Ironically, I think Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are the true soul-searchers in that they are the only ones to have realized for themselves that the soul or self (or any equivalent) is unfindable, which is what it means to say that the self is empty.
But this does not mean that there is no self. What is found is the unfindability; one does not find an absence where there could be a presence, let alone an actual presence. But we have an obvious experience of being a person who has a self—what could explain this discrepancy?
We can say that this discrepancy is the difference between the principle of open-emptiness and the principle of inclusive transcendence. What we ordinarily take to be the person possessing a self is really just a process of coming-together or integration of various elements of the disparate world through a unified subjective aim of becoming, which is the occurrence of a process of inclusive transcendence. Open-emptiness discloses that upon analysis of this process we only find differential relations (“this is this because it is not-that”) and no self-grounding, substantive things which could pervade our definition of the thing we’re looking for, at least not without abstraction.
But this difference between the two principles is not a disagreement, since each is actually a condition for the other: there are things to be realized as open-empty because they are the achievements of the creative process of inclusive transcendence, and things can undergo such a process of inclusive transcendence because the open-emptiness of the existing world is pregnant with possibility.
We do not have souls, we do not have no souls, we do not both have and not have souls, nor do we have something that is neither soul nor non-soul. In a manner of speaking, we can say that we are “open souls,” souls which only find their being through communion with other souls, as well as being souls which are in process. If there is an Oversoul which inclusively transcends every other soul as formative elements of its own being, then even this Oversoul would realize itself to be open-empty — pregnant with possibility beyond itself, unfindable in essence. And from where would this possibility come if not from the community of communing souls which form their communion in the Oversoul?
After looking at a few responses and reactions to this notion of an empty Oversoul, I think that some clarification is in order:
Some think that I am suggesting that the empty Oversoul is something like a traditional God, a mystical “oneness” of being, or a transpersonal consciousness that functions as the ground of all other consciousnesses. This is to actually make the mistake of interpreting the Oversoul as something that embodies what I have called elsewhere an “exclusive transcendence” whereby some sovereign entity is said to be the unconditioned condition of every other condition, like the ruler who makes himself an exception to his own rule.
Properly understood as an inclusively transcendent entity, the Oversoul is one member among its many constituents. In Whitehead’s formula of concrescence, “the many become one, and are increased by one,” the first part (many becoming one) indicates the nature of the Oversoul’s coming-together as a communion of communing souls, while the second part (increased by one) indicates that this Oversoul is not the final, eminent reality but a novel addition to the matrix which gave rise to it.
For this reason, the Oversoul is more like that of a cosmic Buddha like Amitabha, Vajdradhara or Samantabhadra, providing a lure to becoming for all other actual entities by pulling at the heart-strings of their tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature (or what we can equivalently term their Oversoul power). If there is any comparison to God that can be made, the empty Oversoul is closer to the God of process philosophy than either the God of traditional monotheism or the God of modern deism — the empty Oversoul is closer to a panentheistic God who functions by divine persuasion rather than a theistic God who rules by coercion or a pantheistic God indifferent to the matters of matter.