that I could be ‘a better nun’ and continue to serve others.
Yet one day on the massage bench, I had a graceful sense of my body and my mind reconnecting. I recognized that my body was not separate from my mind. Rather, it was a very vital part of how the mind is embodied. It was the home of the wisdom that I had been striving so hard to cultivate. And, incredibly, had been with me all along. It was natural for me to then ask of myself “why are you a nun?” Reflecting on this, the answer caught me by surprise. As much as I thought it came about through inspiration, renunciation and devotion, the seed was that I was paying penance for something that I did with my body, way back when I was 23: having an abortion.
Very naturally, I knew I had to forgive myself of that — something which I had been working on for over 15 years — and begin to allow my body to feel, live, experience and explore again. I spent the next few months reflecting on my path as a nun before returning my precepts and transitioning gently back to the life of a lay woman.
How did you discover your love of latex?
As the adventure of life continued, I found myself in another period of emotional challenge, though this time with so many more reserves in myself for coping, and surrounded by some incredibly supportive friends and family. The uncertainty of how that challenging situation would play out was so fraught that I could have frozen in fear. But, realising that I would then miss so many opportunities, I decided to live each month as though it could be my last.
So, when a friend took me to a market where home crafted ‘alternative’ lifestyle wares were on sale, I found myself looking at a clothes rack with couture latex clothing wondering “what would it be like to try this on?” The woman who made the clothes was delightful and she helped me try on a studded black corset. The sensation was far beyond what I was expecting and I immediately felt hooked. It enhanced, and even empowered the feeling of being in the body. It was armor like and cocoon like whilst holding me securely like a determined hug. And it was very ritualistic: at once comparable to wearing robes, and yet incredibly remote from that experience. Since then, my latex wardrobe has grown slowly and each time I wear it and contemplate the experience more connotations and insights arise.
Where do you see a connection between the monastic robes you used to wear and the latex you love now?
One connection is definitely experiential and the other is more cerebral. Then I suggest there’s a third connection, beyond these two which is what I want to explore more through further research.
Experientially, both are immersive and take some commitment and conviction to wear. Whilst the yards of layered fabric of Tibetan monastic robes shroud the body, tight fitting latex — sometimes referred to by wearers as a second skin — reveals the body. The former almost anaesthetises the wearer against identifying with the shape and form of the body (my weight fluctuated greatly whilst I was a nun with my fabric and rope like belt adjusting accordingly so that I was greatly unaware). Whilst the latter enhances the form both through its fit and also through the way in which the ‘second skin’ amplifies touch sensation. In fact, the senses are one of the focuses that we can use as a support in meditation practice. Who knows, I may have benefited greatly from having the opportunity to experiment with this when I was a nun, practising on my own in my small room…! (Yet established concepts are such that I cannot easily imagine this actually happening).
More analytically, robes and latex shroud the wearer with a uniform, removing them from a neutral space and identifying them as a member of a kind of club.
The reason that Buddhist monastics shave their head, give up their family name and wear the same robes as their monastic brothers and sisters is so that all individuality is removed and therefore the traps of identifying strongly as being different or unique from the other. Unfortunately — though this is the reason — my experience of being a white skinned, bald, exotically robed woman made me more of a novelty that a discreet practitioner regardless of whether I was with Asian Buddhists, with family in Australia, or giving meditation instruction to hundreds of western lay Buddhists in a retreat center in Europe.
One of the paradoxes of latex wear, is that despite it being a natural material, it appears to be very artificial, and so may even give the appearance of dehumanising the form. The most common connotation is that it fetishizes the form of the body. And, just as with the robes, latex conceals the mundane persona of the wearer and in this way, they lose their usual identity.
Whether dressing in robes or rubber, both involve a type of ritual. A ritual of being bound and of finding release — albeit with different motivations. Ritual is something that I have become very interested in considering in my art practice. The root of the word ritual comes from rtu, Sanskrit for menses and the earliest rituals were connected to the woman’s monthly bleeding. As part of my own return to inhabiting my home, my gendered form, I’ve become much more aware of the ebb and flow of the cycles of life and the way in which ritual creatively contrasts between performance and social reality and manifests through the activities of the body.
My research is not about looking at ritual that is dependent on rites and external conditions, but rather one that touches on the very core of our experiences: Of attempting to understand the juxtaposition of what creates both confinement and freedom in our lives.
I now have the incredible opportunity to study and research this much more deeply as an MPhil/PhD at the world’s number 1 ranked art and design university, the Royal College of Art. As an International student, my fees will be considerable. Whilst I will be able to cover my own subsistence costs in London through continuing part time work, I need to ask for help to cover my fees. I am crowdfunding to raise £33,400 for my first year’s tuition and research expenses. I can enrol as soon as I have raised the full amount, and am keen (and ready) to start in the UK summer term, commencing April 24th. I have created a GoFundMe page to promote Bodhi Unbound and attract support from all around the world: https://www.gofundme.com/BodhiUnbound. Please like, share and help out if you can.
Michaela Haas, PhD, is the author of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria/Enliven, 2015) and Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Buddhism in the West (Shambhala, 2013). She has taught at the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of the West, and all over the world. She is a reporter, educator, and consultant. She has been practicing mindfulness meditation for more than twenty years and combines powerful storytelling with scientific research and spiritual depth. Visit www.MichaelaHaas.com!