10 Questions with Nasser Butt

What got you interested in the martial arts?

This is going to sound like a cliché but I got involved in Martial Arts after getting a good beating from a group of kids in my neighborhood!

The 70’s had ended and we were at the beginning of the 80’s. – racial incidents were very high. We were the only ‘mix’ family (Asian/Irish) of any colour living in my street at the time and I remember going to the park which was at the bottom of our road. As I entered the park to go play, I was attacked by a mob of white kids. I would’ve been around 12 or 13 years old at the time. Most of the kids were older teens and they made a mess of me and told me that the park wasn’t for my kind! I literally crawled back home as I couldn’t walk.

An Irish musician friend of my father’s took me under his wing after the incident and started to teach me Wing Chun above his music shop. That was my first foray into the martial arts world, until then I had no compulsion to have wanted to study them!

A few months later I returned to the park and took out one of the biggest kids who had attacked me, as per my instructions – no one ever chased me out of the park again!

What is the most important thing (you can think of) that you’ve learned from the study of martial arts?

Martial arts for myself, at least, have always been a study of the self – all the components lead inwards and are eventually expressed outwards! The real foe to conquer is the self – this requires a lifetime’s study and hard work, it’s not easy but then it was never meant to be!

However, I will point out one other thing – all martial arts are only as good as the practitioner!

There is no ‘super’ martial art which makes you invincible – no magical technique! When I see people comparing martial arts I often smile at the folly of such folk. All martial arts kick, punch, strike, throw etc., and are therefore made up of essentially the same components. Equally, all martial artists have two arms, two legs, a torso and head etc., so again, we have the same tools with which to work with (of course strength, size and speed etc. will vary, but I am speaking in general terms).

So, when I see a MMA practitioner take on a Taiji practitioner and win – I don’t see that as MMA being better then Taiji as most people will state. YouTube is full of such tripe as are the various martial arts forums!

No, that simply means that in that specific instant – the MMA practitioner understands and knows his art better then the Taiji practitioner, or any other arts you wish to ‘compare’!

So, any martial art is only as good as the understanding of the practitioner and his time and effort of study – period!

How did you come to teach martial arts and what made you drift towards your particular discipline?

I had stuck with Wing Chun since my childhood. It had worked for me and got me out of many scrapes. I stopped formally training with a school when I left for university. Although I continued to train alone, I couldn’t find a school that I wished to join. They were all commercial and I was used to training with only 3 other guys in the room!

I eventually found another Wing Chun instructor a few years after leaving university, he introduced me to Erle’s work whilst I was training Wing Chun with him… it began with the small San-sau. It made sense and the more I began reading and looking into Erle’s work and the internal arts, the more sense they made. It was an act, ultimately, by Erle, himself, as a person and teacher which made me finally switch towards the internal arts! (See Question 6).

I never had any plans of teaching martial arts full-time!

My background is in the sciences… it is what I had studied at college and university, and went onto work as a research scientist in Israel. However, I first started teaching one night a week after I began training with Erle Montaigue – whom I regard as my main teacher, though I have had others!

Erle always told us that if you teach, then teach for selfish reasons! At first when I heard this, I found it shocking and asked Erle to elaborate. He did.

He simply stated that the only real reason to teach is because you wish to learn and reinforce your learning, and teaching is the best way to do that. Students will ask you questions that you, yourself, may not even have thought about yet and teaching others will make you creative and think outside the box. It will make you innovate because no two persons understand and learn in the same way!

So, I began teaching for purely ‘selfish’ reasons. It was never about earning a living for me – I had other means for that!

I began teaching full-time in 2006 upon Erle’s request. At the end of 2005 Erle was in Leicestershire giving a workshop and we sat talking during the lunch break, as most of the folk had wandered off to eat. At the time I was working for one of the major international banks in Leicester. Erle simply turned around and said to me, “It’s time!”

I looked at him quizzically and he said, “I think you should teach full-time.”

I was in a state of shock!

I won’t go into too much of the detail here as much of the conversation we had that day is private but, Erle asked this of me on the Saturday and that night I went home and spoke to my wife. We had just had our third child and I was the only one working. My wife asked me if I thought I could do it? I replied that Erle believes I can! My wife simply said, if you believe that then you have my support. On the Sunday, when I returned to train with Erle, I simply looked at him and smiled and he gave me a big hug. I have a photograph which was taken a few seconds after that moment – Erle leaning over my shoulder and both of us grinning like the Cheshire cat!

I quit work at the start of 2006 and later received my Third Degree from Erle. I had also, already, been given the right to grade by Erle himself and he started referring some of his oversees students to me!

As a teacher, what is one piece of advice that you hope really sinks in with your students?

Do not be afraid of making mistakes! If you fear making mistakes then you’ll never be free to explore and if you do not explore then how will you ever discover, and if you do not discover then how will you ever learn and advance, and grow?

