Aikido Journal Home » Interviews » Interview with Donald Levine Aiki News Japan

Interview with Donald Levine

by Mark Walsh

Published Online

Conducted 25th September 2005, Merrifield VA, post Aiki Extensions Conference 6 – “Extending to the World.”

Don Levine is president of Aiki Extensions Inc, a non-profit organization that networks and supports individuals involved with “off-the-mat” aikido applications. He is Chief Instructor of the University of Chicago Aikido Club, and a Sandan with Aikido Schools of Ueshiba. In addition to being a sociology professor at the University, he is one of the world’s leading experts on Ethiopian Studies, and has served as consultant to the Department of State, amongst others, for his knowledge in this field.

Tell us a little about your aikido background.

I started training aikido in September 1979; I was 48 years old and was looking for a medium to deal with some things that I was going through, especially a lot of losses at that time: the death of my father, the near death of my oldest son in a traffic accident, the sale of a house that I loved very much. I was depressed and looking for something outside myself for energy, and I thought, how about I try a martial art? At that time I had heard of karate, but not aikido. I went to a martial arts store and there were books on various martial arts. I picked up one on karate and just for fun one on aikido. I looked at it and thought I’ll see what happens: whenever the first opportunity arises, I’ll either start karate or aikido. Not long after that I was on the campus of the University of Chicago and saw a sign on a tree for an aikido club, so I went and checked it out. It was love at first sight and I’ve been training regularly ever since - for some 26 years now.

Who are have been your main aikido teachers?

Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to study with some outstanding teachers. My first teacher was the late Fumio Toyoda Sensei who had his own dojo on the north side of Chicago. I trained under him for a full year, then went to California to join a think-tank at Stanford, and experienced Californian aikido for the first time; and that was something else. I had heard of Bob Nadeau, so I took a few classes with him at Mountain View, and then I found that very close to where I was working on the Stanford campus was a club run by Frank Doran Sensei. I hadn’t heard of him and knew nothing about him, but I started going. I just rode my bike down the hill and averaged about four classes a week while I was there. I took my 5th and 4th kyu tests under Doran Sensei and I was powerfully affected by his influence. I resolved, when I returned to Chicago, to try to organize the club at the University along similar lines and to find a dojo that was more like the aikido I’d seen in California. I went “shopping” at that point to two or three other dojos but was not drawn to any of those, so I stayed with Toyoda Sensei and did my 3rd and 2nd kyu tests with him. Meanwhile Doran Sensei was taking part in a summer camp in Boulder run by the Boulder Aikikai, and on the list of instructors were Saotome Sensei, Ikeda Sensei and Doran Sensei. I knew almost nothing about the first two – this was before Saotome Sensei had written any of his books, and he was still fairly fresh in the United States. I went to that camp mainly for Doran sensei but also fell in love with Saotome Sensei’s aikido. One of his top ukes was pretty amazing, named Kevin Choate. He was there with a group of people, so I said to one of them, Wendy Whited1, I think, “Where’s your group from?”


“No!” Here they were doing the kind of aikido I was looking for, right in the same city. I hadn’t heard about their dojo when I did my little search earlier.

After that my main teacher became Saotome Sensei. Other teachers who have had an important impact on my aikido include Senseis Hiroshi Ikeda, Jon Eley, Mary Heiny and Wendy Palmer.

And you’re still connected with them, as your dojo – the University of Chicago Aikido Club – is a member of the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba.

Correct. We are fortunate in our affiliation. Even so, we pride ourselves on our ecumenical perspective; we may be the only dojo in the world to have had senseis from different organizations offering regular instruction at the same time.

Moving on to Aiki Extensions Inc, where you are the President of the Board. Can you tell us something of the genesis of Aiki Extensions?

It was gestating for around a dozen years before it was officially founded in 1998. In the 1980’s around the time I was starting aikido, I was Dean of the College at the University of Chicago. As such, I was interested in exploring the educational potential of martial arts in general and aikido in particular. I gave a lecture on that that was reprinted in The New York Times, called “The Liberal Arts and the Martial Arts.” As I explored that idea, I decided to develop a course at the University under the Sociology Department, which came to be called “Conflict Theory and Aikido”, which I taught first in 1986 and am still teaching today.

