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ICSA Conversations


ICSA Conversations is a new, free, series of discussions to be hosted in accessible locations throughout the country. We plan to include online conversations in 2018. Launched in New York City in the Fall of 2017, each conversation will consist of a brief talk followed by open discussion. ICSA Conversations are free and open to the public. However, registration is recommended because some venues have limited space. |  Register Online

Unlike closed, cultic groups, ICSA is firmly committed to freedom of thought, expression, and religion. To counter the closed thinking of cults and other “true believers,” ICSA events provide an open arena for people from diverse backgrounds with diverse points of view. Opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICSA’s or its partner organizations’ directors, staff, advisors, or supporters.

Upcoming ICSA Conversations

New York
February 23, 2018.  7:00 - 9:00 pm
Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (United Methodist), 263 W. 86th St., New York City (Subway stop: #1 train at 86th St. and Broadway) (map) - Social Hall (downstairs; handicap access via elevator).

Ready to Mine: Zen's Legitimating Mythology and Cultish Behavior

Stuart Lachs
 encountered Zen Buddhism in New York City in 1967. After more than 30 years of intensive practice in America and Asia, and having taught for a number of years ‒ as well as witnessing countless instances of questionable teacher behavior ‒ he severed all ties to Chan/Zen Buddhist centers around 2000. Stuart's research interests are Chan/Zen Buddhism and the sociology of religion. He has been active in the Columbia University Buddhist Studies Workshop, the Princeton University Buddhist Studies Workshop, and the Oslo University Buddhist Studies Forum. He has a number of papers critical of Chan/Zen institutions and leaders available on the internet as well as a paper on the Hua-t'ou, a Chan form of meditation. He has presented at the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS) and the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). His articles include “The Zen Master and Dharma Transmission: A Seductive Mythology,” published in Minority Religions and Fraud: In Good Faith (Ashgate, London, 2014); “Denial of Ritual in Zen Writing” published in The Ambivalence of Denial (Harrosowitz, Wiesbaden, 2015) and "Modernizing American Zen Through Scandal: Is "The Way" Really the Way?" published in Buddhist Modernities: Re-Inventing Tradition in the Globalizing Modern World (Routledge, New York and London, 2017). Stuart enjoys corresponding with people who reply to his papers.

Abstract. Zen Buddhism was the first of Eastern religions to gain wide acceptance in the West post WWII. It was accepted mostly uncritically by artists and intellectuals alike. However, beginning in the 1970’s, the most prominent Zen groups in America were wracked by scandal. In spite of these repetitive scandals caused by the sexual abuse of students by their supposedly enlightened Zen masters, Zen followers and academics  have refused to associate the phrase “cultish behavior” to these developments. This was not the case with a range of Christian oriented groups or with Asian teachers associated with other traditions or a variety of other groups, though the Zen scandals mirrored these groups. This paper will show how Zen’s legitimating story and mythic history lays the ground work for authoritarian inclined charismatic leaders - titled Zen master or rosh i- to draw his followers into a world dependent on obedience, his approval and with an ethical frame dependent on the master’s self serving understanding. Though Zen presents its idealized master as being fully in the world, spontaneous, unattached, a state in which one is internally firm and free while remaining perceptually competent in the world, this has hardly been the case. This is not an abstract conjecture as the paper will mention a number of examples of Zen masters, both Eastern and Western and their followers that displayed cultish behavior, while highlighting one case in particular. It is by explaining the mythic and idealized legitimating story of Zen that helps followers make sense of their lives and earlier choices when these groups implode. After all, the Zen mythology of the super human Zen master was developed over hundreds of years which makes it hard to counter for individuals breaking with a group when the Zen master’s great attainment is shown to be wishful thinking.

New York
March 23, 2018.  7:00 - 9:00 pm
Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (United Methodist), 263 W. 86th St., New York City (Subway stop: #1 train at 86th St. and Broadway) (map) - Social Hall (downstairs; handicap access via elevator).

Updating The Legal Concept of Undue Influence in the 21st Century

Alan W. Scheflin, JD, LLM,
is Emeritus Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law in California and a 
member of ICSA’s Board of Directors. Among his several dozen publications is Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law (co-authored with Daniel Brown and D. Corydon Hammond), for which he received the 1999 Guttmacher Award from the American Psychiatric Association, one of 18 awards he has received. Professor Scheflin is also the 1991 recipient of the Guttmacher Award for Trance on Trial (with Jerrold Shapiro). A member of the Editorial Advisory Board of ICSA’s International Journal of Cultic Studies, Professor Scheflin received the 2001 American Psychological Association, Division 30 (Hypnosis), Distinguished Contribution to Professional Hypnosis Award. This is the highest award that Division 30 can bestow. He was also awarded in 2001 The American Board of Psychological Hypnosis, Professional Recognition Award. This Award was created to honor his achievements in promoting the legal and ethical use of hypnosis. Professor Scheflin has delivered over 100 invited addresses at professional conferences. In 2004 ICSA awarded Professor Scheflin the Herbert L. Rosedale Award in recognition of leadership in the effort to preserve and protect individual freedom.

Abstract. This talk will explain how the legal concept of undue influence, which has existed for centuries, can be helpful to former members of cultic groups today. Judges have hesitated or refused to hear testimony about brainwashing, mind control, and thought reform on the grounds, that, in their opinion, these concepts lack scientific validity. How can expert witnesses be more persuasive in court? What will help bring clever influencers to justice? The discussion will focus on how the undue influence concept can be updated and applied to cultic relationships, human trafficking, domestic violence, and other influence situations.
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New York
May 18, 2018.  7:00 - 9:00 pm
Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (United Methodist), 263 W. 86th St., New York City (Subway stop: #1 train at 86th St. and Broadway) (map) - Social Hall (downstairs; handicap access via elevator).

The Compliance Professional’s Toolbox: Indoctrination, Emotional Control and Psychological Manipulation

Arnold Markowitz, LCSW
, worked for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s' Services (JBFCS), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit Mental Health and Social Services organizations, for many years. He started and directed the Cult hotline and Clinic which helped thousands of cult victims and families, and he has provided direct treatment to approximately one thousand cult involved clients. In 2006 ICSA awarded him the Margaret L. Singer Award for advancing the understanding of coercive persuasion and undue influence. He has received various awards for work with cult victims and families. He has presented professional papers and authored articles on cult indoctrination, treatment of former cult members, and family therapy at national and international conferences. In addition, he was director of Adolescent Services that provided mental health and substance abuse treatment for teens and their families in NY State Licensed outpatient clinics. Private practice located in Manhattan and Tenafly NJ.

Abstract. This Conversation will explore how victims of cults, domestic abuse and human trafficking are controlled and deployed by what Robert Cialdini calls "compliance professionals." Insights provided by Robert Lifton (beyond his often cited Eight Characteristics of Thought Reform) and Cialdini will be used to understand:
  • How are the victims' values and beliefs about themselves, their family and the world transformed?
  • What makes it so hard for families to retrieve the affection of a loved one once the indoctrination takes hold?
  • What can spark a return to their former self and connection to family and friends?
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