Mistakes are also tools of learning and can often teach us far greater lessons then those we get right! Once we stop being afraid of making mistakes and looking foolish, we are ready to learn freely. However, this is far easier said then done. The most difficult component is recognizing mistakes in one’s own practice and having the honesty and integrity to deal with them!

What advice do you have for teachers?

Like the student, do not be afraid to admit that you do not have all the answers! Do not BS your student if you don’t know – that is the sign of a bad teacher and practitioner and you will eventually be found out!

No one has all the answers and if you are asked a question that you do not know the answer too, then tell your student that you do not have the answer BUT you will go and find out! Then go and search for the answer – that way you will both learn and your student shall respect you even more!

You’ve been a long-time student and friend of the late Erle Montaigue. How did you first meet him?

I first met Erle in 1999, in Folkestone, England! I had already been studying his system for around a couple of years earlier with a local instructor.

I had emailed the WTBA sometime in 1997, enquiring about Erle’s videos which he had made for Paladin in the USA. Financially, times were difficult and I had figured that Sterling was far stronger against the US dollar and would therefore make my money go further. As much as I wanted to take more weekly lessons, it just wasn’t financially viable, so I had decided to buy some videos, which I hoped would help with my training.

I wasn’t really expecting much of a reply, at best I thought that some secretary would contact me and was therefore, surprised when Erle contacted me himself!

He asked about my training and who I was training with and why I wanted information on his US videos?

I explained my reasons and he simply replied, “Send me your address.”

I did as I was asked. A few days later, I had a knock on my apartment door. It was the postman with a package in his hand for me from Australia. When he told me that it was from Australia, I immediately replied that a mistake had been made since I didn’t know anyone in Australia and nor had I ordered anything from there!

The postie simply said, it’s your name and address on the package and handed it over. I took the package and it had a stamp from a place I couldn’t even pronounce! Anyhow, I opened it up and inside were a bunch of Erle’s videos with a small note:

“I hope these help. Kind regards E”

I panicked thinking that Erle had misunderstood, thinking I wanted to buy these videos (which I could not afford. I immediately emailed him saying he had misunderstood and that I could not pay him for the videos! The reply that came back floored me – in a good way!

I apologize here for the language… but this was Erle – he had simply replied:

“Who the f*ck has asked you for money? I am rich enough and if these videos help you grow then I’ll be richer still!”

I sat staring at my screen, for several minutes, dumbfounded! What kind of Master was this? Not only did he reply to his correspondence in person but carried no airs about him and wanted to help me learn at his own expense! What kind of man would do such a thing for a complete stranger thousands of miles away on another continent?

That was my first encounter with Erle Montaigue. An encounter that would change my life forever. I decided there and then that I would, one day, meet this man – if only just to say thank you in person. Whilst waiting for that time, I consumed every article he had written on his website!

In 1999, after several years absence, Erle finally decided to tour the UK again. I saved up my pennies and registered for the workshop.
I remember the day… the hall was full of people. Erle was surrounded by his instructors and students from around Europe and elsewhere. I waited and when the crowd thinned out a bit, I went up and tapped him on his shoulder as he was standing with his back to me. He turned around, looked at me and cocked his head slightly, smiled and said:

“You must be Nasser! Good to meet you mate…”

I stood there, mouth agape – How did he know?

“I was thinking about you on the flight across, wondering if you would make it?” He continued as if in response to the surprised look on my face.
This was one of Erle’s magic moments. Don’t ask me how he did it but I’d see him do it to others in the years to come!

I thanked him for the kindness he had shown me and he just gave me a big hug and an even bigger smile. The rest is history, as they say – maybe for another time. Suffice to say, I never looked back… Erle was the teacher and guide I had been looking for!

Are there any good stories you’d like to tell of you and Erle?

Oh, there are many stories I could tell but question 6 is my favourite… it’s the one that brought us together. The other time is far too emotional to go into detail – it was the time when I told him that I saw him as a ‘father’ – it ended with both of us in tears!

Erle was a practical joker. One summer camp as we all met up on the field, early in the morning, he began teaching a qigong and as he started he looked at me and winked. I immediately stopped… he had folk doing crazy things and stood back with a smirk on his face! There was no such qigong – he was just in one of his playful moods! However, it turned into an important lesson – far too often folk believe something just because a ‘master’ had said so. This was one of Erle’s ways of telling folk not to believe everything and to always question!

On another occasion, Erle demonstrated a kick to the groin on myself in Germany one year. Of course for those who do not know it – it is a trick! I pretended to do some Iron shirt qigong and then Erle kicked me several times in the ‘groin’. I stood there smiling – not even a flinch! A couple of years later we were in America and one of the local instructors gave me the wide berth. I couldn’t understand his behaviour. I asked my host if I had offended him in some manner and he simply replied: “He’s in awe of you – he’s seen you take kicks from Erle in the groin online!” I burst out laughing and explained it was a trick but we never told the person concerned – I was a ‘man of steel’!!!

What are your favorite things to train (ie. barehand forms, tui shou, applications, weapons, etc) and why?

I no longer make distinction between the various training methods!

