A new center dedicated to the study and implementation of mindfulness has opened at Harvard University. The center, named the Thich Nhat Hanh Center for Mindfulness in Public Health, officially opened on April 26 at the University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, thanks to an anonymous $26 million donation. According to a press release, the mission of the center is to “empower people around the globe to live with purpose, equanimity, and joy through the practice of mindfulness; pursue evidence-based approaches to improve health and well-being through mindfulness; and educate and train the public in mindfulness. Two primary areas of emphasis will be nutrition and the environment.” 

The center is the product of years of planning and collaborative work between nutrition specialists, such as Director of Mindfulness Research and Practice Dr. Lilian Cheung, and the late Thich Nhat Hanh himself. 

Dr. Cheung first met Thay, as his students call him, at a Key West mindfulness retreat in 1997. This initial experience living mindfully and learning directly from him changed her life. 

“As I went through the week, I simply could not believe that I had three days without stress. I was able to touch peace, which is not a phenomenon that I could really experience as an adult,” Dr. Cheung told me when we spoke on a call.

Her newfound practice and relationship with Thay encouraged her to think critically about how the benefits of mindfulness could be applied to the realm of her professional life in public health. 

For Cheung, taking mindfulness from an individual level to a community level means focusing on interconnectedness in two areas: nutrition and environment. 

“The Buddha was so advanced in thinking about eating for the health of everyone, not just yourself. There needs to be enough food to go around the whole world, right? I think about the sutra ‘eating the son’s flesh’: if you don’t eat mindfully, you won’t have enough food for future generations,” she said.

In April, Public Health scholars and Buddhist leaders alike celebrated the Center’s opening symposium dedicated to presenting the positive effects of mindfulness. 

“Since the Center’s launch, we have received overwhelming interest from both the Boston community and beyond. The possibilities for the Center extend far beyond our current capabilities, but we are committed to being mutually supportive and creating synergies whenever possible,” Dawn DeCosta, the Center’s Executive Director, said.  

Current projects for the Center include “Eat, Move, and Live Mindfully,” a school-based research program for children and young adults, and “Minding our Future,” a project aimed at creating longer and healthier lives for aging adults. The latter will integrate models of Buddhist community living and belonging, specifically in sanghas, as part of the research plan. 

The Center also aims to contribute to the nearly 25,000 studies about mindfulness in peer-reviewed publications out there as of 2023. Thich Nhat Hanh Center researchers will contribute to this “very important area of development,” in the words of Dr. Cheung, with additional scientific tools to assess the impact of mindfulness interventions on health and wellness. 

Looking ahead, Dr. Cheung said, “It’s important for us to try our best to coach everyone at the Public Health School, the whole of Harvard University, and hopefully beyond to other institutions; to have practice, research, and teachings about mindfulness’s effects on the individual, on society, and on the world.” 

Brother Phap Luu of Deer Park Monastery, who has been one of a number of monastic advisors to the Center, believes the Center’s combination of Buddhist teachings and evidence-based research will open many doors. 

“Approaching this from a scientific perspective and having that as a foundation can help people become free of the inherited fear or anxiety about religion, and to see that this common path of mindfulness and community ethics has brought happiness and well-being to people everywhere,” he said. 

In late September, Deer Park Monastery will host a mindfulness retreat for the Center’s employees as a concrete form of collaboration between brothers and sisters, laypeople, scientists, and doctors involved in the Center’s research. DeCosta plans on attending the retreat, and sees it as an opportunity “to gain a greater perspective of the practice of mindfulness.” 

“To me, mindfulness means cultivating a space for peace and happiness and the ability to love oneself,” she said. “If one can achieve this equanimity, the possibilities are endless.”