Through teaching that course, I became a more and more interested in and aware of the applications of aikido in other spheres outside of the conventional dojo. I encountered a book by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Aikido and the New Warrior, which served to inspire my work in the area. I think the turning point was when I met a clinical psychologist in New York, named Howard Pashenz, who contributed a chapter to that book. He worked in one of the state mental hospitals of New York, and said he’d found more successful results using aikido with patients than with any of the forms of psychotherapy he’d been trained in. I thought, “Wow! If that’s the case then we should be doing more to promote this kind of application.”

What was Aiki Extensions like as an organization in the first year or two?

This meeting with Pashenz was still in the 1980’s, I believe, but I kept meeting more people involved in this kind of work, so finally I made a list of about a dozen people, all feeling isolated and, by and large, marginalized by the aikido community. I thought it would be great to get them into some kind of communication – do some networking. I went to Japan for half a year and then to Berkeley. While there I had conversations with Wendy Palmer, Richard Heckler, and Philip Emminger, and decided to move on this organization. Bill Leicht gave me some names from the East, and Paul Linden from Columbus Ohio, whom I had known as a training partner, got involved. We started out with a Board of 6 and maybe a total membership of 18, and we got ourselves incorporated. The whole point of it was to promote communications – through a newsletter, a directory of members, and an annual conference.2 The first conference was held in Phoenix, Arizona 7 years ago.

From these humble beginnings, AE now has members all across the States; it’s big in Germany and the Middle East; and the first British conference has just happened.

24 countries with members, and more that AE has been involved with.

AE seems to have grown massively in terms of size and professionalism; anything you’d like to add to that?

Well there have been two main changes. Three years ago we changed from a group of affiliates to a membership organization. We’ve always been a non-profit organization, but at the fourth conference in Chicago the affiliates decided to become members and pay dues, to help support AE activities. The first few years we subsisted on an annual budget averaging $6000 which came from a few large donations every year from people who believed in the idea, and donations to AE, in addition to dues, still make many worthwhile ideas a reality.

The second change was that after a few conferences people began to say, “It’s wonderful talking to ourselves, but we really should be spreading the word out into the community.” We began to experiment with projects that took Aiki Extensions ideas out “into the street,” as it were.

Before we go on to projects I would like to highlight the fact that AE members come from all styles of aikido, and are members of the USAF, ASU, and UKA, for example.

Yes, we voted early on to ignore that difference. For background purposes only, we record member’s rank and organizations, but don’t publicize the information; so unless they know from another source, members don’t find out what aikido organizations other members belong to. Most members are yudanshas, but at this point we recognize 2nd kyu for full membership, and associate members can be any rank, or can even have stopped training.3

Would you like to mention a few more of AE’s most notable members?

Well there are lots! Paul Linden has been a member from the beginning. He’s an advanced somatic educator, Feldenkrais practitioner and author of many books. We have David Shaner Sensei, who I believe is head of the Eastern Ki Society organization, a 7th dan, and previous uchi-deshi to Tohei Sensei. There’s Rick Stickles Sensei, who runs a number of USAF dojos in New Jersey. More recently, we have added to the Board Robin Cooper Sensei of Madison, Wisconsin, who with her husband John runs a large prestigious dojo. Jamie Zimron Sensei, who has become prominent for her work with golf (she is a golf professional) and was active in forming the Women’s Self-defense Organization in Israel, is also a member.

I might also mention the Advisory Board, which is new but has six prominent Americans on it:

 Charles Auster, Partner, One Equity Partners, New York, NY

 Ronald Grzywinski, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board, ShoreBank Corp, Chicago IL

 George Leonard, Author and Teacher, Mill Valley, CA

 Daniel Weinstein, Cofounder, Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Service, San Francisco, CA

 Judy Wise, Senior Director, Facing History and Ourselves, International Division, Chicago IL

 Marvin Zonis, Lecturer, CEO of Marvin Zonis Associates, Chicago IL

Are there non-Americans on the Board as well?

We are trying very hard to internationalize the organization, and four members of the Board are not from the USA. These are Peter Schettgen of Germany (who was a founding member), Kurt Bartholet of Switzerland, Jose Bueno of Brazil and Ala’a Hijazi of Jordan. There’s also Charlie Badenhop, an expatriate living in Tokyo.

What was the Training Across Borders seminar?

