Quaker and Zen-A Fusion of Two Dynamic Paths

At the heart of two new Kendal communities are the timeless values and philosophies of Quakerism and Zen Buddhism, two paradigms that to some may seem worlds apart but find many synergies within the development of Ensō Village in Healdsburg, California, and now planned for Ensō Verde outside Los Angeles.

In February, Ensō Verde – A Kendal Affiliate, hosted a virtual gathering for over seventy priority members who have joined the Ensō Verde waitlist in anticipation of the community’s planned opening in 2027. While those on the virtual call were familiar with the community’s concept, this was the first in-depth presentation on how Kendal’s values based on Quaker principles and Ensō Verde’s Zen principles converge to create a truly unique community. David Jones and Susan O’Connell led an engaging discussion on how this fusion has succeeded and has offered opportunities for continued learning and growth.

Quaker Values

The presentation began with an introduction to Quakerism by David Jones, a lifelong Quaker and retired VP of New Projects for Kendal. Over the last several years, he has become a regarded speaker on the founding of Kendal on Quaker values and the influence of Quaker values on Kendal communities and services today.

David explained how Quakerism started in the 17th century during social upheaval as George Fox emphasized an individual’s direct connection with God- or the spirit within- which was very different from the Church of England concepts at the time. This belief is not simply a religious or intellectual concept but a profoundly personal experience. It gained a large following, and a new religion was formed called the Religious Society of Friends.

David explained that, from its inception, Kendal had been particularly influenced by values such as consensus decision-making, resident (individual) empowerment and a commitment to a greater social good that define Quaker practice. These values form the operational foundation for many Kendal communities. Throughout Kendal, the acronym SPICES is woven throughout the System. SPICES refers to simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship—all core Quaker values.

In Kendal communities, residents are expected and free to participate. People are asked to come with an open mind to learn from others, and the answer may be in anyone, so listening and understanding is essential. There is not the goal of unanimity but a sense of togetherness. Like Quakerism, Kendal is not designed to be a top-down model. Leadership comes with a sense of responsibility, servitude, and a heartfelt dedication to the well-being of residents.

David notes that much of Kendal’s success comes with the openness to partnerships that can further the mission and increase diversity. Kendal’s seeking out unique partnerships and collaborations, such as with universities, hospitals, community groups, and those with diverse religious backgrounds, has always supported its success and has been a core intention.

As David expressed, “This openness to partnerships helped pave the way for the work with the San Francisco Zen Center.”

Zen Principles

“I hope you can all see why my heart is so happy,” expresses Susan O’Connell, Zen teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, speaking on behalf of Ensō Verde and Ensō Village, where she is currently a resident. Susan shared how when she and others began working to put this concept of conscious living into the senior living world, they could not have envisioned a better partner than Kendal has become.

Susan began her presentation with a brief history of Buddhism. She explained how Buddhism began over 2500 years ago with the teaching of a man named Siddhartha Gautama, later called Buddha, which means the enlightened one, and how his understanding came from wanting to end the suffering of human beings. She shared how Zen mediation helps strengthen our ability to watch thoughts come and go, as when we can find a sense of balance and composure, we can better make helpful and healthy decisions not based on reactivity.

Buddha’s teachings journeyed through Asia, coming to the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s through Japan. When Buddhism migrated, it remained flexible in absorbing aspects of the places where it was being practiced.

Since Buddhism first arrived in China, a strong work ethic has been a part of the practice. The San Francisco Zen Center fully embraced the importance of work in the world and started businesses.

The San Francisco Zen Center started entrepreneurial businesses, such as Greens Restaurant, a clothing store, a carpentry workshop, a bookstore, a bakery, and Zen Hospice- which influence will be felt at Ensō Verde.

The Zen Center’s new endeavor into the realm of senior living makes sense as an expression of this spirit of being in the world, especially when it became time to fulfill a promise to Zen teachers to grow older in a supportive environment.

Is It a Perfect Fusion?