For myself, the most important components of Taijiquan are ‘The Thirteen Dynamics’ commonly referred to as The Thirteen Postures. This, however, is a misnomer and I no longer use the term ‘posture’ as this, I believe, leads many people down the wrong path in their training!

The Thirteen Dynamics are the foundations of Taijiquan. The Masters of old have continually warned us to pay attention to them in songs and other texts:

“A mere thirteen dynamics is not a lot.
But however many there might be, if their standard is not maintained
and if the position of your waist and head top is misplaced, you will end up sighing with woe.”

Taiji is an art based upon movement. However, it is not simply moving for the sake of moving but, rather, ‘Moving With Awareness’ according to no less an authority than Yang Ban-hou – the only other Yang to inherit the title ‘Invincible’ after Yang Lu-ch’an himself!

These Dynamics are innate within us but difficult to recognize and achieve. Collectively, they teach us how to ‘move with awareness’ based upon the four terms: Perception, Realization, Activation and Action. Where moving = the activation of movement plus the act of moving, and awareness = the perception that something is plus the realization of what it is – moving with awareness.

Without understanding these terms we cannot move with awareness. In other words, we must be able to recognize the ‘source of movement’ and the ‘basis of awareness’ within ourselves before we can identify energies in others.

According to Yang Ban-hou:

“If there is activation and perception, there will be action and realization. If there is no activation or perception, there will be no action or realization. When activation is at its height, action is initiated. When perception is fully lucid, there is realization. Action and realization are the easy part. Activation and perception are tricky.

First, strive to move with awareness for yourself, grasping it within your own body, then naturally you will be able to spot it in the opponent. If on the other hand you try to find it in opponents first, you will probably never find it in yourself. You have to be able to understand this concept in order to be able to identify energies.”

Most people who do not train or study the Thirteen Dynamics with diligence will ultimately fail or have a poor understanding of their Taiji! It is usually these practitioners who will try to change the Taiji Form due to their own lack of ability and understanding! To put it simply – they are the ‘alphabet’ of Taijiquan, without which we cannot produce words, sentences or develop the skills with which to ‘read’ the art!

The concept of ‘No Mind’ boxing arises from a thorough understanding of these principles. For example, if we do not understand why P’eng is considered a Yin defence and Lu is considered a Yin attack, then we have no way of understanding how to connect to our opponent’s energy, on a subconscious level, thereby producing a ‘No Mind’ response.

So, regardless of what I’m training – Form, Empty Hands, Weapons, Tui Shou or any other martial drill – I’m always looking to identify the Dynamics, for that is all what these various methods are, a variation or combination of The Thirteen Dynamics.

In this way all training methods simply become one!

What’s one of the biggest martial arts myth(s) that you wish more people knew the truth of?

Whilst there are many obvious ones that will come to most peoples mind like, for example, no touch knockouts, I’m going to be a little controversial here and say the myth of lineages!

Whenever, I come across a discussion I see folk instantly bring lineage into the conversation and the authenticity of their line and as if this somehow places their knowledge and skill above others. Authenticity of the skill and knowledge of the master does not necessarily translate to knowledge skill, full-transmission and understanding to their students or off-spring!

A teacher should be looked upon with merit according to their own skill and understanding of the subject matter – Yes, of course their pedigree will and should matter – but one should not take their pedigree/lineage alone as a confirmation of their knowledge and skill or that they have received full-transmissions. The Yangs of old taught tens of thousands in their lifetimes, yet we only have a handful of their students who rose to the challenge to continue their art and in most cases these students were not necessarily their natural off-spring! Majority of their students fell by the wayside, or trained slackly, or left too soon to set themselves up as ‘masters’ – this is something which is confirmed in the historical documents which have survived.

Sadly, we also have ample examples in history where lineages have been bought or sold and do not necessarily represent skill or knowledge. Equally, after the cultural revolution, once the ‘bamboo curtain’ went up, many martial artists set themselves up in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in the West claiming ‘masterships’ or lineages of renowned families in China, when this simply wasn’t true. Some had only trained with them for a few months or even weeks and later claimed they had been disciples for a number of years!

Self-appointed masterships continue to this day and lineages can be bought with martial arts having become a multi-billion pound industry and business.

So, beware the myth of a lineage!

Besides teaching and practicing the martial arts, what does Nasser like to do in his spare time?

I love reading and watching movies, as well as writing! I love music and am a huge Pink Floyd fan!

I’m a comic book geek and have been since I was a kid. I’ve been editing my own martial arts magazine for almost two years now and it has been highly successful, picking up several awards to date. I’m a history geek too, and love to travel when I can, and the research scientist has never left me… I use the skills I learned and developed in that field to further my own training and understanding in other subject matters as well as life itself.

Bonus Question:
If you were a superhero and had one ability, what would it be and why?

Like the Batman – Deductive Reasoning!

I have always believed in logical reasoning and this has served me well throughout my life in solving problems, including Taiji. As the great Sherlock Holmes once stated: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!”

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