The idea of TAB grew out of a conversation I had with Jamie Zimron before a conference in Jerusalem a year and a half ago. I learned that she had done some work in bringing Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews together, and I thought what a perfect opportunity that would be to test out the possibilities of aikido as a form of second-track diplomacy. I went to the conference and located one of the instructors at the Mount Scopus Dojo. He had a long-standing relationship with a Palestinian karate Sensei who had also become an aikido Sensei: Shehede Abu-Rmaileh. Fortunately, my visit coincided with the visit of a high-ranking Japanese Sensei to the area, so I was invited to attend classes not only at Mount Scopus Dojo but also at Shehede’s dojo in East Jerusalem – a Palestinian area. I became friends with Shehede; he took me to his home in the old city and we talked about keeping in touch, and helping his dojo and the Palestinian Aikido Federation.

When I got back home I heard from the Israeli teacher, Chaim Noy, that he and Shehede were thinking of doing an experiment with three Palestinians and three Israelis coming together for a seminar in some neutral place. I thought this sounded very exciting and said that I would personally support it. We thought of different cities: Athens, Belgrade, Amman, Ankara; but I found on the ASU list an announcement of a seminar in Istanbul. So I made arrangements to bring what had grown to five Jews and five Arabs, two Scottish AE members and two US members. We raised $3500 in ten days from friends, training partners and colleagues. We raised another $3500 from the Aiki Atlas Foundation and were all set to go. Two weeks before the Istanbul Seminar I learned indirectly that due to local problems that were never really made clear to me, the Palestinians weren’t coming. Therefore, why should the Israelis or anybody come? We lost funds on that and a lot of time and effort. I thought that this was such a difficult situation to negotiate that we should just give up that idea. An American, Neil Mick, who was going to go with me went to Turkey anyhow, and brought a gift of dogis which he handed over to a seminar participant from Jerusalem. These eventually found their way to the Beit Hanina Dojo in Palestine.

I was about to give up when I called my old friend and colleague Richard Strozzi-Heckler and told him how demoralized I was. He said, why don’t we make it more inclusive than just Jews and Arabs; why don’t we hold it in Cyprus on the Green Line?4 I thought that this was perfect. The idea excited both of us and we became co-directors of the project. Karl Hakken, AE’s senior staff member, suggested the name Training Across Borders, which we thought was just right.

Next, I was put I touch with a Jordanian named Ala’a Hijazi and a young man in England who had inquired on AikiWeb about aikido in Cyprus. We made contact with this young man, who seemed so lively that we enlisted him in the project [smiles at interviewer]. We then appointed Philip Emminger to be the manager of the project, and people at Linda Holiday Sensei’s dojo volunteered to help. At that point, we had enough of a core group of people to get things going.

I know that logistically and organizationally the event was…challenging…but that it did come together.

We ended up with nearly 100 people coming from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Greece, Turkey, North and South Cyprus, Serbia, plus a sprinkling from other places such as Brazil, England, Ethiopia, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and the USA.

It was an extraordinary event and far exceeded the expectations of those planning and attending it. Indeed, for months before [it was held in April, 2005] there was a good deal of worry that it wouldn’t happen, and folks saying, “Forget about it,” but we pushed forward, raised as much money as we could and it happened!

There was training with senior Senseis; aiki extensions workshops in youth outreach, conflict resolution, leadership; and social events that made a big difference.

It was held within, and on both sides of the Green Line which led to a very special environment. It was a very intense, emotional experience for participants, many going so far as to say it was “life changing.”

What is Salaam Shalom Aikido?

It’s joint Israeli/Palestinian training. It has roots before TAB, but after Cyprus it really took off. Now a committee of Israelis and Palestinians is working to establish four SSA dojos, a children’s program, and links to other and organizations and dojos in the United States and Brazil. Miles Kessler, an excellent Iwama Ryu instructor, is heavily involved, as is Jamie Zimron.

Literally the name Salaam Shalom means “peace” in both Arabic and Hebrew. The dojos are a real achievement in the current climate.

What is Aiki Corps?

This is a new project that is just being developed. It stems from a trip I made to see Jose Bueno in Brazil. He teaches aikido to children in the favelas (slums) – children who know only crime and violence. He shows them alternatives to violence, and, in his own words, gives them “space to be children.”

