I wrote this little note because while investigating the uses of sapadāna in the Pali texts I came to the conclusion that the conventional rendering was incorrect, arguing instead for the reading “in situ, on site, where it comes”. But it was always a fairly slim argument, and I have since found reason to conclude that I was wrong and the conventional reading was right. The main reason was the Theragatha verse I quote below, but I also thank @llt for giving the Chinese sense. So my apologies if anyone was mislead! I have changed the essay below to reflect my current understanding.
The term sapadāna is a distinctive term used to describe a mendicant on alms-round. It is not, however, used of normal alms-round, and must mean some kind of special practice or manner of walking for alms.
It is universally (so far as I know) said to mean “house to house”, sometimes rather vaguely translated as “uninterrupted” or “continual”. This refers to a practice of walking from one house to the next and waiting a short time at each for alms. This gives everyone a chance to make offerings. The contrasting, and apparently normal, practice would be to go to the houses of known supporters.
Such a practice is clearly referred to in the Theragatha (Thag 10.6):
Nīcaṃ manaṃ karitvāna,
Humbling their heart,
sapadānaṃ kulā kulaṃ;
a mendicant should walk for alms
Piṇḍikāya care bhikkhu,
from family to family indiscriminately,
with sense doors guarded, well-restrained.
Lūkhenapi vā santusse,
They should be content even with coarse food,
nāññaṃ patthe rasaṃ bahuṃ;
not hoping for lots of flavours.
The mind that’s greedy for flavours
jhāne na ramatī mano.
doesn’t delight in absorption.
The etymology is unclear. It’s probably to be traced back to pada, meaning “foot, step, place”. This is interpreted to mean “step by step”. But it’s such a vague word that this doesn’t help us much.
The term has always been problematic, because the use in Sutta and Vinaya is different. In the Suttas, so far as I know, it’s always applied to walking for alms. And while this sense is also found in Vinaya, in Sekhiya 33 we find it also applied to eating alms. The rule explanation there says the offense falls thus:
tahaṃ tahaṃ omasitvā piṇḍapātaṃ bhuñjati
one eats almsfood having touched it here and there.
It seems to refer to someone prodding or poking at their food, checking for the good bits. The sense of its opposite, sapadāna, would seem to be “without being choosy or picky”. Perhaps “indiscriminately” would serve.
That sapadāna applies to the eating of food is reinforced by a passage in the Milinda Panha. At Mil 7.6.1 we find a description of a lion eating:
sīho sapadānabhakkho yasmiṃ okāse nipatati, tattheva yāvadatthaṃ bhakkhayati, na varamaṃsaṃ vicināti.
Rhys Davids translates it as:
the lion eats regularly on, wheresoever his prey falls there does he eat whatever he requires, and seeks not out the best morsels of flesh
Perhaps it would be better to say, “the lion eats indiscriminately” or “the lion eats without being selective”.
There’s a similar case in the background story for the Mahāhaṁsa Jātaka (Ja 534). There, the bodhisatta as king of the geese is said to be without greed, so he eats the grain starting from wherever he alights, as opposed to the other geese who wander here and there to select their food.
There is a distinctive feature of how sapadāna is used in the Suttas. In every case, so far as I can tell, when sapadāna is used the mendicant does not take the food back to the monastery. Instead they eat it at some random spot in the village, or in a shed or house or some other place in the village.
The implication seems to be that a mendicant doing this practice takes their food from house to house indiscriminately, then when they have enough, eat at a convenient place nearby. By not going back to the monastery, they avoid partaking of the more plentiful and various food available there.