The first “white” monk was Venerable Mahākappina, one of the great disciples. He appears in a number of passages, but most of them do not reveal anything about his origin. But in SN 21.11 the Buddha describes him like this:
odātakaṃ tanukaṃ tuṅganāsikaṃ
white, thin, with a pointy nose
These three features, with the addition of “tall”, are exactly the physical attributes of western monks in Buddhist countries today. The Pali terms are very precise and unusual.
Odātaka doesn’t just mean “pale skinned”. It’s common in northern India to see people with a light color. But this term, which is so far as I know only used in this way here, literally means “white”.
As for “thin”, obviously thin people can come from anywhere, but it is especially common to see foreigners lose a lot of weight when faced with the twin challenges of an ascetic lifestyle and unfamiliar food. Of course, we might manage to put the weight back on later!
The description of the nose is similarly unusual, and I believe it’s only found in one other Pali passage (Thi-ap 25#41). It is, however, mentioned by Patanjali. The adjective here, tuṅga, is used for a sharp-peaked mountain. Again, it’s quite common for northern Indians to have somewhat pointy noses, so to earn such an unusual epithet, his nose must have been an impressive edifice, such as is common among those in lands to the west of India.
While the EBTs don’t provide any further information on his background, the Commentaries say that he came from a land far to the west. The country is called Kukkutavati, or “Chookland”, and I’m not sure if it can be identified. Between there and the middle country it’s emphasized that three great rivers must be crossed, one of which, the Candabhāgā, is identified with the modern Chenab River in Pakistan.
The notion that he had crossed many great rivers is supported by the fact that the last of his verses, Thag 556, uses a boat crossing as metaphor:
So you should wish that those who stay in your family
Have understanding and learning,
And do their duty through the power of understanding,
Just as you’d cross a full river by boat.
A further confirmation of Mahākappina’s foreign origin is suggested by the form of the discourse at SN 21.11.
One of the few suttas that has a similar form is the text, a little earlier in the same collection, that describes Lakuṇṭaka Bhaddiya, or “Bhaddiya the Dwarf”. In AN 1.194 he’s described as being foremost among those with a sweet voice. But in SN 21.6, the Buddha describes him as “ugly, unsightly, deformed, and despised by the mendicants”. So it seems that mendicants in the Buddha’s day were just as capable of unthinking cruelty as people today. But the Buddha countered this discrimination, praising Bhaddiya as “powerful and mighty”, and stating that he is fully awakened. He then says that greatness is not measured by the body, but by wisdom.
While our text doesn’t outright say that Mahākappina faces a similar discrimination, surely there must be a reason why the Buddha called attention to his appearance.
The same template is used of the monk Sujāta, who, in contrast with Bhaddiya, is described as extremely good looking, as well as spiritually attained. Here, too, we can suspect that a form of discrimination was involved, as pretty people are easily dismissed as shallow.
The final version of the same template concerns two monks, close companions, who were pupils of Mahākappina. There’s not much to go on, but clearly their close friendship drew attention. It is of course normal for foreigners to stick together, so perhaps this is why they became close.
Anyone who is foreign and strange-looking will suffer discrimination. So it seems likely that Mahākappina, despite his prominence as a great teacher, drew unwarranted criticism for his strange appearance.
As to his true origin, that’s hard to say: there are a lot of lands to the west of India. He could of course be Greek, in which case he’d be the earliest European mentioned in Indian texts. But more likely he came from somewhere in the wide lands west of Pakistan, perhaps Persia.
It is a strange twist of fate that the Buddha, as a person of color, started a religion that flourished mainly outside his home land, including many places where people of his own skin color suffer discrimination. Compare with Christianity, where the founder was not Christian at all, but Jewish, yet the religious movement named after him has frequently fostered toxic anti-semitism.
Buddhism is a truly international religion, uniting people all over the world. While it’s sadly true that racial and other forms of discrimination are not absent from Buddhist cultures, whether traditional or modern, texts such as this provide a strong refutation for any form of racial discrimination. The Buddha was well aware of the foolishness and suffering that discrimination creates, and did not hesitate to speak out against it.