Jose has some local volunteers – mainly young aikido instructors – but said that he needs more to expand his work. That got us thinking about a Peace Corps-type program to send aikido instructors to places of need. A task force headed by Chris Thorsen of California has just handed in a report exploring this possibility. We envisage sending instructors to areas of social need, like in Brazil, and also to areas where aikido is just starting out, like Ethiopia. Eventually we’ll conduct “inreach” too, with people coming from abroad to a centralized training site in the United States.

The first Aiki Corps placement has been made within the United States, to provide Seven Tepees – an excellent youth outreach scheme – with an aikido program. The first international volunteer will arrive in Brazil within a year.

You been accused of breaking with tradition. What do you think O’Sensei would think of Aiki Extensions?

O’Sensei himself was a revolutionary pioneer who was breaking tradition right and left as he innovated in his art, and he was continually growing. In 1952, I believe, O’Sensei said to Hikitsuchi Sensei5 [recorded on video] that “We have to create a whole new kind of martial art that doesn’t strive to defeat enemies, but aims to bring people together and bring about harmony.” As he went on until his death, as we know from his uchi-deshi Saotome Sensei, he was continually evolving and growing. People who object to the social applications of aikido are fixed at early stages of aikido’s history. I think it’s important to know about the Daito Ryu origins of aikido, but also to appreciate the ways in which O’Sensei departed from that, and made a whole new practice. As far as realizing his goal of world harmony and the family of man, Training Across Borders, SSA, the ideas behind Aiki Corps and other initiatives in our organization, I believe would please him very much.6

How do you think “off-the-mat” aikido has changed and developed since the early pioneers like Terry Dobson?

It’s changed and developed enormously. The sophistication in the use of aikido ideas and techniques represented at [the Sixth International Conference of AE], for example, are massively superior to what we had even at the first conference. In areas of leadership training, psychotherapy and healing arts, youth work, mediation and conflict resolution, understanding the relation of aikido as a spiritual art to other spiritual forms, there has been enormous progress.

OK, let me test you on that now. How would you respond to the following in an AE way: “Aikido is only about technique, and this is all just hippie crap!”

My response is that, as mentioned, there are those who view aikido as just technique, but that is not the way we know O’Sensei viewed it. There are two anecdotes that I can tell you to support that. One is that Saotome Sensei, who was an inside student of the Founder for 15 years, said that never once in all of his training did O’Sensei teach technique. Another is a famous event when O’Sensei saw a large demonstration of what has largely become present-day aikido, and he said, “That’s ok what they do, but that’s not what I do.”

There are not many people who were able to appreciate what O’Sensei was doing in the last half of his life. I am fortunate enough to have studied with about a dozen shihans who were direct students of O’Sensei. There is a consistent narrative that comes from what they – and others whom I haven’t met, such as John Stevens – say about O’Sensei.

To quote O’Sensei again, “Aiki waza michi shirube” – “Aikido training is a signpost to the way.” Technique is not what it’s all about - it’s a signpost to the way.

I recently posed a question on AikiWeb, “How can aikido help when I have a gun pointed at my head?” Want a crack?

That’s easy. The benefits of aikido are how you take care of yourself in a situation of stress. Saotome Sensei defines the warrior as someone who is trained to act calmly under stress. One of the first things we try to teach students, under increasing levels of stress, is how to keep calm, centered…aware of the options.

In this situation, don’t panic, you are free to look at the whole situation and see what might work, e.g. verbal aikido… and if nothing will work… to die calmly [laughs].

Is there not a danger that AE type activity could become ungrounded and purely theoretical?

If people don’t train! I myself believe that regular traditional training, with an enlightened understanding of training, is absolutely essential. I find that if I go without training for two, three weeks, I am losing something. The benefits of aikido are not something you acquire and retain once and for all. I’m constant growing myself; if one thinks one has reached an adequate level and can just do the application, that may be fine, but I think something is missing. Aiki Extensions will never replace solid traditional aikido training.

At Aiki Extensions’ Conferences we also do some non-traditional mat-based training.

Yes, one of the signature events at all the international conferences is what we call Round-Robin Keiko. In this, instructors take turns showing their aikido, swapping after each technique, and usually basing what they do on the prior teacher. Unlike conventional dojos, in this setting no one knows the rank or organization of the teacher, and it has a very liberating effect and people are always energized by the experience.