Following Susan’s comments, David and Susan engaged in a stimulating discussion regarding whether there were any areas of concern when talks first began about merging Kendal’s Quaker values with Zen Principles to form a new type of senior living model.

One area they discussed was the concept of “rituals.”

Susan explained how Zen Buddhism is organized in a way that includes ceremonies and rituals, and what she understood of Quakerism is that there are no rituals. Finding the form in function is highly valued in Buddhism. In Quakerism, there are no spiritual guides or structured mantras.
David mentioned that he was not overly worried about that difference, as experience shows that the founding group of residents that first occupy a community truly shape the community’s character, sometimes for many generations. He knew these residents would represent many beliefs, including Zen, Quakerism, and many others. So, this diversity would help set the culture of the community.

Another concept the two practices may vary is the understanding of “egalitarianism.”

Quaker perspective of equality is very powerful. For instance, there is no title like Mr. or Mrs. or Dr. or Sir. Referring to someone by their first name is a sign of respect for that person, and using first and last names is a more formal greeting. In contrast, in Zen practices, there is a hierarchy in certain aspects, with positions such as master, priest, and abbot, which are part of the structure.

Susan responded that at Ensō Village, she does see that the Zen teachers do not want to continue with the traditional hierarchy of their roles within this new, diverse community. Like in much of society, there are areas where a sense of structure around authority is evident. However, a sense of being “all in this together” transpires across many Kendal communities, including Ensō Village and Ensō Verde.

The idea of building “sacred spaces” is also where the two concepts differ.

In Ensō Village’s design and Ensō Verde’s plan, there is a Zendo (meditation hall), designated as a one-use, sacred space for spiritual pursuits (of all kinds). Quakers do not rely on a designated space for worship or other individuals as guides. Where there is a meeting space, it is simple, with no religious symbols or creed.

It was important for Susan and others envisioning Ensō Village and Ensō Verde to have a designated sacred space included in the plans for the communities, as mindfulness and connection to one’s spiritual side are encouraged for those on the journey of understanding and growth through the aging process. At Ensō Village, she has found that others of various religions have seen it as a space where they can connect with their beliefs and have come to appreciate the accessibility of the meditation hall.

The approach to “activism and social impact” was seen as an area of genuine fusion.

David pointed out how Quakers have historically been recognized as change agents and activists, and their service to the greater community holds much value. Kendal’s connection to the Quaker value of making a positive social impact, for example, led to Kendal being a leader in getting protections for residents in nursing homes who were being retrained with bed straps that practitioners saw as safety measures but were seen by Quakers and others as unnecessary and infringing on a person’s freedom. Both David and Susan discussed how, where social action is a vital component of both Quakerism and Buddhism, there is a goal to be inclusive and bridge understanding beyond political beliefs.

Susan expressed how this is where she especially sees the two beliefs converge. Her teacher once explained how Buddhists do two things: 1. Sit Down and 2. Get Up. “Getting Up” has influenced Buddhism’s commitment to making the world a better and more peaceful place.

Members of both beliefs are committed to living a life of service and compassion for others, recognizing that acts of kindness promote love, peace, and harmony in the world.

“Silence and stillness” are also areas of similarity.

David and Susan discussed how silence is vital in Quaker and Zen Buddhism spiritual practices. In Quaker services, silent worship is a defining practice – listening in the silence for the divine. Similarly, Zen meditation involves sitting in silence for long periods, often in a lotus position. In both practices, silence is not just about physical quietness. It’s about consciously letting go of external distractions and becoming open and connected.

A Strong Partnership

Those attending this stimulating event truly appreciated David and Susan for sharing their perspectives and providing a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting presentation and discussion.

Attendees learned that, while Quakerism and Zen Buddhism, on the surface, may appear to be quite different from each other, there are many connections between these two paths. The shared commitment to making an impact on the world lays the groundwork for demonstrating the potential of inspired leadership, collaborative vision, and meaningful living for older adults in a unique community living concept.