My experience of it, in the US and UK, is that it’s very creative and participants love it. We also practice Original Play?

Yes, one of the long-time AE members is O Fred Donaldson, a professional play specialist. He works with what he calls Original Play, as opposed to cultural play. It’s described in his book Playing by Heart.

On the basis of his work with thousands of young people and many animal species, such as wolves, lions, and butterflies, he has distilled the essence of play and teaches it to adults. He did this at the Third International Aiki Extensions Conference, and people so appreciated it that we’ve done it at the other conferences.7

It’s the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on [laughs]…

Moving on, would you say the principles of aikido are in keeping with the spirit of the times (the zeitgeist)?

I would say that they are both in keeping with the spirit and profoundly subversive and antagonistic to that spirit. In so far as the times call for cooperation and a peaceful interchange of ideas, it’s in keeping with their spirit. In so far as the times involve very quick fixes, depersonalized communication, a limited criteria of efficiency and FEAR of threats, it’s against the spirit of the times.

If you could ask all aikidoka one thing, what would it be?

Probably the question that Strozzi-Heckler Sensei asked when he taught classes in

Cyprus: “Why are you studying aikido?”

How has “off-the-mat” aikido been useful in your own life?

Well it’s very personal…it helped me deal with a number of conflict situations with my wife which would have probably damaged the relationship, and who knows what would have happened. It helps me enormously in my dealings with students. I teach my classes now consciously; not perfectly, but consciously in accord with aikido principles. It helps me deal with all kinds of stresses. It once helped me avert a potentially lethal car accident, in which I was able to roll on ice when I came off my bike, instead of crashing my head into it.

How do your Ethiopian studies link with aikido?

Over the years my Ethiopian studies have moved to an effort to try unite the different peoples of the country; to try and create, from a society that has traditionally been filled with warring groups, a harmonious society. I’ve used aikido in talking to Ethiopians, particularly in the following way: aikido is a result of, and could not have evolved without, the samurai warrior tradition in Japan, but the samurai tradition underwent major cultural change from the 17C to the 20C. In the felicitous phrase of one scholar, this was “the taming of the samurai.” They gave up their purely martial attitude to train in budo, training in martial ways as a means of character formation. I suggest to Ethiopians that to go from a purely combative tradition to what’s needed in a modern democratic society, they have to make that same transition – to go from a readiness to engage in combat, to living harmoniously and learning how to debate with one another civilly.

You stared aikido later in life than some, and you’re now 74 (if you don’t mind me saying). Could you comment on age and aikido?

I feel, largely through my aikido training, younger, more active, and more productive now than I ever have. When colleagues and acquaintances saw me starting out, their reaction was, “Oh! This is going to be harmful to you, why do such a silly thing!” Most of these people now are senile, decrepit and can barely walk around, etc. I hop up the five flights of stairs to my office each day with more vigor then I could ten years ago.8

What are you going to be doing when you’re 148?

I will be smiling, from wherever I am, on the productive, explosive spread of the aiki-way throughout the human world.

Thank you Levine Sensei.

A pleasure.

For more information on AE projects visit:


1. Wendy Whited Sensei, now 6th dan ASU, head of the Inaka Dojo, Illinois.

2. This is an excellent way for those who have decided to stop “on-mat” aikido due to old age or injury to continue training, though the vast majority of AE members train in the normal fashion, viewing it as the foundation of AE activity.

3. These three are all still going and have come a long way; see for details.

4. The Green Line is part of the UN “Buffer Zone” that divides northern Turkish speaking Cyprus from southern Greek speaking Cyprus.

5. Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei was one of O’Sensei’s senior disciples, and ran the Shingu dojo.

6. O’Sensei taught non martial-artists such as sportsmen and performers throughout his career and was certainly an internationalist in later years, sending many of his best students abroad. Considering that it was not long after WWII and anti-Japanese feeling was running high in many parts of the globe, this policy is perhaps surprising.

7. Fred Donaldson’s work playing with wolves is described in Aikido and the New Warrior.

8. The wrestling team of The University of Chicago sometimes uses the same steps to develop their aerobic fitness. Levine Sensei’s employees are banned from using the elevators.